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WIS: nurturing a love of science

While learning skills to advance their own careers, graduate student organization Women in Science (WIS) at VCU is paying it forward. Its members are guiding the next generation of students toward vocations in healthcare professions, biomedical research, engineering and other sciences.

For the ninth year, the group hosted its Girl Scout Medical Sciences Career Day in April, offering middle school girls the opportunity for hands-on learning and mentoring by graduate students who were in their shoes just a few years before.

Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photography by Elizabeth Do.
Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photography by Elizabeth Do.

The day’s organizers say the reward of seeing young students exploring science was almost rivaled by the announcement that WIS won VCU’s Community Service Project Leadership and Service Award for the career day project. This is the second time WIS received the award; the first was in 2013.

The ambitious project brings about 100 Girl Scouts and 40 adult chaperones to the MCV Campus for a day of science modules created to introduce the visitors to various aspects of scientific career options. “We do clinical lab sciences, pathology, forensic science, human genetics, pharmacy, nursing, engineering … and more,” said Elizabeth Do, MPH’12, a Ph.D. student in psychiatric and behavioral genetics and the outgoing president of WIS. “From the feedback we got, the girls especially like the hands-on activities.”

One favorite was learning to extract DNA from a strawberry. Rita Shiang, Ph.D., associate professor of human and molecular genetics, organized the activity and got to see students marvel at the white cloud of DNA rising from the liquid extracted from a crushed berry in the bottom of the test tube. “It is a really neat thing,” said Shiang who is a faculty advisor for WIS.

The day’s activities made a big impression. “It’s a hands-on experience that girls my age wouldn’t normally have. I loved being in a lab using test tubes,” said Hannah, a middle-school Girl Scout from Spotsylvania who participated in the career day activities.

School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel.  Photography by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.
School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel. Photography by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.

Jamie Sturgill, Cert’05, PhD’12 (MICR), introduced the idea of the career event when she was a member of the newly formed WIS in 2006. “As a Girl Scout myself, I can remember doing activities, hands on things at a program at Marshall University in West Virginia. I started to reach out to Girl Scouts here and started laying groundwork.” Sturgill is now an assistant professor and director of Biobehavioral Laboratory Services in VCU’s School of Nursing.

In addition to helping the next generation of scientists find their calling, WIS also helps support education and promote the career development of its members both at the university and in the sciences.

It was formed as an offshoot of VCU’s long-running Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine Faculty Organization (WISDM), said Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., the medical school’s associate dean for Graduate Education and a faculty sponsor of WIS. “We basically just asked students, ‘do you want to have an organization like this,’ and people stepped up to the plate.”

“It’s important,” said Sturgill, “because it’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo when you spend most of your time in a lab. The genesis of WIS was finding a way to foster career development and networking and all of these important things that are not necessarily learned on the bench.”

During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photography by Ayana Scott-Elliston.
During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photography by Ayana Scott-Elliston.

The focus of WIS, however, is not all on its members; there’s a robust service aspect, that includes supporting Toys for Tots, Cinderella Dreams and the local food bank, as well as the Girl Scouts, noted Chlebowski.

The chance to mentor young students one-on-one is a big draw. Anuya Paranjape, MS’12 (MICR), who plans to finish her Ph.D. later this year in microbiology and immunology and microbiology, serves currently as one of WIS’ vice president of Community Outreach. She said she was impressed when she first attended the Girl Scout career day and saw its effect on students.

“I would have loved to do something like this when I was younger.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school

At the medical school’s convocation ceremony, Psychiatry’s Chris Kogut, M’04, reminded the graduates of the path they’d taken.

Organic chemistry, MCATs, essay-writing, interview suit-buying. PCM. POGIL. Study, study, study. Step 1. Step 2. Step 2 CS.

So we wondered, what did they pick up along the way?

Here are 16 things the class of 2016 learned in medical school:

  1. How to go on little sleep and keep a big smile on your face.
  2. Don’t think you are above anyone or anything. Your willingness to help others in any task will go a long way.
  3. During 1st and 2nd year, there were days when my friend and I would mutually agree that we had made a poor life choice with med school. Then 3rd year came… and I took care of my first pediatric patient… and all of that changed. I now have no regrets at all.
  4. Where belly buttons come from.
  5. You will have even less time later; make time for the things you love now.
  6. Above everything else: Airway. It’s more important than either of the more often cited “breakfast” or “family.” We may give you breakfast at the hospital. Under very special circumstances, we may give you a new family. But if you come to the hospital without an airway, we’ll definitely give you one.
  7. Medicine is a team sport.
  8. Always wear layers! You never know what the temperature will be in the hospital, the VA, Egyptian Building or McGlothlin MEC.
  9. It’s okay to lean on your family and friends when times get rough. Whether you are stressed from an exam or dealing with a difficult case in the hospital, reaching out to them can help you through challenging times.
  10. Kids are more easily controlled while they’re still in the belly.
  11. You can always find coffee in the hospital, even in the middle of the night. If you want good coffee, that’s a different question.
  12. It’s hard not to let the people you work with in a given rotation color your view of a specialty, for better or worse. I don’t know that it’s possible to prevent it, but always be aware of it.
  13. Lung function is like a rubber band. If you can picture that, it’s easy to remember that compliance (which means easy to distend) is the opposite of elastance. Fibrosis is like a thick rubber band with its increased elastic fibers, so compliance is low. Emphysema is like a thin rubber band with its decreased elastic fibers, so compliance is high.
  14. Sitting outside in the Sanger courtyard eating lunch on a pretty day is as good as it gets.
  15. Work hard and be willing to accept every opportunity that comes your way. If someone is willing to write you a letter of recommendation, include you on a research project or invite you to a meeting … always take that opportunity. You can never predict the future and every opportunity will open a new door for your career.
  16. I would do it all over again.

16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school


Class of 98’s Kenneth Redcross’ new take on the old fashioned house call

Though he keeps his black medical bag handy and makes frequent house calls, Kenneth Redcross, M’98, is anything but old fashioned.

The board-certified internal medicine physician found his calling as a provider of concierge medicine in the New York City area, meeting patients where they are and giving them time, access and convenience – a modern take on traditional medicine.

In concierge medicine, he’s found the kind of career fulfillment he believes all physicians should have. But the career that works for him isn’t right for everyone, he notes. “You’ve got to believe in yourself and know who you are. I had to figure out what was going to work with my spirit.”

It’s a message he shared recently with potential students at a recent Second Look program, which gives applicants who are members of underrepresented minorities a chance to explore the School of Medicine’s programs in more depth.

Dr Kenneth Redcross
Kenneth Redcross, M’98, returned to the MCV Campus to speak at the medical school’s Second Look program for applicants from underrepresented minorities in medicine. While here, he also toured campus with the Class of 2019’s Ifechukwude Ikem and Diana Otoya.

Each year, a weekend of activities is organized by the School of Medicine’s Office of Student Outreach and the MCV Campus’ chapters of the Student National Medical Association and Latino Medical Student Association. The weekend offers opportunities to interact with faculty and students in a more relaxed atmosphere than the usual formal tours and interviews.

Redcross appreciates that VCU’s School of Medicine seeks to attract students from a wide variety of backgrounds and gives them plenty of experiential learning. He expects that will be great preparation for future physicians to find their own calling, whether it’s a traditional practice or something else.

His presentation was designed to encourage them to dream big.

“It takes a little bit of time to figure out who we are as physicians,” Redcross said, who also earned a bachelor’s in biology from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 1994.

“That’s an important thing that has been lost for a lot of people. I think a lot of physicians feel like their destiny has already been decided. But I am one of these spiritual beings who believe that we all have a different song to sing. We come together and sing our songs together and we make beautiful harmony.”

“For me, my passion has always been about the patient experience and I’ve been blessed enough to find a forum that allows me to focus on the patient experience.”

During medical school, Redcross took advantage of the National Health Service Corps’ program that offers either loan repayment or scholarships to medical students in return for an equal number of years’ service in underserved communities. After residency, as part of his NHSC service, he worked with patients who may not have otherwise found health care and later started a retail health clinic. But something was missing.

“It took me some years to realize that in a typical model of medicine, I couldn’t be happy,” he said. “I didn’t feel I could give patients what they deserve, but I didn’t know a way out. Then I started to realize and understand that I could create a different level of health care by being one-on-one with the patient in their environment, where they’re comfortable. I realized how much happier I was. I realized this was the model for me.”

For current medical students – or those soon-to-be – he recognizes that he can’t tell them one way to approach their careers. But he did share some thoughts on finding what works.

He commends the new medical curriculum’s emphasis on collaboration, which, he believes, will ensure better patient care and help develop networking skills. Those skills, which he developed on his own, have helped him land patients for his concierge practice and spokesperson jobs and stints as a media consultant.

“You have to network, learn its importance. The world is a lot smaller than you think. ”
The Second Look program is part of the encouragement and support the medical school offers its diverse student population, something Redcross didn’t necessarily have when he was on campus in the 1990s.

“It’s extremely important to have physicians from diverse backgrounds. Many, many patients want to see a doctor who looks like them. Half of being a good physician is being able to be a good listener, to come from different backgrounds and understand your patients.

“You’ll be really surprised what happens when you really listen. If you listen, you can find a lot of answers.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Class of 16’s Michael Brady honored with Humanism in Medicine Award

In medical education circles, the quality of humanism is prized and cultivated in students. But it can be hard to spot, often because it’s demonstrated behind the scenes in acts of service, both large and small.

In a twist to that typically low-key profile, each year a graduating medical student is pulled into the spotlight, nominated and selected by his or her classmates for the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.

The Class of 2016’s Michael Brady was honored with the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. Here he’s pictured at the medical school’s convocation ceremony.

This year, the Class of 2016’s Michael Brady was chosen for the honor in thanks for the countless hours he’s devoted to public service and to his classmates during his four years in the VCU School of Medicine.

“Michael embodies the definition of humanism,” wrote his classmate Grayson Pitcher, who nominated him for the award. His nomination gives a glimpse into a character and compassion that has shaped Brady’s four years on – and off – the MCV Campus.

“He is a friend of the homeless community in Richmond,” wrote Pitcher, “including two homeless men in particular.” Pitcher described how Brady would invite them over for a meal and shower once a month, and how he’d wash one man’s clothes each month as well.

Brady’s resume is full of academic achievements from serving as a Class of 2016 student representative on the curriculum council to completing the rigorous requirements of the International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program. The program fosters the knowledge, skills and values needed by doctors to provide quality and compassionate care to the less fortunate.

Atop Motigo, the highest point around Bomet, Kenya: Earlier this year, Brady spent three and half weeks in sub-Saharan Africa at Tenwek Hospital in Bomet. Because he’s headed into the field of internal medicine, he asked to spend time on the medical service with the medical interns. Here he’s pictured with Victor, who’s a clinical officer intern at the 200-bed teaching facility that is a referral hospital for about 500,000 in the region. While at Tenwek, he did rounds in the ICU and general medical wards. He also had the chance to spend time with the home hospice team, in the chest/TB clinic and to go into the community to vaccinate infants. Some of the cases he saw are common in the U.S., but he also gained knowledge of conditions that are relatively uncommon in America, like tuberculosis, malaria and pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia that is mostly seen in patients with suppressed immune systems.

“Michael is the kind of student who quietly inspires all those he encounters,” said Mary Lee Magee, M.S., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. She’s gotten to know Brady through her role as director of the I2CRP program.

“His consistent kindness, generosity of spirit and commitment to promoting the dignity and value of others are remarkable. It has been an honor to witness his development as a physician over the past four years. I feel a great sense of hope when I think of his good work moving forward.”

For four years, Brady has served as a student leader with the MCV Campus’ chapter of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, and he’s also worked to bolster the academic success of others. He volunteered with Fulton Hill’s after-school program for K-5 students during his first two years of medical school and, for four years, mentored a student in the Armstrong High School Leadership Program of Richmond Hill. They’d meet at least monthly, sometimes on the basketball court and sometimes at events hosted by the leadership program.

Michael Brady with Jeannie Concha, Ph.D., M.P.H, and pharmacy resident Estela Lajthia, Pharm.D., who developed the Diabetes Wellness Coach Program CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, where Brady had volunteered for years. For his I2CRP capstone project, Brady evaluated the effectiveness of the program’s trained community health volunteers to coach diabetes patients. He found patients in the program had improved their knowledge of diabetes along with improved lab results and medication adherence.

“Many people, groups, and experiences that have influenced me and helped to direct my steps,” said Brady. “My classmate Grayson, the I2CRP program, CMDA, for example. By extension, they are all recipients of the award, too, since they have greatly shaped who I am today and who I will be in the future. Being a part of the East End Fellowship community has had a profound impact on my life as well as I have received great mentorship and teaching about life and faith from the leaders and through the relationships formed in that community.”

This summer, Brady will begin an internal medicine residency at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. But before he left the MCV Campus, he was fêted on Honors Day.

Brady had company in the spotlight: Paula Ferrada, M.D., associate professor of surgery, who’s been selected as this year’s faculty honoree of the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. Since 1991, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation has presented awards annually at to a graduating medical student and a faculty member who are nominated and selected by their peers.


The Write Stuff: M4 Jennifer Tran shares her journey through blogging

Butterflies wreak havoc on Jennifer Tran’s stomach when she thinks about speaking in public.

“I’m not great at it,” she said. “I get really nervous. But I enjoy sharing my thoughts and ideas with others.”

So Tran, a fourth-year student in VCU’s School of Medicine, turned to blogging.

“For me, writing is a way to reflect on things I’ve done,” she said.

Tran began blogging as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. A recipient of the scholarship in 2007, she wrote career and motivational pieces for other scholarship winners.

After graduating in 2011 with a degree in biology, she worked for a year at the National Institutes of Health before coming to the MCV Campus. During her second year of medical school, she began blogging for the AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Diaries, and during her third year for Merck Manual website’s Student Stories, a medical education blog.

“I hope those who read my blogs get a real sense of what the day-to-day life of a medical student is like,” says the Class of 2016’s Jennifer Tran. “I hope they inspire and educate young people who are thinking about a career in medicine.”

“In medical school, you are always on the move,” she said. “Writing gives me a chance to stop and really think about things.”

She’s written about clinical rotations, encountering a simulated patient (mannequin), the value of mentors, lessons learned from her first patients, volunteering with the underserved, being a fourth-year, Match Day, traveling abroad and taking national exams, among other things.

“I hope those who read my blogs get a real sense of what the day-to-day life of a medical student is like,” she said. “I hope they inspire and educate young people who are thinking about a career in medicine.”

In one blog, for example, she talks about her pediatrics rotation: “Pediatrics wasn’t what I expected. Going into the clerkship, I thought this was going to be one of my top three, even toppling family medicine or internal medicine as my intended field of choice. Back in college, much of my medical volunteering and shadowing was in pediatrics. I had found kids to be so fun, their conditions to be interesting, and the attendings to be some of the most kind teachers. Yet, after six weeks, I find myself no longer wanting to be a pediatrician. I still really like kids, laughing and playing with them, but I’m not sure I want to forever be perceived in a kid’s mind as the evil one or the one that is trying to hurt them.”

She’s also written about her dream of becoming a family physician and serving the poor, a goal strengthened by the School of Medicine’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship Program. I2CRP is a four-year program that fosters the knowledge, skills and values needed by doctors to provide quality and compassionate care to the less fortunate.

“Blogging has really helped me be sure of what I want to do,” she said. “It’s helped me solidify my career goals. It allows me to reflect on experiences – what I liked about them and perhaps what I didn’t like. It keeps the experiences fresh.”

Working with the underserved, Tran said, will allow her to provide quality medical care to those who might not otherwise receive it.

“I’m really drawn to this area,” she said. “I’ve seen people who live on the fringes of the healthcare system. It’s my mission to make sure they get the care they need.”

Tran, who is heading to Brown Medical School’s Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island for her family medicine residency, is the eldest child of Vietnamese refugees and the first in her family to attend college. For her, becoming a physician is almost surreal.

“My parents are very proud,” she said. “But I have not come to terms yet that I’m going to be an actual doctor. As a medical student, there is always faculty there to supervise and help. As a resident, my name will be on the patient’s record. It will all count. For me, it’s a bit scary. ”

The perfect topic for yet another blog.

“Writing is such an individual thing and a great way to share your hopes and your fears,” Tran said. “It’s something I’ll always find time to do.”

An excerpt from a blog for Aspiring Docs Diaries about her volunteer experience at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) expedition in Wise, Virginia, during her second year.

“In my role as a volunteer, I was able to listen to patients’ stories and gain an understanding of their health problems in the context of the socioeconomic obstacles that they face on a daily basis. Each day of the clinic, I met patients who had been up at four o’clock that morning, so that they would be one of the first hundred in line for the opening of the clinic at six o’clock. I talked to patients about different chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Nevertheless, hearing some of the stories and seeing some of the medical conditions broke my heart at moments.

“With access to a primary care physician, the pain of a broken bone that did not heal correctly, the inability to read a book, the chronicity of arthritis in one’s joints, among other complaints, may have been resolved sooner so that these patients could return to having the best quality of life possible. Yet, by the end of the clinic, I realized that my efforts and the endeavors of all the RAM volunteers were worthwhile and at times, potentially life-saving. We were able to provide preventive care and other specialty services in over 3,000 patient encounters, giving people health care they would have otherwise gone without. It was my first RAM expedition, but I do hope to return in the future. Most importantly, this clinic has helped me reaffirm my passion for helping the medically underserved, which is something that will enable me to persevere through the long year of challenging, but interesting, courses.”

Continue reading at AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Diaries.

By Janet Showalter


Pathology alumnus credits Harry Dalton with starting his career in the lab

After a 38-year tenure, Peter H. Huley, MS’77 (PATH), retired in January 2013 from his position as senior vice president of lab operations with LabCorp in Burlington, N.C. He recalls how meeting the longtime School of Medicine professor Harry Dalton, Ph.D., put him on the path to graduate school. “MCV and the education made available to me there made a huge difference in my life,” says Huley.

Taking a break from the lab in the 1970s, Peter H. Huley, MS’77 (PATH), made time for a picnic with his daughters and wife, Tracy, at the nearby Capitol Square.

He’d been working as a supervisor of the microbiology department and a medical technologist at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., before Dalton met him at a workshop. “He convinced me MCV was the next step in my career.”

When he began grad school on the MCV Campus in 1975, he and his wife Tracy moved with their 18-month-old daughter into married student housing at Jarrett apartments. That same year, he took a job with Physicians Clinical Lab, a small, pathologist-run private medical lab that through a series of mergers and acquisitions eventually became LabCorp.

By the time Huley graduated with his masters in 1977, a second daughter had arrived, and Huley was mapping his course to a Ph.D. But though he’d go on to pass his written and oral comps, “it became apparent that in the three main focuses of my life, family, work and school, something had to go. Doing all three at that time was not sustainable. I withdrew from the pursuit of the Ph.D. and from MCV.”

Physicians Clinical Lab was acquired first by Consolidated Biomedical Labs and then by Roche Biomedical Labs, which ultimately became LabCorp. Huley grew along with the company. A leadership role in microbiology for RBL’s national lab led to a move to corporate headquarters in Burlington, N.C., where he managed the growing microbiology lab and the national standardization of the microbiology lab discipline within RBL.

Peter H. Huley, MS’77 (PATH), with his wife, Tracy, and daughters, Colleen and Krista.

After the merger that created LabCorp, he eventually took on responsibility for the entire Burlington lab, the largest lab in the company and, possibly, in the world. By the time he retired in 2013, it was receiving samples from about 100,000 patients a day.

“The years at MCV, and especially the association with Dr. Dalton, were invaluable. MCV prepared me for the future. As Louis Pasteur is reported to have said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ Although perhaps not in the context intended by Pasteur, that statement certainly applied to me. I will always hold my time at MCV in high regard. The people were world class. The environment was challenging and stimulating. Although I did not complete a terminal degree, I was able to take the education gained at MCV, build on it, and use it to enhance patient care for millions.”

Huley now lives in Beaufort, N.C., with Tracy, his wife of 45 years.