Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries

14
2016

The Class of 72’s David Lorber: Just say ‘yes’ – to a nontraditional career path

David Lorber, M’72

“Most physicians practice medicine,” says David Lorber, M’72. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t do other things.”

David Lorber, M’72, rarely says no – it’s a trait that has worked out well for him. It’s led him into a career he never planned, but one which has been extremely rewarding, he says.

Lorber visited the MCV Campus this month to share stories with medical students about his nontraditional career that jumped from academia to a busy practice to industry … and almost to the South Pole. “Most physicians practice medicine,” he notes, “but it doesn’t mean you can’t do other things.”

After completing a fellowship at the University of Arizona, he first assumed he’d have a future in academia. But that wasn’t as fulfilling as he hoped, so he ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, becoming the state’s fourth pulmonary critical care physician. Despite a grueling schedule, Lorber kept doing more. “I volunteered for everything I could,” he recalls. “Whatever we needed, I always raised my hand.

“My objective was to learn everything I could about the business of health care and to be able to provide value.”

On the side, he started a consulting firm, worked in an emergency and urgent care department and began exploring options for a post-clinical career. Though medicine was rewarding, he says, after two decades, he was burned out on 100-hour work weeks and started looking for something else.

He didn’t have to look long, as all the extra knowledge he’d gleaned paid off in an understanding of all facets of the health care industry.

David Lorber, M’72

Lorber returned to the MCV Campus in November to talk with students about alternative careers in medicine.

A friend at Blue Cross/Blue Shield pointed him towards a job there; he ended up as medical director of Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico, working in utilization management, disease management, provider relations, oversight of pharmacy and credentialing. He also served as medical director for the Indian Health Service Contract Health Services, managed by BCBS. After that, he joined the small company, PCS Health Systems, which eventually transformed into CVS Caremark, where Lorber became a vice president. When he left that job, he was snapped up by Walgreens. “I felt like you can impact the way health care is delivered in the U.S. more in industry than from the clinical side.”

Lorber is rarely content with just one job, and though he calls himself retired, he still works as consultant, entrepreneur, marketer and clinician. One of his side jobs he still loves is working as a consulting physician for National Geographic’s Lindblad Expeditions adventure cruise line.

As the company has grown, he’s become, in effect, the company’s chief medical officer, overseeing about 50 physicians who travel on Lindblad’s ships to remote corners of the earth.

“It can be gut-wrenching when you have something that in an emergency department would be a no-brainer and easy to do, but can become a catastrophe because of where you are,” he says. On a cruise to Antarctica, he once had to treat a patient with a bowel obstruction when the nearest hospital was days away. In Norway, he jumped in to treat a woman with an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy; the nearest airstrip was on a small island 10 hours away. The patient survived, was treated on the mainland and returned to the ship several days later.

With Lindblad, Lorber has traveled to about 40 countries on all seven continents, allowing him to indulge his passion for photography (check out some of his travel photos below that appeared in the latest issue of the school’s 12th & Marshall magazine).

Lorber continues his routine of learning new skills and keeping an eye out for his next adventure. “You can’t have a five-year plan,” he muses. “You’ve got to be open to new things.”

Still, he says, his career hasn’t been totally random. It’s been about being prepared to be in the right place at the right time. “I really do believe you make your own luck.”

His advice for medical students?

“It’s about relationship building. While you’re in practice, get on committees, get involved politically and get involved any way you can. You’ve got to develop people skills, public speaking skills and the ability to negotiate.

“And learn everything you can. You never know when it’ll come in handy or may spark your interest.”

Always open to opportunities, David Lorber, M’72, said ‘yes’ to National Geographic’s Lindblad Expeditions adventure cruise line. As a result, he’s traveled to about 40 countries on all seven continents. It’s allowed him to indulge his passion for photography, like this shot that was taken in Montenegro. Click the images below for expanded views.

By Lisa Crutchfield

12
2016

M4 Andrew Percy honored with scholarship carrying name of surgeon Jim Brooks

The Class of 2017's Andrew Percy (left) met Stephen Yang, M'84, H'94

The Class of 2017’s Andrew Percy (left) met Stephen Yang, M’84, H’94, at the Southern Thoracic Surgical Association annual meeting in November. Yang helped establish the James W. Brooks Medical Student Scholarship in memory of his mentor, and Percy is the latest recipient.

Ask Andrew Percy, M’17, the key to a successful future and he will sum it up in one word.

Mentorship.

“No matter what field you go into, it helps to have someone guiding you,” he said. “Mentors have always been a special part of my life.”

That bond continues today. Percy was one of two students in the country to receive the James W. Brooks Medical Student Scholarship, which enabled him to attend the Southern Thoracic Surgical Association (STSA) annual meeting in Naples, Florida, Nov. 9-12.

“I was very humbled to be associated with an award in Dr. Brooks’ memory,” Percy said. “He was an important mentor to a lot of people. That’s the spirit of this scholarship. It inspires me to become a better clinician, researcher and person.”

Jim Brooks, M’46, H’55, joined the MCV Campus in 1957 as a thoracic and vascular surgeon and trained hundreds of residents and students. Even after retiring from the operating room, he continued to go into work each day to teach and serve on the admissions committee, communicating his love for the school to all the applicants he met. Appointed emeritus professor of surgery in 2000, he was active on campus until his death in 2008. He was the 23rd president of the STSA.

Jim Brooks, M'46, H'55

Longtime faculty member Jim Brooks, M’46, H’55. Courtesy of Tompkins-McCaw Library’s Special Collections and Archives

“Dr. Brooks had this aura about him,” said Stephen Yang, M’84, H’94, who trained under Brooks and now holds the Arthur B. and Patricia B. Modell Endowed Chair of Thoracic Surgery at Johns Hopkins. “You just loved the man. One of the things that impressed me the most was how much time he spent with his patients. He touched so many lives.”

To honor his memory, Yang helped establish the STSA fund in 2010 that supports the Brooks Scholarship.

“How do you repay the past?” Yang asked. “You want to honor those who trained you, who mentored you.”

Even though Percy never met Brooks, stories about the surgeon still abound on the MCV Campus. Percy has heard enough of them to know he would have loved him, too.

“It sounds like he was a remarkable individual,” Percy said. “He had a great sense of humor.”

Brooks is warmly remembered for not only his compassion, but his quirks. He wore his scrub pants backwards; his glasses hung near the end of his nose; a white towel was draped around his neck; and a bar of Dove soap was always at the scrub sink.

The stories also emphasize how Brooks valued mentorship.
“That’s so important,” Percy said. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors.”

Percy’s parents and later his high school cross country coach provided guidance early on. While studying biology and philosophy at Bates College in Maine, Percy spent his summers doing research for the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Yale. The two have published several papers together since then, and they are currently working on a research project focused on redefining the size cutoff in which surgery is warranted for aortic aneurysms. Percy is also writing a book chapter on the medical management of aortic aneurysms.

After graduating in 2008, Percy worked in research for four years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School and earned a master’s in medical sciences from Boston University. He has also conducted research in oncology and urology.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in very interesting research projects across different disciplines because of mentors I had who gave me generous opportunities that they were under no obligation to give,” Percy said.

He found that same spirit at the STSA meeting, where he got to know some of the country’s leading cardiac surgeons, including Joseph Coselli, M.D., chief of adult cardiac surgery at the Texas Heart Institute, and Andrea J. Carpenter, M.D., Ph.D., president of the STSA and director of cardiac surgery at the UT School of Medicine in San Antonio.

“They were all so generous with their time,” Percy said. “I want to emulate that and become a mentor to others. I want to make a positive impact. One way to do that is by reflecting on all the help that you received along the way and then paying it forward throughout your career. ”

Do you want to help pay it forward? Learn more about our 1838 Scholarship Campaign aimed at increasing the number and size of available scholarships for the School of Medicine.

By Janet Showalter

11
2016

Face time: The Class of 99’s Eduardo Rodriguez returns to campus to discuss his pioneering transplant surgery

In 2005, surgeons in France completed the world’s first partial face transplant on a woman who lost her lips, cheeks, chin and most of her nose after she was mauled by her dog.

Class of 99’s Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS

In August 2015, the Class of 99’s Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone, led a team of more than 100 physicians, nurses, technical and support staff to complete the most extensive face transplant to date, and the first in New York State. PHOTO CREDIT: NYU Langone

Eleven years and many lessons later, face transplantation has moved from possibility to reality, with surgeons refining techniques and transforming the lives of patients once considered beyond hope.

Leading the way is Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99, considered one of the world’s leading surgeons in the field.

He returned to VCU’s MCV Campus this summer as the speaker of the annual S. Dawson Theogaraj Lecture. Rodriguez is the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at New York University’s School of Medicine.

In August 2015, Rodriguez led a team at the NYU Langone Medical Center that completed the most extensive face transplant ever.

Patrick Hardison, a 41-year old fireman from Mississippi who had received horrific facial injuries received the face of cyclist David Rodebaugh. The operation received extensive media coverage and cemented Rodriguez’s reputation as a pioneer in the field.

He credits his time in VCU’s School of Medicine for a solid foundation in medicine. Rodriguez earned a D.D.S. degree from New York University in 1992, then completed his residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“There are oral surgery programs that have affiliations with a medical degree, and I had colleagues who recommended that this was something I should do. I applied to all the medical schools in the country that had a relationship with an oral surgery program.” He ended up at VCU, condensing his medical degree into two years. After that, he trained in the plastic surgery program at Johns Hopkins Hospital/University of Maryland Medical Center and completed a fellowship in Taiwan.

“I thought VCU was the best education I ever received,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “Those were the most enriching educational years of my life. I became a very good student. Living in Richmond, a smaller town, allowed me to focus on education and gave me a very strong foundation to be successful.”

Class of 99’s Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS

Eduardo D. Rodriguez, pictured with his face transplant patient Patrick Hardison at NYU Langone on Nov. 12, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: NYU Langone

Rodriguez first became interested in the possibility of face transplants after hearing a lecture at Johns Hopkins about face transplants in rats. “My mentor at Johns Hopkins, the chief of plastic surgery, told me this is what I should be doing. I had no idea what that really meant, but I was fascinated by it.”

In March, 2012, Rodriguez led a team in what was one of the most extensive facial transplants ever, from hairline to the neck of a Virginia man who had suffered a gunshot wound. The 36-hour operation involved more than 100 health care providers along with meticulous planning and execution.

Rodriguez notes that such transplants include health and mental risks that must be weighed against the benefits. Recipients deal with the psychological battles of living with someone else’s face, as well as life-long reliance and side-effects of immunosuppressant medicines. As with other transplants, the body can reject a new face.

In such a developing field, he notes, there’s not yet a blueprint for success.

“Physicians and patients are on this journey together,” he says. “Once you’re successful and you see the patient doing well and you reflect on what we’ve achieved, and reflect on change in this individual’s life, you can’t help but be amazed by the complexity of the process.”

The Department of Defense and several research institutions, including NYU, have dedicated funding and resources to refining the procedure.

Rodriguez knows that the next decade will include improvements in transplantation and perhaps even some breakthroughs that seemed unimaginable in recent years.

“First, we have to keep working on trying to reduce the toxic effects of the [anti-rejection] medicines,” he says. He believes biomedical engineers will one day be able to create tissues specifically for patients needing transplants.

“It’s not just how many more transplants I can do, it’s how can we continue to improve the quality of face reconstruction and bring in different elements of science to provide these types of procedures safely, as well as improving the quality of these patients’ lives and shape a better future for these individuals.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

11
2016

Patient education wins big at first VCU HealthHacks event

M4 Sina Mostaghimi and Honors College biomedical engineering student Simone Gregor

Fourth-year medical student Sina Mostaghimi teamed up with Honors College biomedical engineering student Simone Gregor to create VCU’s first medical hackathon. It gave students 24 hours to work in interdisciplinary teams to find solutions to unmet medical needs.

As a biomedical engineering undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Sina Mostaghimi thrived on solving problems.

Today, the fourth-year VCU School of Medicine student from McLean, Virginia, is still solving problems in hopes of helping others thrive.

“My favorite thing at Georgia Tech was senior design,” he says. But, “During my senior design project, it took weeks for me to get feedback from the physicians I was working with.”

There had to be a better way, Mostaghimi thought.

At a dinner party last year, he met senior biomedical engineering student and Honors College member Simone Gregor and shared his idea.

“When Simone told me about hackathons, we decided a venue like that would be perfect for students from various disciplines to come together to help solve unmet medical needs,” he says. “I wanted to create a student environment to foster opportunities for innovation, to provide time for project development and to offer immediate feedback.

For the uninitiated, a “hackathon” is a marathon-like experience bringing computer programmers together to solve problems by creating software projects. In VCU’s case, Mostaghimi and Gregor envisioned an event to include not only computer science and biomedical engineering students from the VCU School of Engineering, but also pre-med and medical students.

HealthHacks 2016

HealthHacks drew more than 140 students who tackled problems pertaining to product design, hospital throughput and patient experience.</p

“It’s the weirdest team concept, but you get diverse ideas this way,” he says.

Mostaghimi and Gregor assembled a team of volunteers, attracted sponsors and created VCU HealthHacks, which took place over the first weekend in October. More than 140 students from VCU, Canada and even a high school in Richmond collaborated on three areas of focus: product design and improvement, hospital throughput and patient experience. The School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine provided problems for students to solve as well as sending residents and faculty members who served as team mentors.

To close the event, teams had three minutes to present their projects to 10 judges who decided first, second and third place winners.

“It was quite an afternoon. We all sat in the front row of a lecture hall and listened to 30 teams describe their work,” said Nathan J. Lewis, M.D., clerkship director and assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. “It was tough. There were so many great groups and ideas.”

HealthHacks’ winning team Anish Desai and Vivek Pandrangi

HealthHacks’ winning team Anish Desai and Vivek Pandrangi used two-dimensional scans to create three-dimensional images to help patients get a better grasp on their own anatomy. This image shows the heart and an abdominal aortic aneurysm in red, located between the kidneys, shown in yellow. Click the image to go to a page where you can view the image in 3D.

The winning team used two-dimensional scans to create three-dimensional images for use in a virtual reality headset to help patients get a better grasp on their own anatomy.

“As medical students, we learn from two-dimensional CT scans all the time,” says team member Anish Desai, a second-year medical student from Richmond, Virginia. “It’s incredibly confusing, difficult and non-intuitive.”

Desai and classmate Vivek Pandrangi, from Los Angeles, are both interested in virtual reality and its application to the patient experience.

“We’d been talking about our shared interest in surgery and finding a better way to educate patients during pre-op,” Pandrangi says.

Via the HealthHacks experience, the team was paired with mentor Daniel Newton, M’12, a fifth-year surgery resident who was impressed with the students’ abilities to take a totally rough idea and turn it into a solution.

Vivek Pandrangi and Anish Desai

HealthHacks’ winning team Vivek Pandrangi (left) and Anish Desai.

“The ability to show a patient his or her anatomy in an understandable way was solved by their technology,” Newton says. “It’s definitely a big step. Anytime patients have a full understanding of their disease or problem and the way it’s going to be fixed, it helps take the fear out of the unknown.”

Judge Nathan Lewis, who is also Mostaghimi’s faculty advisor, sees a future in the winning team’s work. He also hopes there’s a future for VCU HealthHacks.

“If you can take the complex language of medicine and translate it into something tangible, it breaks down a lot of barriers,” he says. “I’m not sure who’s going to take over the HealthHacks reins, but the event illustrates the amount of collaboration between the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Emergency Medicine at VCU Health. We’d all love to continue.”

A student team of volunteers made VCU’s first HealthHacks a reality:

  • Sina Mostaghimi
  • Simone Gregor
  • Mashya Abbassi
  • Michael Pasyk
  • Brandon Kates
  • Stephen Holtz

By Nan Johnson

28
2016

Flying Physicians

There IS a Doctor on Board.

For many, the feeling of soaring among the clouds in an aircraft is an unrivaled experience. And if the views weren’t enough, some even find a way to use aviation to serve their fellow man.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Douglas Johnson, M’79, with the experimental Lancair IV-P that he built himself.

Flying can be a great opportunity for physicians to blend two passions, says Douglas Johnson, M’79. “Physicians go into medicine because they want to help people,” he says. “We want to do a good job at what we do, and want to provide a service that not just anybody can provide. Pilots are the same way.” Johnson is one of a number of medical school alumni who use their aviation skills and knowledge to extend the care they provide.

“Give both groups—pilots and physicians—a psychological profile,” Johnson says, “and you’ll see a lot of similarities, including a drive for success, attention to detail and high ethical standards.” Professionally, there are parallels, too. Cockpit resource management techniques have influenced the way physicians practice medicine today, successfully incorporating checklists, teamwork training, briefings and debriefings, incident reporting, simulator training and standardization.

Johnson, a radiation oncologist in Jacksonville, Fla., is immediate past president of the Flying Physicians Association, a nationwide organization whose members use their love of flying to continue learning and help others.

“We help directly,” says Johnson, who is also an assistant professor of oncology with Mayo Clinic. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.

“After the earthquake in Haiti [in 2010], we were contacted by a hospital there that was short on medical supplies. We got a list of the supplies they needed—and we doubled it. We filled 24 aircraft and flew down to the Dominican Republic, where we loaded them on one big UN helicopter. It flew across the mountain range and landed on the grounds of the hospital, so we knew our supplies got there and weren’t rotting somewhere or being pilfered.”

The Flying Physicians Association is just one of many organizations that encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. Some others include Angel Flight, Fly for Good, Air Charity, Flying Samaritans and even Pilots N Paws, which transports animals.

Some of these groups transport patients for medical treatments, but Johnson cannot. Though he’s been flying it for nearly two decades, his Lancair IV-P is classified as experimental, and most humanitarian organizations do not want an experimental aircraft transporting patients.

It’s a pressurized-cabin aircraft he built himself. It took four and a half years, but he’s thrilled with the result. Building and owning a plane was a dream for Johnson, who was a skydiver during his undergraduate studies because he couldn’t afford flight school. “I was the guy who’d sit next to the pilot and watch. But of course, I never got to see a landing.” After completing his internship, he rewarded himself with flying lessons.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Many organizations encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.”

In addition to humanitarian flights, the Flying Physicians Association also holds CME events and raises funds for the Air Safety Foundation of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). Air safety is an important focus of the group, which acknowledges that sometimes physicians have a reputation as risk takers in the air.

Many at VCU remember the impact of the tragic death of Surgery Chair David Hume, M.D., in 1973. When his self-piloted plane crashed in California, its effects were felt for years on the MCV Campus and in the transplant community.

Keeping the nation’s skies safe is top priority every day for Keith Martin, M’80. Though he isn’t a pilot himself, his work as co-founder and chairman of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS) affects countless pilots, as he consults with and helps them obtain and maintain Federal Aviation Administration medical certification.

Like Johnson, Martin served in the military as a flight surgeon, tasked with ensuring the well-being of those who fly, control or jump from planes. Flight surgeons aren’t required to be licensed pilots, but do log numerous hours of flight time.

Martin contends with many of the same conditions that concern all physicians today, but in the air, the stakes can be higher. Pilots diagnosed with illnesses such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or depression, or those taking certain medications, until recently could be barred from commercial piloting—and thus lose their livelihood.

For example, he says, “Initially if you were diagnosed as HIV-positive, that was not a problem, but if you went on the treatments, that automatically disqualified you from flying. So what was a pilot to do? Not go on the medications?

“We were concerned that pilots would not seek the health care they needed,” he says. Fortunately, over more recent years, AMAS has worked with the FAA to develop protocols to allow pilots to return to flying in a safe, supervised way.

Several School of Medicine alumni work not only to ensure safety in the air, but also well above the earth’s atmosphere.

Richard Williams, M’79

Richard Williams, M’79, with his rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

NASA’s Chief Health and Medical Officer Richard Williams, M’79, is responsible for the oversight of all health and medical activities at the nation’s space agency. He works on policy and oversight issues, but also focuses on astronaut health. “It’s a chance to contribute to the destiny of our species,” he says.

“We’re taking a long-range view. The work being done in human space flight, leading to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, not only represents the ultimate frontier, but it will ultimately help assure our survival.”

On earth, Williams volunteers as a senior aviation medical examiner for the FAA, performing flight physicals for pilots near his home in Fredericksburg, Va. He’s also a private pilot who’s had about 18 different airplanes and logged over 4,000 hours flying single and multi-engine aircraft.

“I live on an airfield and currently own two airplanes,” he says. One is an experimental Lancair 360, the other a rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

 

WHO ELSE IS UP IN THE AIR? 

Here’s a sampling of some medical school alumni who have used flying as a means to do good.

lillypaulPAUL LILLY, M’64, is a former member of the Air Force who flew more than 50 missions as a flight surgeon in B-52s in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Later he trained and qualified as a WSO (weapon systems officer) in the F-15E. He’s committed to caring for pilots and veterans, both as a medical examiner for aviators and a flight instructor. He and several others perform the missing man formation, an aerial maneuver used at funerals or memorials for veterans. Lilly also provides a special experience for veterans who have stopped to visit the D-Day Memorial near his home in Bedford, Va. “We’ll get together at a nearby airport,” he explained. “While the veterans are having lunch, we’ll fly over the memorial and do the missing man formation to salute them. It’s a privilege for us to honor the veterans.” Lilly often is spotted practicing aerobatic maneuvers in his single-engine two-seater RV-8 plane.

JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55, served in the Air Force and has enjoyed volunteering with several organizations after retiring from his OB-GYN practice in California. “I had time to devote to some of these medical missions. I was invited by several groups to join them and go to Mexico.” With the Flying Samaritans and the Flying Doctors of Mercy (also known as LIGA), Goodno and other physicians fly their personal airplanes (his is a Cessna 210) to Mexico once a month to care for the underserved at two active clinics. “It’s been very rewarding. It’s been great experience to get involved with volunteer medicine.”

HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61, has incorporated flying into his retirement activities. “I was looking for ways to use aviation – I still wanted to fly,” says the cardiothoracic surgeon who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and currently flies a Piper Mirage. “I have, in the past, done Angel Flights transporting patients from remote locations for appointments at medical centers and a few missions with Veterans Airlift Command which provides transportation for wounded veterans.” He also volunteered to fly soldiers to and from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

OWEN BRODIE, M’62OWEN BRODIE, M’62, Brodie is a retired Richmond-area psychiatrist who served as president of the Flying Physicians Association in the late 1980s. Though he recently had to stop flying because of vision issues, he flew volunteer missions with Angel Flight in his Cessna 177RG. It also was a great way to get to meetings, he says.

RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47, was an ophthalmologist, recreational pilot and FAA medical examiner for years. In addition, he volunteered with the San Bernardino Sherriff’s Department, scouring canyons near his California home for lost hikers and campers. Now 93, Riffenburgh fondly remembers getting a night job as an orderly on the psych ward to afford flight lessons while in medical school. It was the start of nearly 70 years of flying, which culminated with his receiving the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA for more than 50 years of safe flying.

LEON "SKIP” BEELER III, M’79LEON “SKIP” BEELER III, M’79, isn’t piloting, but like his classmate Richard Williams, is making sure NASA astronauts and employees stay healthy. He’s medical services manager at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the site of space shuttle launches until 2011. The massive complex is still active, with the Commercial Crew Program working toward launching Americans from Kennedy in 2017. Regular expendable launches of satellites and Space Station resupply missions are among the many programs and projects ongoing at America’s Spaceport. Working there has unique challenges, he says, like ensuring safety around rocket fuels and caring for the thousands of visitors who tour the site each year. “We ensure that astronauts and supporting staff are healthy enough to keep the program running.”
By Lisa Crutchfield
28
2016

New milestones for Pharmacology and Toxicology Department

Long-running training grant that propelled department to 310 graduates is renewed

When William Dewey, Ph.D., and Louis Harris, Ph.D., first stepped foot on the MCV Campus more than 40 years ago, they had high aspirations for a department struggling to make a name for itself.

They were not only excited by a vision for transforming the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology into one of the best in the country, but confident they could.

William Dewey

A part of the department for over 40 years, William Dewey, Ph.D.,now serves as its chair. He takes great pride in the department’s success, but refuses to take any credit.

“We both had this goal of turning students into exceptional scientists, to put active scholars out there in the community,” Dewey said. “We were partners in this idea.”

The department traces its roots to the school’s 1838 founding, when pharmacology was an element of the curriculum. When Harris and Dewey arrived in 1972, from the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they would be an active part of the
department’s leadership for the next 44 years.

“We knew we had our work cut out for us,” Harris said. “We knew we had to put together a strong team and build a strong foundation.”

Within the first two years of their arrival, the number of students grew to 20 and has been climbing ever since. In May, the department hit an important milestone, marking the 310th scientist to earn a Ph.D. degree. The faculty has also grown, from about a dozen to nearly 40.

“We are very proud of what we have accomplished as a team,” said Dewey, who points to a strong faculty whose high profile research attracts students with great potential.

About two-thirds of the faculty are devoted to drug abuse research. Others are focused on cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology. None of their work would be possible without federal grant money, something that also has grown steadily over the years.

For fiscal year 2016, the department’s 64 federal grants totaled $14.2 million. One of the most important is the long-running training grant, renewed over the summer by the National Institutes of Health. The grant, specifically for training pharmacologists in drug abuse research, amounts to about $3 million over five years. It will pay the stipends for nine pre-doctoral students and six post-doctoral scholars.

“I would not be here if it weren’t for the training grant,” said Jacy Jacob, a third-year Ph.D. student. “A lot of us would not be able to pursue our dream without it.”

Jacob is working in Dewey’s lab with two other graduate students researching the effects of ethanol on reversing opiate tolerance. She accumulated student debt while earning her master’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology, also at VCU. She had no desire to add to it.

“This means everything to me,” she said.

Dr. Louis Harris

Department chair for 20 years, the influence of Louis Harris, Ph.D., continues to this day.

The department has held the training grant since 1976, making it one of the longest-running in the country. Over its 40-year history, the grant has supported the education of 174 scientists. And when it was reviewed for five more years, the committee gave the application a perfect score.

“Clearly this is a very prestigious thing for us. It puts us on the map as one of the largest departments in the country,” said Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., co-director with Dewey on the training grant and vice chair and director, graduate education and postdoctoral training. “It helps us attract top-notch faculty. Scientists and scientists-in-training want to be here.”
Joel Schlosburg, PhD’10 (PHTX), still feels the pull. After spending the last six years in San Diego as senior research associate at the Scripps Research Institute, he headed back to the MCV Campus this fall as an assistant professor.

His time spent in Richmond as a graduate student convinced him there’s no place
like home.

“When it comes to things like drug abuse research, there are few places you can point to that have the same resources and the same collaboration as here,” he said.

“You have the most diverse group of people who bring their own backgrounds, ideas and expertise to the table. It’s incredible. I think that healthy environment is all thanks to the strong leadership of people like Dr. Dewey and Dr. Harris.”

Dewey first met Harris in 1959, when he worked under him as a lab tech in New York. They both served on the faculty at Chapel Hill, where Harris was tasked with creating a graduate program in pharmacology in the 1960s. When Harris accepted the challenge of building up the VCU program, he asked Dewey to come with him.

“We immediately started recruiting faculty and students,” Harris said. “We began applying for more grants to support our research. As the grants came in, we were able to recruit even more. It fed on itself. It’s been a real team effort.”

Harris stepped down as chair in 1992. George Kunos, M.D., Ph.D., currently the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, assumed the post at that point, and Billy Martin, Ph.D., took over eight years later as the department entered the new millennium. Martin played a crucial role in building the department’s reputation for landmark research in drugs of abuse.

His primary focus was researching the effects of marijuana’s principal psychoactive ingredient, THC. Martin, who passed away in 2008, also made significant contributions to nicotine research.

With two-thirds of the faculty devoted to drug abuse research, others are focused in fields like cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology.

With two-thirds of the faculty devoted to drug abuse research, others are focused in fields like cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology.

“We’ve enjoyed strong, passionate leadership throughout the history of this department,” Akbarali said. “They have steered us in the direction we are now in. It really is like a little family here. I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else.”

Dewey has served as chair since Martin’s passing. Now 81, he continues to take great pride in the success of the department. But he refuses to take any credit.

“The chairman doesn’t do it,” he said. “The faculty does it. The people in this department are highly recognized across the country for their expertise.”

Over the years, faculty members have won numerous awards and published thousands of papers in international journals. They serve on national boards and as consultants for the courts. They are invited to lecture across the globe and work with the NIH to evaluate grants.

The students they mentor go on to pursue successful careers in research. Some work in private industry, on college campuses or for the federal government. Others have landed prominent positions with the Food and Drug Administration.

“During my graduate days, I remember my faculty advisor telling me it didn’t get any better than VCU,” said Frank Vocci, Ph.D., who completed his post-doctorate work at VCU in 1978. “He was right. I learned from the best and had the opportunity to conduct research in some fascinating areas of drug abuse.”

Vocci worked in drug abuse liability determination at the FDA and directed the NIDA medications development program before landing his current role as president/senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute in Baltimore.

“VCU was extremely important to my career,” he said. “It was a great choice for me. They continue to have a reputation for turning out quality people.”

The training grant is tangible evidence of the culture of collaboration that alumni repeatedly reference. “I had heard great things about VCU before I came, but it was even better than I thought,” said Kathleen Brady, M.D., PhD’81 (PHTX), who today serves as vice president for research at the Medical University of South Carolina. “I had great mentors who were very involved in my work. Even the leadership of the department took a very personal interest in the graduate students. I wasn’t used to that.”

Since leaving Richmond, Brady continues to stay in touch with faculty and returns to the area regularly for drug abuse seminars and meetings. They have been pioneers in the field of pharmacology for a long time,” she said. “I am not surprised at all about their continued success.”

But Akbarali says, “There’s always room for improvement. As advances in techniques and technology continue, we are always looking forward.”

For years, Akbarali’s interest centered on Crohn’s Disease and colitis. Since coming to VCU 10 years ago, he has been working with Dewey on opiate-induced constipation research.

“That’s the strength of the faculty – we all were recruited because we brought an area of expertise that wasn’t here before,” he said. “We keep building. It’s all because of the passion and the commitment people have for the betterment of the department.”

For Dewey, that passion is stronger than ever, even after 40 years.

“I have had a ball,” he said. “It’s been so rewarding. I take a lot of pride in what this department has done. We don’t do this work for our egos. It’s always been about creating an atmosphere where we can conduct research that will one day improve the health of our
communities.”

Dewey knows all too well the importance of good health. He and his wife have a mentally disabled daughter and a son who lives with insulin-dependent diabetes. Dewey’s wife also suffers from diabetes and is battling breast cancer. “It really comes down to helping people,” he said. “Life is so wonderful. If we can improve it, what better thing can we do?”

  • The Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology’s first Ph.D. was awarded in 1952, making it the first awarded by MCV.
  • The department ranks 16th in the country in grant money received from the National Institutes of Health.
  • The training grant has supported 101 pre-doctoral students and 73 post-doctoral students since 1976.
  • With more than 300 Ph.D. graduates, the department’s alumni body is the largest of any of the medical school’s basic science departments.
  • The department was called the Department of Pharmacology from its creation until 1982, when Toxicology was added to the name.

By Janet Showalter