Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries

June 2015 Archives


Student Family Medicine Association wins national award for sixth consecutive year

Medical students at an SFMA eventMedical students at an SFMA event abandoned practicing acupuncture on oranges and decided to test their skills on each other.

The School of Medicine’s Student Family Medicine Association has been honored for a sixth consecutive year with the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Program of Excellence Award, which honors medical student organizations that generate interest in family medicine. Although the AAFP received a record number of entries for the award this year, the SFMA remained ranked on the list as one of the 10 best programs in the country.

The SFMA offers a wide range of activities designed to provide medical students with the opportunity to learn more about family medicine. The organization sponsors lectures, hands-on workshops and community-service opportunities, along with the chance to attend professional conferences and network with family physicians and residents from across the commonwealth.

“I got involved with the SFMA back in my first year and really enjoyed interacting with the members of the planning committee. I liked how passionate the organization was, from the clinical and procedural workshops to the lectures and community service events,” says fourth-year student and past SFMA co-president Jennifer Tran.

Students working on a farmStudents participate in a community service event at Shalom Farms, a learning lab for volunteers and an abundant source of fresh local produce for communities with low access to healthy food.

The program is continually updated as it seeks to engage more students and teach them about important topics facing family physicians, the broad diversity of practice options available to family doctors and the anticipated improvements in financing primary care. Attracting future physicians to the specialty is a key goal of the student organization.

“The shortage of primary care physicians is well documented,” says Judy Gary, M.Ed., SFMA’s faculty advisor. “SFMA has existed for over 20 years and its enduring purpose is to provide all students with information and experiences that expose them to the specialty of Family Medicine, its value in the health care system and the role of family physicians. Being part of such a dynamic organization affords students the opportunity to better understand family medicine–its breadth and scope.”

The Class of 2018’s Michelle Wagner, current co-president of the organization, is taking advantage of every opportunity she can to learn more about the field.

“I appreciate how varied the SFMA’s efforts are. There have been community service opportunities to collect blood pressures and practice motivational interviews at neighborhood health fairs, workshops on mental health conditions and practicing ultrasound with patients, lunch lectures that align with our curriculum and expand our ideas of what family doctors can do in their practice, as well as conferences and social events that bring students and family doctors together in informal settings.”

Students participating in a physical exam workshopThe SFMA sponsors events like this physical exam workshop to help students learn more about family medicine. Events like this helped the SFMA win a national award from the AAFP for the sixth consecutive year.

The SFMA’s award win allowed some of the student members to join an already large contingent from the School of Medicine that was headed to Kansas City, Mo. for the AAFP’s national conference. Among the cohort of nearly 20 students were Tran, Wagner and Alexandra “Lex” Tee, M’18, who was one of 30 students chosen nationally to participate in the AAFP’s Family Medicine Leads Emerging Leader Institute.

In the end, says Gary, the award win reflects the consistent strength of the school’s students over the past years. “The students are the key to SFMA’s success. It’s a privilege to work with interested and dedicated leaders who generate great ideas to help themselves and their classmates explore the specialty of family medicine and what family physicians do.”

By Jack Carmichael


Students organize Richmond’s first Camp Cardiac for high school students interested in medicine

Ameya Chumble watches Ryan Melchior demonstrate surgical knots

Camp organizer Ameya Chumble watches cardiology fellow Ryan Melchior, M.D., leads students through the surgical knots workshop.

When Ameya Chumble was in high school in Martinsville, Va., summertime educational opportunities were slim to none. Especially in specialized areas such as medicine.

Now he’s a rising second-year student at the VCU School of Medicine. During his first year on VCU’s MCV Campus, he learned about Camp Cardiac, a national day-camp for high school students interested in learning about medical careers. He jumped at the chance to establish a Richmond site of the program.

With the help of medical school faculty members – all volunteers – Chumble and a team of 14 medical students created an impressive schedule of presentations and activities. From obtaining CPR certification and learning suturing techniques, to hearing case studies and observing a live surgery, the high school students spent an action-packed week on campus.

Most of the 25 campers came from high schools in and around the Richmond metro area. One exception was a Seattle, Wash., student who attended the camp while her family visited the area during an extended vacation.

To apply, campers submitted a 300-word essay outlining their interest in attending, what they hoped to learn from the experience and why they were interested in the health care field. Scholarships were available to help cover the cost and meals were provided at no charge by the national Camp Cardiac organization.

“Since this was our inaugural year, we didn’t know what to expect of the campers,” Chumble says. “We ended up with a highly motivated and impressive group of individuals. Our students were flying through materials and tasks people usually don’t see until their first year of medical school. It was amazing.”

Camp Cardiac Staff acting as patients

Camp Cardiac Staff acted as patients so the campers could get a taste of what it’s like to take a patient’s medical history.

Established in Chicago in 2010 by cardiac surgeon Richard Lee, M.D., and three medical students, Camp Cardiac introduces high school students ages 15 and older to the real world of medicine. It focuses on both classroom teaching and hands-on experiences. It also serves as a springboard for students to develop self-awareness of a heart healthy lifestyle.

The importance of healthy living became all too clear during a presentation by Jordana Kron, M.D., associate professor of cardiology and program director of the Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Fellowship. Kron and her patient, Mel Shaffer, provided a living example to illustrate the students’ weeklong coursework.

“I remember hearing patient stories when I was in school,” Kron says. “To hear something from a patient’s point of view means so much more.”

Shaffer told his first-hand account of how chest pains at the gym turned into sudden cardiac death: a disruption of his heart’s electrical system resulted in a potentially deadly malfunction. The unexpected condition can sometimes be successfully treated with CPR or defibrillation as it was in Shaffer’s case. He was shocked 11 times after being brought to the emergency room.

Kron presented Shaffer’s electrocardiogram history to the students and asked them to interpret the readout. After hearing his story, they peppered him with questions about his pacemaker and stents as well as his lifestyle changes.

“The students were very attentive and asked a lot of great questions,” Shaffer says. “They were very responsive, which showed they were not only listening attentively, but were comprehending complicated concepts. They had an obvious interest in a career in medicine based on their response and participation.”

Amit Varma shows students artificial heart technology

Campers get an up-close look at the technology that powers artificial hearts with cardiology fellow Amit Varma, M’06, H’12.

Kron will definitely volunteer to be a part of next year’s Camp Cardiac.

“I hope I’m asked to do it again,” she says. “The week’s itinerary was outstanding and it was a great success.”

Chumble and his team started planning the camp nearly nine months in advance.

“Finding professors took time, but they were very gracious,” he says. “We couldn’t have done it without the Departments of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Cardiology and Cardiothoracic Surgery. Their interest and support was overwhelming.”

The 2015 Camp Cardiac was so successful, the MCV Campus now is eligible to host its sister camp, Camp Neuro.

Chumble hopes to serve in an advisory capacity for next year’s camps, but most of the program’s leadership and coordination will be passed onto interested students in the Class of 2019 so that Chumble and his teammates can concentrate on their studies. In early 2016, they’ll take Step 1 of the USMLE national boards and then will move into clinical rotations and the chance to work with more patients like Shaffer.

“This year’s event was a lot of fun. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend a week out of my summer.”

By Nan Johnson


A trio of Physiology alumni speak with current students about connections and collaborations

Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84Clockwise from top: Clockwise from top: Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12; Robert Vick, PhD’86; and John Kennedy, PhD’84

Soon after Chair Diomedes Logothetis, Ph.D., arrived in 2008, he instituted an annual retreat for the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Now in its seventh year, it’s proved to be a great venue for current students to learn from alumni who’ve gone before them into the fields of research, academia and industry.

In June, three returning alumni shared lessons learned from their careers.

Both Robert Vick, PhD’86, and John Kennedy, PhD’84, arrived on the MCV Campus in the 1980s. They compared stories about what it was like in an era of time-consuming hands-on science.

“Before so many resources were available for purchase, you had to make them,” said Vick, an associate professor of biology at Elon University where he’s twice served as chair of his department.

Three decades of scientific progress mean that scientists can now buy materials like monoclonal antibodies, but Vick emphasized that the theme of steady change is the take-home message. “The technology you’ll use in 20 years doesn’t exist now.”

John Kennedy, PhD’84, agreed, encouraging the students to be adaptable and willing. For the majority of his career, Kennedy was a funded investigator building a research program in muscle development. More recently, the associate professor of physiology and biophysics turned his attention to teaching. He’s now director of physiology education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You have to rely on the people around you,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to reach out. It’s those connections that make it interesting and lead to new directions. At each step of the way, if I hadn’t used the people and resources around me, it would have been much more difficult.”

Continuing the theme of collaboration and connections, Sayak Bhattacharya, PhD’12, described how – early in his career – he’s honing his networking skills as well as his laboratory techniques.

A post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology at Ohio State University, Bhattacharya arrived on the Columbus campus at the same time as his post-doc advisor. Because of it, he gained experience in setting up a lab from the ground floor. He’s now exploring whether he’d like a career in industry.

“Social media is a great tool, but you have to use it judiciously to brand yourself,” he said. “It’s one route for reaching out. I’ll ask for an informational interview about a job I might be interested in, and people are happy to help.”

Bhattacharya described how he is also pursuing a masters of business administration from Fisher College of Business to further his goal of getting his foot in the door of the biotech industry.

For students considering a teaching career at a liberal arts college like Elon in North Carolina, Vick shared his view, gained from the challenge of making his physiology class fresh for a new set of students – even for the 75th time.

“It’s a chance to pique their interest. That is why I love doing it. It’s their first exposure, and it will hopefully propel them on to a health professions or science career.”

A fan of teaching, Vick is also a visiting scholar with Duke University’s Preparing Future Faculty program, but he noted there’s no place like an undergrad campus for rubbing shoulders with a truly diverse set of faculty.

During a Q&A session with the students, Kennedy recalled what it had been like to be in the shoes of his audience.

“You have successes, failures and screw-ups. I came to grad school not very confident in my abilities. I almost quit because I thought I didn’t have the chops. But, slowly, I got past the first semester. It took the faculty’s support to get me through.

“There’s no one who doesn’t hit a roadblock. But when you do, look close to home. You have more resources than you realize in the faculty and students around you.”


Resident and student take top honors in skills competition at vascular surgery conference

Dan NewtonIn addition to participating in the surgical skills competition, third-year general surgery resident Dan Newton, M’12, presented original research: Contemporary Outcomes of Isolated Iliac Artery Aneurysm Repair.

Dozens of medical students and surgical residents faced off in a skills competition at the 2015 Vascular Annual Meeting. Organized by the Society for Vascular Surgery, the meeting was held June 17-20 in Chicago.

The clinical skills competition drew 40 residents and 48 fourth-year medical students. Dan Newton, M’12, and student Grayson Pitcher had known about the opportunity beforehand, but had not known what it would entail.

While there was no way to specifically prepare, “the vascular surgery rotation at the VA Medical Center gave my technical skills a huge boost,” said Newton, a third-year general surgery resident. “Out there we primarily work with Dr. Michael Amendola, who has been an incredible teacher and mentor, and really sparked my interest in vascular surgery.”

“Our residents get extreme exposure,” noted Amendola, M’02, H’07, F’09, pointing out that the McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center has the fifth busiest vascular surgery schedule in the nationwide VA system.

Newton was one of three residents to receive perfect scores on five timed stations that tested different skills like suturing, suture identification and knot tying without putting any stress on the item being tied.

Newton plans to apply for a vascular surgery fellowship this year. “The field has a great mix of big open cases and minimally invasive endovascular procedures,” he said. “It is also based heavily in physics and geometry, so it just sort of clicks for me.”

Rising fourth-year student Pitcher also was awarded a perfect score along with two other student participants. The fourth-year medical student competition’s tasks included a two-minute station at which they had to tie knots to the tab of a lightly weighted soda can without moving the can from a designated circle. Another event involved closing a 3 cm slit on a plastic tube.

Grayson Pitcher during the skills competitionRising fourth-year student Grayson Pitcher during the skills competition at the 2015 Vascular Annual Meeting.

Dr. Rahul Anand does a phenomenal job with the M3 surgical clerkship,” Pitcher said. “Because of him and the rest of the surgical faculty, I believe every third-year student at VCU has an advanced set of surgical skills and knowledge after their clerkship.”

For Pitcher, though, the event was less about the competition and more about the ability to network with vascular surgeons who were assigned to judge each station. He met faculty from across the country and was able to learn more about vascular surgery programs at a number of medical schools. That knowledge will be useful when he applies to vascular surgery residencies this fall.

Pitcher grew up with a balance of art, music and sports in his life. As a result, “I love anything creative, and it reflects in my personality in that I am very patient and obsessive compulsive about projects and detail. I always thought surgery would be a great fit. I loved how intricate and meticulous the vascular procedures were.”

He, too, credits the mentorship of assistant professor Amendola for his success. “My experience inside and outside the operating room with him has been an instrumental reason for choosing vascular surgery.”

The Class of 2016’s Grayson Pitcher.

Amendola, in turn, points to his experiences when he was a trainee with Richmond vascular surgeon Ronald K. Davis, M’63, H’69, and his MCV-trained practice partners. Amendola emulates the examples they set and prioritizes his role as a mentor, knowing it’s one of the most influential factors when students choose a specialty.

“The real reward in academic medicine is influencing the surgeons of tomorrow,” he said. “Dan and Grayson are going to be fantastic vascular surgeons.”


Doctoral candidate Wafa Tarazi wins award for captivating research presentation

Wafa Tarazi, MHPA

Doctoral candidate Wafa Tarazi, MHPA, in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research

For healthcare policy researchers like Wafa Tarazi, MHPA, explaining the results of their studies to people from different fields can often be a significant challenge. When your audience can’t understand small things, like certain terms or concepts, they’re liable to miss the overarching significance or impact of a study altogether.

To address this obstacle, AcademyHealth, a health services research and policy organization, sponsors an annual competition that challenges students to successfully explain a research paper in layman’s terms.

This year, Tarazi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, and three other students presented on Austin Frakt’s “Plan–Provider Integration, Premiums, and Quality in the Medicare Advantage Market.” The article discusses how integration between Medicare plans and healthcare providers relates to plans’ premiums and quality ratings. Each student had about seven minutes to present and had to act as if the audience had no expertise in health care.

Tarazi chose to construct a narrative as a way of expressing the article’s complex material.

“I used my grandma as the main character of the story, and showed pictures of seniors, a hospital, a health insurance company, and the Affordable Care Act to demonstrate the interactions between them. In addition, I talked slowly in a way that would make the audience easily imagine the story of my grandma and realize how policy changes could affect her health insurance plan.”

Tarazi’s approach worked, as both the panel of judges and the audience picked her as the winner of the competition. They highlighted her use of personal connection and vivid imagery as being particularly effective.

Although she appeared to breeze through the competition, Tarazi initially struggled to find the right tone for her presentation. After writing an abstract and being accepted into the competition, she took a few weeks to digest the article and produce a presentation. She then gave a practice presentation to faculty members Bassam Dahman, MS’07, PhD’09 (BIOS), Tiffany Green, PhD, and Lindsay Sabik, PhD.

“They didn’t like the first version of the slides. Although they liked the content and how I presented the important issues in the study, they thought the clipart and animations I used in the slides were distracting. To be honest, I wasn’t happy with the feedback at first, but as I thought about it more carefully I saw what I needed to change. I prepared my second version of the slides in two days and had a unique opportunity to present them at a meeting of the Advanced Richmond Toastmasters club. I proudly took my slides to the competition at AcademyHealth.”

The feedback from her third presentation, of course, was all positive. Tarazi says she felt an enormous sense of pride seeing a group of her professors and colleagues in the audience clapping for her after winning the competition.

Tarazi says she learned a lot about presenting complex subjects in easy-to-understand language. She will need to call on her newfound skills soon, as she works to complete her dissertation on breast cancer screening and disparities in care before her expected graduation in 2016.

By Jack Carmichael


AMA honors medical student Baaba Blankson with national award

Niva Lubin-Johnson, M.D., Baaba Blankson, Jesse Ehrenfield, M.D., and Michael Flesher

From left to right: Niva Lubin-Johnson, M.D., at-large representative of AMA Minority Affairs; Baaba Blankson, M’17, holding her AMA Minority Scholars Award; Jesse Ehrenfield, M.D., M.P.H., AMA board of trustees member; and Michael Flesher, a representative from Pfizer.

Baaba Blankson’s road to the MCV Campus was unlike anyone else’s. Born in Ghana, she moved to New York City when she was 13. She then completed two masters’ degrees before applying to the School of Medicine.

Now that she’s finally made it to medical school, she’s taking every opportunity to give back to the people and communities who helped her along the way.

On a visit to see family in West Africa last year, Blankson was struck by the incredible need of people in Apam, where approximately 60 percent of the community lives below the poverty line. “Apam faces a significant number of public health issues, including teen pregnancy, high infant mortality, poor sanitation and occupation induced disabilities. I knew I had to find a sustainable way to aid in the mitigation and ultimate alleviation of these issues.” With that, the Ghana Rural Outreach Sustainability and Engagement Organization was born.

Blankson, a member of the Class of 2017, has partnered with the Apam Catholic Hospital in Ghana to send student volunteers and certified health care providers to the underserved rural Apam community on Ghana’s southern coast.

ROSE offers opportunities to get involved to medical students and residents alike. First- and second-year medical students can precept and assist in procedures, while third- and fourth-year students can participate for an elective credit. Residents can pay a fee to receive their Ghanaian medical licenses, allowing them complete autonomy to practice at the local hospital.

The Apam Catholic Hospital, and the Apam community in general, also has a huge need for physical therapists and other allied health professionals, and Baaba hopes that one day she will be able to bring them to Ghana through ROSE.

Her work on this project has earned her a lot of fans at the School of Medicine. Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’89, assistant dean for medical education, says, “Baaba is a ray of sunshine. She is one of the sweetest students we’ve ever had. She always has a smile on her face and brings a positive attitude to the task at hand. She is generous with her time and her energy with her classmates as well.”

Because of her work with the ROSE project, DiGiovanni, along with Pemra Cetin, assistant dean for student affairs, and Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, associate dean for student affairs, decided to nominate Blankson for the American Medical Association’s Minority Scholars Award. The award recognizes 20 medical students for their scholastic achievement and commitment to improving minority health.

Blankson can now count the AMA as another one of her fans. She received the award in recognition of her advocacy for global health equality in Chicago this June.

The award win is a distinct honor, and Blankson joins with medical students from places like Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt and Tufts on the roster of the AMA’s 2015 Minority Scholars. The award offers winners tuition assistance scholarships and seeks to increase the number of minority physicians to match the United States’ increasingly multicultural society.

“This award is truly a blessing,” says Blankson. “It is also a statement validating the border-transcendent nature of medicine and the need for global health. It is no longer about the individual; rather, it is about the broader community and creating sustainable healthcare access to nations in need. “

By Jack Carmichael

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
Contact us
Contact webmaster
Updated: 04/29/2016