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School of Medicine discoveries

April 2017 Archives

28
2017

American Association of Neurological Surgeons Names Alex B. Valadka, MD, FAANS, as Organization’s President

Alex B. Valadka, MD, FAANS, has been named president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. The association announced his appointment during the 85th AANS Annual Scientific Meeting held in Los Angeles, April 22-26, 2017.

Alex Valadka, M.D.In addition to serving as professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at VCU, Valadka is also a director of the American Board of Neurological Surgery and, most recently, served as the AANS treasurer. He has also served as chair of the Washington Committee for Neurosurgery. Prior to joining VCU, he served as chair and chief executive officer of the Seton Brain and Spine Institute in Austin, Texas, the largest and most comprehensive neuroscience program in Central Texas.

Valadka has a strong clinical and research interest in neurotrauma and critical care as evidenced by his research funding and publications. He has been an investigator and co-investigator on 18 research grants, including serving as initiating investigator on a $33.7-million Department of Defense research consortium on mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). He is author or co-author on more than a hundred scientific papers, as well as dozens of book chapters. He co-edited the textbook “Neurotrauma: Evidence-based Answers to Common Questions.”

“Health care delivery is changing very rapidly,” said Valadka. “Too much emphasis is being placed on cutting costs and piling more and more burdensome regulations on practitioners. Education and research are under assault. Worst of all, it has become too easy to lose sight of the enormous privilege of being a neurosurgeon. Even while we are fighting to preserve our patients’ access to the highest-quality neurosurgical care, we need to remember why we chose this profession: the opportunity to serve others.”

“Because the AANS has evolved and grown very rapidly over the past few years, we initiated a careful strategic planning process last year. Starting in April, we will implement the plan, ensuring that we continue to provide the highest level of service to our members and, most of all, to their patients.”

Source: American Association of Neurological Surgeons

27
2017

Woodworking unlocks creativity, teaches patience for health behavior and policy student Tyler Braun

The Department of Health Behavior and Policy’s third-year Ph.D. candidate Tyler Braun’s research on Spillover Theory analyzes how Medicare policy indirectly influences private insurance markets and effects private insurance enrollees.

He makes a point of finding time away from his research to spend in his woodshop creating one-of-a-kind pieces of art. In his own words:

Tyler Braun, Department of Health Behavior and Policy Ph.D. candidate, uses his woodworking skills to create a dining room table.

Tyler Braun, Department of Health Behavior and Policy Ph.D. candidate, uses his woodworking skills to create a dining room table from the reclaimed wood of an old storage unit dating back to Church Hill’s 1800s.
Photo by Kevin Schindler

Woodworking is something that I grew up with. My grandfather is a world-renowned decoy carver and my dad is very handy with tools. So at an early age, due to my grandfather’s and dad’s love for woodworking, I was exposed to chisels, power tools and a knack for understanding woodworking and artistry.

As I progressed through my doctorate, I needed a stress reliever and decided that I would attempt to take up woodworking as a hobby much like my grandfather and dad had. One day I blew off the old sawdust on the woodworking tools my grandfather and dad gave me and I began carving. I started off making college sports logos and state flags as gifts for friends and family, and through word-of-mouth,my wood art has been in high demand ever since.

Finding leisure time while working on a Ph.D. can be difficult, especially with multiple deadlines, but I make an attempt every day to keep Ph.D. work in regular business hours so I can go home to my woodshop to relieve the stresses of school, reflect on life and let my imagination run wild to create pieces of one-of-a-kind wood art.

Woodworking is a hobby that has grown my imagination and taught me patience and to pay attention to detail — luckily these characteristics have also carried over into my dissertation and doctoral work, which are very important to succeed in a Ph.D. program.

My suggestion to graduate students is to find a hobby that makes you happy, grows your imagination, relieves stress and helps you to continuously grow as an individual and a scholar.

By Tyler Braun

05
2017

Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson selected for Hall of Heroes

An admissions office routinely recruits and processes applications with an eye toward building a strong class. But a pair in VCU’s School of Medicine have been lauded for going above and beyond, supporting students before, during and after medical school.

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D.,

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., for their work to increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, senior associate dean of admissions, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., assistant dean of admissions and director of Student Outreach Programs, were tapped for induction into the Hall of Heroes of the Student National Medical Association.

The Hall of Heroes distinction is SNMA’s most prestigious recognition, honoring administrators, physicians and others who champion the cause for a diverse physician workforce. SNMA says its mission is to support current and future underrepresented minority medical students, address the needs of underserved communities and increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson, nominated by current and former students, were unanimously elected about a year ago, but won’t be formally inducted until this year’s SNMA conference, April 12-16, in Atlanta. Both said they were surprised to find they’d been selected – and it took some time before they realized that the other also had been. That the nomination came from students was especially meaningful. “You never know how you touch someone,” Jackson says.

The two have worked together for more than a decade, and share a common philosophy and priorities.

“Our goal is always to have a diverse class,” says Whitehurst-Cook, who also serves as associate professor of family medicine and population health. “It’s not just about minority status, but bringing together a new class each year of individuals who’ve done awesome things in their lives. They will be sharing their upbringing, their culture and their varied experiences.”

Ultimately, she says, that leads to a richer experience for students and better medical care for patients, as physicians-to-be learn to relate to diverse populations.

But diversity alone doesn’t ensure success, so inclusion is equally important. With so many different backgrounds converging in a high-stress environment, it’s important to offer support and encouragement, Whitehurst-Cook says. “We’ve worked hard to enhance our diversity here and to support students once they get here. You can recruit a medical student, but you want all of them to be happy and to thrive. “

On the MCV Campus, offerings for minority students include the SNMA and the Latino Medical Student Association. The two student organizations team up to present the “Second-Look” program that gives accepted students and potential recruits opportunities to interact with faculty and students in a more relaxed atmosphere than the usual formal tours and interviews. At VCU, underrepresented minority students are defined as African-American, Latino, Native Americans, Alaskans and Pacific Islanders.

What’s needed to enroll more diverse students, though, is an increase in scholarship money, and Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson are hoping that in the near future, they’ll be able to offer assistance to more students.

Plenty of potential students are on the admissions radar while they’re still in high school or undergraduate programs. Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson help those students – and often their parents – find a path to success in medical school, whether that’s at VCU or elsewhere.

When they’re building a class for the medical school, Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson agree that students should show a commitment to nonclinical community service by helping people. “In addition to a passion for medicine, we want them to show compassion,” Whitehurst-Cook says. “In other words, we want them to be smart – and nice.”

The admissions office has an open-door policy, so students, potential students and graduates who need a place to unwind can find a friendly ear, advice and occasionally some free pizza.

“I think it’s important that we try to make all of our students feel like they’re part of a family. We really do care about what they’re going through,” Jackson says. The feeling is mutual, she said, as a large contingent of SNMA members attended her son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.

“I think they feel like we are more than student and administrator.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

05
2017

Microbiology alumna seeks Zika answers

The Zika virus topped the list of Google’s trending health-related questions in the U.S. in 2016, according to CNN. People wanted to know “What are the symptoms of Zika?” and “How long does Zika last?”

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, studies if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

As warm weather nears, questions remain about the Zika virus. Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, takes on the epidemic the best way she knows how — in the research lab, where she’s studying if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Jean Kim, PhD’10 (MICR), had questions about Zika, too. She went to the research lab for answers.

Now the principal investigator on a Zika project for RTI International, where she works as a research microbiologist, Kim is asking “Can Zika be transmitted through the air via coughing or sneezing?”

The Zika virus is known to be transmitted via an Aedes aegypti mosquito that bites an infected person and then transfers the virus to another person via its salivary glands. A pregnant woman also can pass the virus to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads due to underlying brain damage. Sexual intercourse also has been identified as a route for transmitting the virus.

“Yet little research has been done on the possibility that the Zika virus could be spread through other secondary routes including aerosol transmission,” says Kim, whose research typically centers on indoor air quality, including the impact of black mold on human health. “We wanted to be proactive about providing solutions to the Zika situation. How could we address this public health issue?”

After presenting a concept to the company CEO in spring 2016, Kim and her colleagues immediately began their research: studying if Zika can survive in human respiratory, oral and salivary environments, whether the cells from the oral and respiratory tract allow for propagation and how long the virus can persist in saliva.

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

By January 2017, Kim finished her initial research and submitted results to a research journal. While she can’t disclose outcomes until after publication, she emphasized the importance of wanting to complete the research in a quick timeframe.

“Zika isn’t going away,” Kim says. “We’ve just been in a lull because of the winter season and not seeing any mosquitoes. Even babies who might not display microcephaly are still experiencing other effects. We still have a lot to learn about the pathology of the virus and the impact it has on infants.”

Research teams in labs all over the country are investigating different aspects of the Zika virus. Kim and her colleagues also are interested in investigating if a heel prick can detect Zika in infants at birth to determine whether they may have been exposed in utero.

Her natural curiosity for what causes disease is what ultimately led her to study microbiology and immunology. “I’m extremely interested in how something so small can be so successful at survival. How can it cause disease and withstand all of the challenges that it faces when inside a host?”

A multiple degree alumna from VCU, Kim also received her master’s in biology from the College of Humanities & Sciences. She points to a bacterial pathogenesis course team-taught by Cynthia Cornelissen, Ph.D., and Richard Marconi, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, that led her to pursue her doctorate.

“There is no more gratifying feeling than to know you may have played a part in stimulating a student to pursue an occupation that I consider to be among the most rewarding,” Marconi says. “The ability to pursue your own ideas and do something new every single day is remarkable.”

Kim now enjoys motivating today’s students, recently welcoming a group of VCU basic science students to Research Triangle Park to discuss non-academic career opportunities for Ph.D. candidates.

“In academics, you ask very deep and probing questions, and become an expert in one area,” she says. “Here at RTI, I take a much broader view. Research is not as probing, but it’s far-reaching. One of the things I enjoy is taking basic science research and seeing how it can be applied and used elsewhere … thinking outside the box.”

Or in the case of Zika research, thinking outside the Google search box.

By Polly Roberts