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July 2017 Archives


Eight years running: family medicine student group receives national honors

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association is again among the nation’s top student groups for their activities to generate interest in family medicine. This is the eighth year in a row the group has been recognized by the American Academy of Family Physicians at its annual conference for residents and medical students in Kansas City.


The Student Family Medicine Association received national honors for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine. Courtesy Tiffany Matson Photography

“The [Family Medicine Interest Groups] we honor this year have gone above and beyond allowing students to put into practice the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom,” said Clif Knight, M.D., senior vice president for education at the AAFP. “These programs help students develop leadership skills that will serve them in their future practices and communities, and better understand the vital role that family medicine plays in our health care system.”

Seventeen student groups were honored with Program of Excellence Awards on July 28. The SFMA was singled out for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine, and SFMA student leaders were on hand in Kansas City to accept the award on behalf of the 383-member organization.

“The Student Family Medicine Association has been honored year after year for their exceptional programs,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “I am so proud to see the AAFP hold them up as role models for other student groups around the country.”

The group was recognized for its programs like Career Profiles in Family Medicine, a faculty panel that introduces first- and second-year medical students to family medicine’s broad scope of practice, as well as its popular sports medicine workshop. The fully subscribed three-hour workshop described the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and gave students time to practice their clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.


The SFMA was recognized for its excellent programs that included a three-hour workshop introducing students to the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and providing time to practice clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.

The AAFP has posted SFMA’s winning application online as an example of best practices and programming ideas for FMIGs nationwide.

Twenty-two MCV Campus students made the trip to Kansas City to participate in the AAFP conference.

“This is the largest group we’ve ever had attend,” says Judy Gary, M.Ed., faculty adviser to SFMA and assistant director of medical education for the VCU Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “We were also proud to see that six of the students were awarded AAFP scholarships to attend the conference.”

In addition, a pair of fourth-year students had the chance to serve as student delegates at the AAFP National Congress, weighing in on issues like improving health care access and addressing student and physician burnout. Kenneth Qiu voted on behalf of Virginia medical students, and Ryan Ortizo represented Guam, where he was born.

“It is critical we continue to garner interest and attract students to the specialty of family medicine,” said the AAFP’s Knight. “The physician shortage in primary care continues, and programs such as FMIGs are key to exposing students to real-world experiences that will help them dig deeper into — and ultimately choose — family medicine.”

Founded in 1947, the AAFP represents 129,000 physicians and medical students nationwide. It is the only medical society devoted solely to primary care. Family physicians conduct approximately one in five office visits. The organization notes that family physicians provide more care for America’s underserved and rural populations than any other medical specialty.

By Erin Lucero


PhD alumnus Ross Arena reframes the discussion: life span becomes health span

“Healthy living should be viewed as medicine.”

That’s the message shared by Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), on a recent return to the MCV Campus. Instead of being reactive to the spate of chronic conditions now affecting the world, physicians should focus on preventing them in the first place, he says.

Ross Arena Ph.D.

Likely the most published physical therapist in the world, Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), says if everyone changed small things in terms of physical activity, there’d be a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes. Photo credit: Skip Rowland

While that seems obvious, he acknowledged that many people feel that diet and exercise are an all-or-nothing business. “We’re sending a message that if you’re not doing 150 minutes of exercise each week that it’s not worth it,” he said in his July 27 presentation, “Creating the Healthy Living Health Care System to Combat Chronic Diseases,” at a VCU Pauley Heart Center research conference.

“But something is better than nothing, and even some exercise can improve health.” Every 1,000 steps can reduce the risk of heart disease and other conditions, he says. “I’d like to see us reframe the discussion around physical activity.”

“If everyone changed small things, we’d have a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes.” Because, he noted, health span – the period of life where one is generally healthy and disease-free – can be more important than life span. A healthy lifestyle at age 50 can increase life expectancy by seven years and reduce disability by six.

Arena is currently head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is internationally renowned as an expert in exercise physiology and heart failure, and has participated in crafting the guidelines of the American Heart Association. He’s a prolific writer – likely the most published physical therapist in the world – with more than 700 peer review articles, abstracts and book chapters to his credit.

“We’ve been proud to see how Dr. Arena’s findings are influencing his field,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “And we’re delighted to have him return to campus to share his research and collaborate with our faculty. “

Arena is acclaimed for implementing healthy living initiatives in the academic, clinical and community settings. While not easy, it’s possible to get out of a siloed system at major academic medical centers, he says. He cites research being done at VCU by Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., Salvatore Carbone, M.S., and others in the Pauley Heart Center as a success story. “I’ve always liked the collaborative spirit here,” he says. He enjoys working with researchers at VCU’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “In fact, I might be working on more projects with VCU now than when I worked here.”

In addition to his Ph.D. in physiology, Arena also earned a master’s degree in physical therapy at VCU in 1997. He served on the faculty from 2002-10, and remains close to several former campus colleagues, including cardiology faculty member Mary Ann Peberdy, M.D. He fondly remembers other physiology faculty including Roland Pittman, Ph.D., Alexandre Fabiato, M.D., Ph.D., and George Ford, Ph.D. “Each had a significant impact on my career.”

“I was first drawn to VCU because I really liked the faculty and the programs. And then staying on, there were good opportunities. From a research perspective, continuing to do work with cardiology was important. Their collaborative, team science approach was important for me. The work done by Antonio’s group is very impactful and I am honored to be involved.”

Health professionals working together is key to reducing heart disease, cancer, dementia and other conditions, Arena noted. Promoting health literacy, designing clinical space to allow collaboration and spending a little money up front will help move from a treatment model to a preventative one.

“Immersion in a culture of health is so logical,” he says. “Healthy living is a polypill.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


M2, cancer survivor awarded fellowship to pursue cancer research

Class of 2020's Seth Spencer performs cancer-related research

M2 Seth Spencer received the 2017 James D. Popp Summer Research Fellowship, named for the Class of 1988 alumnus and awarded to a first-year medical student who performs cancer-related research during the summer.

In 2009, the Class of 2020’s Seth Spencer underwent surgery to replace his right hip. In 2012, he had his other hip and both knees replaced — he was just 23 years old.

Spencer’s joint deterioration was a side effect of a bone marrow transplant he received five years earlier to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

“When you’re younger and you’re diagnosed it really changes how you live the rest of your life,” he says.

That change has been difficult for Spencer because even though his leukemia has gone into remission, the side effects and surgeries will continue to affect his activities and behavior for the rest of his life.

But that change also has been empowering.

“I’ve been given an opportunity to have my life and because of this I want to look for ways that I can help others,” he says.

Spencer, having completed his first year of medical school, is staying on the MCV Campus this summer to begin his fight to ensure young people in the future won’t have to face what he did.

Finding a research fit

During orientation for first-year medical students last fall, Anthony Faber, Ph.D., assistant professor at the VCU School of Dentistry’s Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, presented his research on targeted therapy for ALL.

Spencer was intrigued immediately because of his personal battle with ALL and because of that extra word Faber was using before therapy — “targeted.”

The American Cancer Society says targeted therapy “is a newer type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or other substances to more precisely identify and attack cancer cells.” When cancer cells are targeted directly, the treatment’s negative impact on other parts of the body can be greatly diminished.

When he arrived on the MCV Campus, Spencer had already planned to find research to be a part of as soon as possible, and when he heard Faber speak he knew targeted therapy was what he wanted to pursue.

After attending several research meetings at Faber’s lab, Spencer decided to apply for the James D. Popp Student Research Fellowship and pursue targeted therapy for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). DIPG is a rare and fatal pediatric cancer that effects the brain stem.

Seth Spencer, Class of 2020

Leukemia survivor and second-year medical student Seth Spencer is staying on the MCV Campus this summer to begin his fight to ensure young people in the future won’t have to face what he did.

“In the past, DIPG has been hard to research because the brain stem is so important for function,” Spencer says. “If you have a tumor somewhere else they can take a sample of the tumor to start studying it, but it’s not as easy with DIPG.”

Faber helped Spencer find the necessary DIPG tumor cell samples, which were shipped from California. Spencer has now begun growing the cells in the lab and screening for proteins in the cells to see how they grow or die. He is researching which drugs make an impact on certain proteins, and that helps him identify possible targeting strategies for treatment.

“The idea is to find a treatment that affects just the tumor and not the whole body,” Spencer says. “Proteins we target that are in the tumor are also in a patient’s body, but our hope is to find something like a protein that’s expressed 100 times more in the tumor than in the rest of the body. Attacking that protein then would have 100 times more effect on the tumor than the body.

“One thing that’s nice about these targeted therapies is that they don’t work the same way as chemotherapies do. The better one of these targeted therapies is, the better it focuses on just the tumor and not so much the patient.”

Supporting student research
Spencer received this year’s James D. Popp Student Research Fellowship, named for the late Jim Popp from the Class of 1988. Awarded each year since 2010 to a first-year VCU medical student, the stipend covers travel and living expenses while the recipient performs cancer-related research during the summer.

The Class of 1988's James Popp

The late Jim Popp from the Class of 1988

“The James D. Popp Student Research Fund was established in memory of an exceptional individual who died of cancer at age 45 in August of 2007,” says Jack Haar, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. “Jim was a caring physician, athlete, friend, devoted husband and loving father of five young children.”

Prior to and during the years Jim was a medical student at VCU, he worked in the research laboratory of Haar.

In order to establish a living memorial to Jim, Haar established the James D. Popp Student Research Fund at the MCV Foundation. Haar and his son Philip then completed a 4,000 mile cross-country bicycle ride, RideForJim, in 2008 as a fundraising effort. Several other cyclists completed the ride and an annual local cycling event contributed to the fund until 2014.

The purpose of the fellowship is to support talented first-year medical students in completing cancer-related research at the VCU Massey Cancer Center, with the hope that the experience will lead them to pursue a career that incorporates cancer research with patient care. Through the efforts of the riders and contributions from hundreds of family members and friends, the fund reached the point at which a $5,000 award has been made annually since the summer of 2010.

“Each year students apply for the Popp Fellowship and the selection committee determines who will receive the award,” Haar says. “I am always amazed to see qualities of Jim in each awardee when I call them to my office to notify them of the award. This is especially true of this year’s recipient, Seth Spencer, who is doing research in an area that could have significant impact on the treatment of cancer. He truly is an extraordinary living memorial to my friend Jim.”

“I think everyone that goes through cancer ends up with a different experience, but I do feel like the experiences I had helped me understand a little bit more about what patients are going through,” Spencer says. “What really speaks to me about research is finding something new that wasn’t known before. I think anyone that has cancer has a life-changing experience, so having a chance to make that experience more tolerable for others is an amazing opportunity.”

This story by Eric Peters first appeared on the MCV Foundation website, where you can watch a video of Spencer describing his research.

**If you would like to make a gift, you can do so online by selecting the James D. Popp Research Fund on the online form.

You may also do so by check, making it payable to the MCV Foundation, designating Popp Research Fund on the memo line, and mailing it to:
MCV Foundation
Attn: Brian Thomas
1228 East Broad Street
Box 980234
Richmond, VA 23298


Sharing the gift of sight is an ‘incredible experience’ for the Class of 80’s Sara Jones-Gomberg

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, with elderly patient and daughter

Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, looks on as an elderly mother sees her daughter for the first time in many years after receiving free cataract surgery.

The joy cannot be contained when an elderly mother, previously blinded by cataracts, sees her adult daughter for the first time in many years. Mother and daughter smile, then weep. There isn’t a dry eye in this makeshift operating room in the Philippines as mom marvels at how much her little girl has grown.

“She still thought of her as a young person, unchanged,” says ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, who performed the free cataract surgery in March 2014 to restore the mother’s vision. “It was an incredible experience.”

But it’s one that almost didn’t happen.

The mother had arrived at the clinic scared and unsure of the procedure. She was hot and hadn’t eaten much. Like many of the patients, she had come a long way much earlier in the day to be evaluated for the surgery. Her daughter was worried that if her mother didn’t have the surgery that day, she wouldn’t go through with it — and she desperately wanted her mother to see again.

Jones-Gomberg was concerned, too, that the mother — understandably on edge after the long, hot wait — would be too restless for surgery in a setting without standard anesthesia. So they decided to wait one more day.

“We got her dinner and a place to stay the night,” Jones-Gomberg says, “and her daughter reviewed with her mom what to expect. She was the first patient in the morning to have surgery. She was rested and like a changed person. The surgery just went beautifully.”

So beautifully that the patient said she wanted to have the other eye operated on later that same day. No more fear. “We all felt like a happy family but this was our last day of surgery with many more patients waiting for a turn,” Jones-Gomberg says. “We promised to come back to perform the second eye surgery.”

It’s experiences like these that keep Jones-Gomberg going back to the Philippines, where she has traveled seven times since 2005, performing as many as 15 surgeries a day with a team of two to three doctors, including a local physician. She’s also treated patients in Bangladesh, India, Laos, Mexico, Peru and Tibet.

“In some of these countries, they simply accept that nothing can be done to restore their vision. But when suddenly it is, it’s like night and day — from sitting in the corner of their home and growing useless to suddenly becoming a contributing member of the family,” Jones-Gomberg says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better profession than giving back vision. You do something to help people but you receive such a good feeling for yourself. In some ways, it’s a little bit selfish. I’m so fortunate to have had my education at MCV and become a physician. A number of things came together and now I have a gift. To not share it would be such a shame.”

Back in her California home, Jones-Gomberg shares the gift of sight with patients at Kaiser Permanente in the Antelope Valley as a partner emeritus and at the High Desert Regional Medical Center of Los Angeles County. She previously spent 27 years as a partner physician in Panorama City and Santa Clarita Kaiser Permanente but moved to provide care to an underserved population that previously had to travel as far as 60 miles for ophthalmological services.

Caring for the less fortunate, and treating her patients as friends, is a running theme of Jones-Gomberg’s career.

“It’s something inside of me that I wouldn’t be able to change,” she says. “I talk to patients about their family, their concerns, their social life. I do think part of the responsibility as a caregiver is to look at the whole person, not just the eye.

“My sense of patient care began in my years at MCV and the way the students cared for one another. I do think our class was a special class. We didn’t rely on competitiveness. We actually worked together.”

Jones-Gomberg arrived on the MCV Campus at age 28, after earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. She even spent a few years teaching math prior to medical school. Yet influential people in her life, including her family physician, encouraged her to become a doctor, noting the increasing presence of math in medicine.

She’s especially grateful to Miles Hench, Ph.D., former dean of admissions in the medical school, and oncologist Susan Mellette, M.D., who were instrumental in her path to becoming the caring physician she is today.

It was during her fourth-year rotation when she realized ophthalmology encompassed everything she loved about medicine: physics, mathematics, surgery and patient interaction.

“Every day I’m so thankful that I was given this experience,” Jones-Gomberg says. “In some ways, I was probably a gamble on MCV’s part. I hope I’ve shown it was well worth the gamble. MCV gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”

By Polly Roberts


M2 Yasaman Ataei celebrates Independence Day by becoming a U.S. citizen

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., with the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., with the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei who became a U.S. citizen on July 4.

On July 4th, the Class of 2020’s Yasaman Ataei had a new reason to celebrate.

Along with others from 50 countries around the world, the rising second-year medical student took the oath of allegiance and became a U.S. citizen.

Ataei and her family immigrated from Iran in 2010. “There are great things that come with living in the United States, more personal freedom, freedom of speech,” Ataei told the local NBC affiliate.

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who is of Irish descent and is also a U.S. citizen himself was on hand for the ceremony held at the Virginia Historical Society.

“What a beautiful way to celebrate America’s birthday by welcoming Yasaman and 78 others from across the world as they join this great nation,” Buckley said. “We are fortunate that Yasaman will be training with us.”

You can watch Ataei’s interview with WWBT NBC12 and read more of her story in a profile by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

By Erin Lucero

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Updated: 04/29/2016