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February 2018 Archives

21
2018

Biochemistry alumnus Patrick Stover to lead Texas A&M’s agriculture college, agencies

Patrick Stover, PhD’90 (BIOC)

Patrick Stover, PhD’90 (BIOC)

The Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System unanimously voted on Feb. 8 to hire a nationally recognized leader in nutritional science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences to lead Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the System’s agriculture agencies.

As the incoming vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences, Patrick J. Stover, PhD’90 (BIOC), will be well positioned to better align research and extension efforts related to agriculture and human health. Stover, who most recently served at Cornell University, also will be able to help farmers and ranchers improve efficiencies, profits and yields through applied science and advanced research, said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“I believe Dr. Stover will revolutionize the relationship between food producers and nutrition in a way that is highly beneficial to agriculture, the food industry and consumers,” Sharp said.

“This is a great day for Texas A&M as we add yet another national leader of prominence to the executive team of the flagship,” Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young said. “Dr. Stover’s proven leadership at Cornell will complement the scholarship of our faculty who are already serving the state of Texas and the world in their research in meaningful ways with their research every day.”

Stover said for it is a privilege to join the Texas A&M faculty and work with Sharp, Young, Provost Carol Fierke and the faculty and staff.

“The outstanding senior leadership team assembled and led by Chancellor Sharp – combined with the commitment of Texas to higher education and with the service commitment of the Texas A&M System – gives us the unprecedented opportunity to solve the most challenging problems facing agriculture, food, the environment and our Texas communities,” Stover said. “I look forward to extending the reach of our teaching, research, service and extension programs to support our shared values.”

Further, Stover said he is eager to help realize Chancellor Sharp’s vision for a statewide “Healthy Texas” program that will serve as a model for our country.

“We can leverage the strength of Texas agriculture with our commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of Texas communities through our agencies and college faculty,” Stover added.

Stover begins March 1.

Stover has been a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the director of the Ivy League university’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, which is jointly administered by the College of Human Ecology and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. He earned a doctorate degree in biochemistry and molecular biophysics on the MCV Campus and performed his postdoctoral studies in nutritional sciences at the University of California at Berkeley.

Stover led a research group that investigates the mechanisms underlying the relationships among nutrition, metabolism and risk for birth defects, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Stover is married to Denise Stover, and they have four adult children, all of whom are either attending or have graduated from Cornell.

A runner of half-marathons and a woodworking enthusiast, Stover said he is excited to make Aggieland his new home and for the chance to see world-class Texas A&M athletes in action.

Members of the Cornell University community praised Stover’s accomplishments during his tenure there.

“Patrick has been a transformative leader of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, hiring world-class faculty, developing innovative education programs, and establishing impactful global research and education collaborations,” Alan D. Mathios, Ph.D., the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, said. “He has secured the division as one of the leading nutrition programs in the world.”

“Cornell CALS has been fortunate to benefit from Patrick’s outstanding accomplishments, both as a faculty researcher and as the leader of the Division of Nutritional Sciences,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. “As director of the division, Patrick has supported broad collaboration and elevated the life-changing research, teaching and outreach that are core to the division’s mission as well as to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.”

Courtesy of Texas A&M

21
2018

Pharmacology and Toxicology’s Robert Balster to receive ASPET’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D.

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D.

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2018 P.B. Dews Lifetime Achievement Award for Research in Behavioral Pharmacology given by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Balster, the Luther A. Butler Professor in Drug and Alcohol Studies in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is being recognized for his outstanding lifetime achievements in research, teaching and professional service in the field of behavioral pharmacology.

The ASPET Division for Behavioral Pharmacology sponsors the P.B. Dews Award to honor Peter Dews, Ph.D., for his seminal contributions to the development of behavioral pharmacology as a discipline.

“Congratulations to Dr. Balster on this deserved honor,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “This award reinforces his work as an internationally recognized scientist in substance abuse who displays an unwavering commitment to fighting disease, improving health for all.”

Katherine Nicholson, D.V.M., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, nominated Balster and notes that in addition to his scientific achievements, “Bob is known for his ability to form teams, to inspire others to work together and to develop new programs while being an accessible and amiable colleague. He is one of the most collegial and positive individuals I have known.”

Balster has greatly advanced the field of substance abuse research. He was a leader in the development of laboratory models for studying the abuse-related properties of drugs. He applied these models of research in many areas of addiction, with greatest emphasis on the phencyclidine-type (PCP) drugs and abused inhalants. His work has contributed to the development of medications with reduced potential for abuse. More recently, he has focused on research dissemination, serving for 12 years as editor-in-chief of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, and in the development of training programs for addiction scientists and practitioners. He received the VCU Presidential Medallion in 2014.

Balster, also a research professor of psychology and psychiatry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Houston in 1970. In 1973, he joined VCU faculty. Balster is the co-founder and co-director of the International Programme in Addiction Studies and associate coordinator of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program in Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Policy. He also co-founded the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at VCU.

ASPET will present Balster with the P.B. Dews Lifetime Achievement Award for Research in Behavioral Pharmacology during the ASPET Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2018 in San Diego in April.

21
2018

MPH students create real-world resources during internship program

With a lot of digging, a boatload of patience and most importantly a commitment to improving public health, Em Stephens accomplished something no one before her could.

As part of the School of Medicine’s Master of Public Health internship program, she created an online dashboard chronicling infectious disease trends in Virginia for the Virginia Department of Health.

“I am very proud of the final product,” Stephens says. “It will prove valuable in helping us track diseases and give us more background about outbreaks and outcomes.”

Each year, the Master of Public Health Program graduates 12 to 15 students. All must complete a three-credit, 180-hour internship that is designed to give students real-world experiences in a public health practice setting.

“Public health is very collaborative in its efforts in the community,” says Lisa Anderson, MPH’96, director of educational programs in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “Students need real-world experience to see how their knowledge can be applied and what it takes to launch a public health initiative.”

Like Stephens, Amelia Thomas wanted her project to impact a pressing issue. As part of her internship with the Virginia Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, she produced an interactive fiscal map and analysis of funding for children’s services and supports administered by state agencies in Virginia.

MPH student Amelia Thomas created an interactive online fiscal map of funding for children’s services provided by Virginia’s agencies that reveals gaps in service areas and vulnerable funds. She presented the project to then Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel, M.D., then Secretary of Education Dietra Trent, Ph.D., former Secretary of Education Anne Holton and 80 other state and local partners of the Children’s Cabinet. “It’s a great resource for advocacy and it increases transparency and collaboration,” Thomas says. “With continued reports, we can analyze trends and determine if we are using funds effectively.”

MPH student Amelia Thomas created an interactive online fiscal map of funding for children’s services provided by Virginia’s agencies that reveals gaps in service areas and vulnerable funds. She presented the project to then Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel, M.D., then Secretary of Education Dietra Trent, Ph.D., former Secretary of Education Anne Holton and 80 other state and local partners of the Children’s Cabinet. “It’s a great resource for advocacy and it increases transparency and collaboration,” Thomas says. “With continued reports, we can analyze trends and determine if we are using funds effectively.”

“It was a little daunting,” Thomas says. “But I think this was important to do because it holds agencies accountable and can foster more interagency collaboration.”

Thomas met with 17 state agencies to compile and organize the data into an interactive map that breaks down the federal, state and special revenue funding available for children up to 21 years of age. Her map details where that money goes, what specific services it supports (such as education, nutrition and food programs, juvenile justice system) and the funding source.

Funding streams often overlap as agencies across the state try to ensure that children live healthy lives. Thomas’ map helps point out redundancies, funds that are expiring and gaps in service areas.

“It’s a great resource for advocacy and it increases transparency,” Thomas says. “With continued reports, we can analyze trends and determine if we are using funds effectively to improve health outcomes.”

Thomas, who graduates in May, presented her work to then Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel, M.D., then Secretary of Education Dietra Trent, Ph.D., former Secretary of Education Anne Holton and 80 other state and local partners of the Cabinet. The information is being housed with the Office of Children’s Services, and Thomas says all 17 agencies will showcase the report on their websites.

“I really enjoyed the process,” Thomas says. “It felt like a puzzle – one worth solving. I can really see the impact public servants can have on the health and wellbeing of all Virginians.”

In addition to studying in the MPH program, Stephens works full-time as the influenza surveillance coordinator with the Virginia Department of Health. There she has grown passionate about helping others live healthy lives. In her role, she identified the need to digitize infectious disease records.  The department had kept morbidity reports dating to the early 1900s in nine binders, organized alphabetically by disease name. But paper records are susceptible to fire and water damage, plus they are not nearly as accessible to the public as computerized records.

MPH student Em Stephens’ online dashboard chronicles infectious disease trends in Virginia over the past century. It also spotlights the impact of public health initiatives. Prior to 1965, measles outbreaks were common in Virginia. But Stephens points out that after the widespread use of the measles vaccine, the number of cases plummeted.

MPH student Em Stephens’ online dashboard chronicles infectious disease trends in Virginia over the past century. It also spotlights the impact of public health initiatives. Prior to 1965, measles outbreaks were common in Virginia. But Stephens points out that after the widespread use of the measles vaccine, the number of cases plummeted.

So Stephens, who also graduates in May, got to work digitizing records, taking on a project outside the scope of her normal job duties.  During her internship, she made it through 1 ½ binders, digitizing all the information and creating charts, bar graphs and statistical information. For each year, she broke out the name of the disease, number of cases, locality, strain of the disease and breakdown by race, sex and age.

If an outbreak was associated with a particular cause, she noted that as well, capturing information like the origin of an outbreak, whether it could be traced to Virginia or travel abroad. In 1981, for example, Stephens noted a spike in shigellosis, a relatively common GI condition. When she looked at the outbreak details, she found it propagated through a local day care center.

The data can also be used as a teaching tool. Stephens points out that prior to 1965, measles outbreaks were common. But after the widespread use of the measles vaccine, the number of cases plummeted.

“People can see how important vaccines are to preventing disease,” she says. “They can track its spread, the outcomes and the importance of good health to preventing disease.”

The database already is available through Tableau, and Stephens hopes the public will soon be able to access it through the Virginia Department of Health. With more than seven binders still to digitize, Stephens says she’d like to see a future intern continue the project.

“It was a lot of work and part of me is relieved it is over,” Stephens says. “But it was so worthwhile. Anytime you can help improve the health of our communities, you should be proud.”

By Janet Showalter

12
2018

Organs for sale

Distinguished transplant surgeon Francis Delmonico, H’78, helps lead global fight against human-organ trafficking for profit. 

In 1957, the Medical College of Virginia’s legendary “restless genius,” David Hume, M.D., performed the first organ transplant in Virginia – a kidney donated between twins. Hume’s pioneering work in transplant medicine helped usher in a new era of hope for patients and laid the foundation for what today is VCU Health’s Hume-Lee Transplant Center, named in honor of Hume and his colleague and longtime chief of transplantation for the medical center, H.M. Lee, H’61.

Francis Delmonico, H’77, has been called both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.”

Francis Delmonico, H’78, has been called both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.” Photo Credit: Skip Rowland

Yet the medical breakthroughs that made organ transplantation possible also inadvertently spawned a darker legacy. Worldwide, the need for human organs for transplant – particularly kidneys – greatly exceeds the number that become available each year from living and deceased donors; in the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 people on the organ-transplant waiting list need a kidney. This stark disparity, coupled with the fact that kidneys can be taken from living donors, has fueled the rise in a lucrative international black market – the trafficking of human organs for profit.

During a December 2017 weekend celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Hume-Lee Transplant Center, Francis Delmonico, H’78, presented a keynote address on organ trafficking and the international effort – in which he’s played a leadership role – to fight it.

Organ trafficking is a complex global business and a “microcosm of social dysfunction,” said Delmonico. At one end of the transaction are people with money and the need for an organ. At the other end are the impoverished and vulnerable – migrants seeking passage to Europe, persecuted minorities, individuals ensnared in human-trafficking. The traffickers lure donors with promises of money, jobs or other opportunities, and sell the organs for amounts that can exceed $200,000 for a kidney. “Transplant tourism” results when recipients travel to another country for the surgery.

“The levels of corruption get so disgraceful that it staggers you,” said Delmonico, “but it is all about money.”

In some cases donors in desperate need actively seek to sell a kidney. In other cases, donors are solicited with sometimes false or misleading information. And in even more horrifying situations, unwitting victims have been imprisoned or held captive and forced to submit to kidney removal. The fate of these donors is often unknown, but some have shared stories of promised payments that never come, of failing health, of being unable to work anymore.

Recipients too are vulnerable. They may be extorted for an ever-increasing fee, may receive a compromised or even non-functioning organ, may be provided with inadequate care, and sometimes suffer serious medical complications or even death.

In his presentation, Delmonico outlined this portrait of human misery exploited for profit and spoke of how he came to be involved in the fight against organ trafficking. His inspiration, he said, reaches back to his days among one of the last cohorts of residents to study under Hume before the physician’s untimely death in a plane crash. The exacting, patient-focused training Delmonico received under Hume, Lee and the other surgeons here, he said, set the standard he has practiced through his own long and distinguished surgical career at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he continues to serve as emeritus director of transplantation and as professor of surgery for Harvard Medical School.

Delmonico’s prominence and accomplishments in his field led in 2005 to his election as president of UNOS (the United Network for Organ Sharing), which manages the organ-transplant system in the United States. A year later in 2006, he was appointed as advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) on transplantation matters and accepted the position of director of medical affairs for the international Transplantation Society.

In 2016, Francis Delmonico, H’77, was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which last year held a summit calling on the world to repudiate the practices of organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal and to promote ethical principles of transplantation.

In 2016, Francis Delmonico, H’78, was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which last year held a summit calling on the world to repudiate the practices of organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal and to promote ethical principles of transplantation.

In 2004, the WHO had called on its member states to address the problem of international organ trafficking and transplant tourism. For his leadership role in the transplant community, Delmonico travelled all over the world, in collaboration with the WHO, to gather a deep understanding of the problem. What he saw was profoundly disturbing, intolerable for a surgeon whose principles were shaped by the pioneers under whom he had learned during his residency.

“There is a regard for the nobility and science of organ transplantation derived from Dr. Hume,” said Delmonico, “that must not be prostituted by organ sales.”

In 2008, Delmonico was instrumental in helping convene an international gathering – the Istanbul Summit – where more than 150 medical leaders, scientists, public-policy experts, ethicists, legal scholars and others together worked to draft what would become known as the Declaration of Istanbul. The landmark statement called for all countries to establish a “legal and professional framework” for organ donation and transplantation that safeguards donors and recipients, enforces standards and prohibits unethical practices, including the financial exploitation of donors through buying and selling organs.

Delmonico continues to serve as senior advisor to the volunteer Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group to promote, implement and uphold the Declaration across the globe. More recently, in 2016, Delmonico was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which this past year held its own summit, calling organ trafficking and human trafficking for organ removal “crimes against humanity” and calling on the world to repudiate these practices and promote ethical principles of transplantation.

By Caroline Kettlewell

  

 

A “respected trailblazer”: Francis Delmonico, H’78

In 1971, Francis Delmonico came to Richmond to begin his residency in surgery, aspiring to a career in the still-young field of organ transplantation. More than 45 years later, he still recalls with appreciation the qualities of the surgeons who trained him, like H.M. Lee, H’61, (“a great teacher”), B.W. Haynes, H’46, (“so exhilarating to watch”), and the legendary chairman of the Department of Surgery, David Hume, M.D., who, Delmonico remembers, was unpretentious enough to repair a shoe by wrapping it in tape, but exacting and unyielding in what he expected of his residents.

At the Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s 60th Anniversary, Francis Delmonico, H’77, reunited with Kyung Ok Chi Lee, M.D., the widow of transplant pioneer H.M. Lee, M.D., for whom the center is named.

At the Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s 60th Anniversary, Francis Delmonico, H’78, reunited with Kyung Ok C. Lee, M.D., the widow of transplant pioneer H.M. Lee, M.D., for whom the center is named. Photo Credit: Kevin Morley

When Hume died at the end of Delmonico’s second year, though, the young resident’s future was thrown into uncertainty. Delmonico had been slated to complete a research fellowship in transplantation under Hume’s direction, but now, “There was no guarantee that there would be the opportunity,” says Delmonico.

Fortunately, a place was found for Delmonico at Massachusetts General Hospital both to participate in research and to continue clinical service. He took with him the standards of excellence in which he’d trained in Richmond; “I knew how to take care of patients,” says Delmonico.

After two years in Boston, Delmonico returned to Richmond to complete his residency, serving the final year as chief resident. But the professional relationship formed with the chief of surgery while in Boston would lead to him being invited back to join the staff at Massachusetts General.

Delmonico practiced surgery at Massachusetts General until 2005, achieving an impressive list of accomplishments and earning broad recognition, including the National Kidney Foundation’s David M. Hume Award for exemplifying “high ideals of scholarship and humanitarianism.”

“He truly is both a respected elder statesman as well as a respected trailblazer,” notes Marlon Levy, M.D., chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center. “No other transplant professional has done so much or worked so hard to insist on fair and ethical treatment of the live-organ donor and ethical use of the donated organ.”

By Caroline Kettlewell

12
2018

Aspiring pediatricians introduce preschoolers to yoga

It’s Friday afternoon at VCU Health’s MCV Campus Daycare. The preschoolers are just waking up from their naps, eager to tackle the afternoon. They peek through the windows on their classroom doors when they spot a group of medical students in the hallway.

A collaborative initiative created by the VCU School of Medicine's Pediatric Interest Group and YogaRx student group, Yoga for Preschoolers introduces children in the local community to the benefits of yoga, and introduces medical students to what it will be like to work with their youngest patients.A collaborative initiative created by the VCU School of Medicine’s Pediatric Interest Group and YogaRx student group, Yoga for Preschoolers introduces children in the local community to the benefits of yoga, and introduces medical students to what it will be like to work with their youngest patients.

In groups of six to eight, the preschoolers make their way to the hall to participate in Yoga for Preschoolers, a collaborative initiative created by the VCU School of Medicine’s Pediatric Interest Group and YogaRx student group. [Watch video]

“Find your lily pad,” says M2 Tori Rodgers as she directs the children to their yoga mats. In fall 2016, Rodgers, co-president of the Pediatric Interest Group, reached out to her classmates in YogaRx to develop a partnership. A devotee of yoga herself, she wanted to bring yoga to children in local daycare centers throughout Richmond.

M2 and Yoga Rx president Victoria Keiser jumped on board. A certified yoga teacher who completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training course in May 2016, she had founded YogaRx as a way to bring stress relief to medical students and was eager to expand the group’s reach into the community. Yoga for Preschoolers was born.

“It’s fun working together to make a curriculum for kids and adapting it so kids understand it,” Rodgers says. “It’s interesting to see the kids’ progress. They just soak up everything we give them.”

Developing a yoga curriculum for preschoolers means trading standard yoga terms for kid-speak. Downward dog becomes breathing like a lion. Lying on bellies and stretching becomes hissing like snakes and looking up to see if there’s any danger. “I see a fire-breathing dragon!” Rodgers says as the group squeals.

Medical students created Yoga for Preschoolers to introduce children in the #RVA community to yoga, giving them new tools to manage their emotions and their bodies at an early age. "It's rewarding to teach any population but even more rewarding to teach kids. We hope that they'll go back home and talk about what they've learned, improving their family's health, too."Yoga for Preschoolers gives children new tools to manage their emotions and their bodies at an early age.

Like any good medical student, she works in some basic knowledge about the body throughout the session. She explains the heart pumps blood as the children put their hands over their hearts to feel the beat and that lungs are for breathing oxygen as they practice taking slow breaths.

Keiser also teaches geriatric yoga once a month through YogaRx and says she enjoys introducing yoga at both ends of the age spectrum. “It’s rewarding to teach any population but even more rewarding to teach kids. We hope that they’ll go back home and talk about what they’ve learned, improving their family’s health, too.”

MCV Campus Daycare director Tracy Walters says the sessions provide an uplifting way to end the day for the preschoolers.

“Yoga brings another level to staying healthy physically and brings in mental health as well,” she says. “It’s a release for them — some children are here 12, 14 hours a day. It’s a big benefit for families who don’t always have built-in time to take them to a lesson.”

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., sends her 2-year-old son to the daycare, where he participates in the yoga classes. A researcher and associate professor at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, she sees the benefits for the medical students, too.

“It’s good for the students to work with little humans and de-stress, get some of that toddler energy,” she says.

Keiser’s medical interests lean toward internal medicine rather than pediatrics, but she says the experience working with children outside the doctor’s office has helped prepare her for pediatric rotations and what to expect from her youngest patients.

“They may take something completely differently than the way you meant it, and you just have to go with it,” she says. “If you keep that mentality, it’s less intimidating when we do work with kids down the road and it will make it more fun.”

Walters says it’s good for the students to see from an early point in their careers that every child is different and giving thought to your approach is so important because you “make it or break it” with a child in those first interactions.

As the session winds down, the wiggly students who came into the hallway are now lying still on their “lily pads,” relaxing. Rodgers ends the class with the traditional yoga salutation, “Namaste,” before the preschoolers head back into their classrooms.

The medical students seem more relaxed, too, as they gather by the door and chat about the upcoming exam on Monday. When asked what they would be doing on a typical Friday afternoon if they weren’t with the preschoolers, they all answer in unison: “studying.”

That makes their commitment to the monthly sessions all the more impressive, Walters says. “For our parents, because many of them have been medical students themselves, they know the demands and find particular delight in the students sharing their time and talent with their children. It’s been a real gift.”

Susan R. DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89, senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs, sees the benefit, too. “This a great learning experience for the students as well as a way to de-stress,” she says. “You cannot stress over exams when you are giggling with a toddler!”

By Polly Roberts

12
2018

Master’s candidate breaks new ground in Genetic Counseling Program

Camerun Washington, genetic counseling student

“It’s such an advantage to have diversity in any area of medicine. Whether it’s the language you speak, the background you come from or the color of your skin, seeing things through different lenses is always important. It helps you establish trust and make that connection with your patients.” -Camerun Washington, genetic counseling student

Camerun Washington was a freshman in high school when his biology teacher brought up the subject of common genetic traits.

He raced home to ask his family if he could inspect their ears to see if they had attached or detached lobes. He then completed a family tree to look for traits passed down from generations before him.

“That sparked my interest in genetics,” Washington says. “Then in my junior year, I really got hooked.”

That year, his AP biology teacher brought up the subject of DNA mutations and genetic counselors.

“I had never heard of genetic counselors,” Washington says. “I immediately Googled it.”

What he discovered changed his future. After graduating from Winthrop University in 2017 as a dual major (modern languages and biology), he enrolled in VCU’s Genetic Counseling Program. He is on track to earn his master’s degree in 2019.

“I want to help people uncover how genetics can affect their health,” he says. “I want to help guide their health care decisions.”

Established in 1990, the VCU Genetic Counseling Program has prepared more than 130 graduates for careers in genetic counseling. Washington is the first African-American man to enroll.

“Despite the diversity of the genome and of patients’ experiences, the genetic counseling field is not yet as diverse as if should be,” Rachel Gannaway, M.S., L.C.G.C., director of the School of Medicine’s Genetic Counseling Program and associate director of Clinical Genetic Services in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “But there are a lot of patients who respond better to people who look like them. Genetic disease is no different. It is important that the people who graduate from these programs reflect the diversity of our patient population.”

Washington, who grew up just outside Charleston, S.C., wasn’t surprised to learn he was the first African-American male to enroll in the program. He hopes he starts a trend.

“When others see me here, hopefully it will encourage them to pursue the field,” he says. “It’s such an advantage to have diversity in any area of medicine. Whether it’s the language you speak, the background you come from or the color of your skin, seeing things through different lenses is always important. It helps you establish trust and make that connection with your patients.”

Washington, who is fluent in French, is already making that link. This semester, he is counseling patients for the first time under the supervision of his professors. Most of the counseling so far has been in the area of prenatal genetics.

“It’s so exciting to take what you are learning in the classroom and apply it to the real world,” he says.

Genetic counselors see a wide variety of patients, from parents concerned about their child’s developmental delays to young adults who have a family history of heart disease or cancer.

“We can help determine their risk and better monitor their health,” says Washington, who receives a partial scholarship funded by the School of Medicine. “We can be more proactive if someone is predisposed to disease.”

“Here in the School of Medicine, we are privileged to train health care professionals who’ll serve patients in all kinds of roles,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “Across the board, we are committed to supporting a diverse workforce and are proud to see the skills, empathy and experiences that Camerun will contribute.”

As people become more interested in family traits, thanks in part to direct-to-consumer genetic tests, the demand for genetic counselors could continue to rise. According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there are about 2,500 certified genetic counselors working in clinical care in the United States. It’s estimated that by 2020, the workforce will need between 3,500 and 4,500 in clinical care.

“I have been blessed to be in this position where I can pursue my passion,” Washington says. “I can’t wait to see where it takes me.”

By Janet Showalter

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Updated: 04/29/2016