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June 2018 Archives


Curtis Sessler, F’85: Career-long work with nursing colleagues leads to national honors

Whenever a co-worker asks Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, how he’s doing, Sessler’s response is simple and telling: “I’m living the dream.”

Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85

According to nursing leaders, Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., F’85, was ahead of his time in fostering an environment where physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together.

Sessler, the Orhan Muren Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine, has earned a national reputation for helping patients in the ICU, conducting groundbreaking research and working with several organizations to improve care delivery.

Sessler credits much of his success to mentors – including his professorship namesake, Orhan Muren, M.D. – and colleagues, particularly in nursing. His longstanding commitment to teamwork, and the achievements it helped produce, recently led him to receive the Pioneering Spirit Award from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

“It is pretty unusual for a physician to receive an award from a nursing association,” says Sessler, who also serves as the medical director of critical care and the medical respiratory intensive care unit with VCU Health. “Over three decades of ICU patient care, I’ve had the pleasure of working hand in hand with ICU nurses. That has been a big part of my career. The accomplishment is the positive impact we’ve had on patient outcomes and healthcare professional well-being.”

According to AACN leaders, Sessler was ahead of his time in health care delivery, fostering an environment in which physicians, nurses and other members of the care team work together more readily than they had in the past.

“Curt Sessler personifies AACN’s healthy work environment standard of true collaboration,” says AACN Chief Clinical Officer Connie Barden, M.S.N., R.N. “Long before teamwork and collaboration were the norm, Curt worked with colleagues from many disciplines to conduct research on the best approaches to care for critically ill patients.”

Each member of the care team fills an indispensible role. Early in his career, Sessler learned to respect each role and, in turn, build a more complete picture of each patient and his or her needs.

“Nurses spend hours and hours with patients and their families—that’s unique on the team,” Sessler says. “It’s important to bring different skill sets, and that voices are heard from all members of the team.”

Although the ICU is his primary workplace, Sessler’s influence is widely felt, and in many cases nurses served as key partners.

In research, Sessler undertook a number of investigations with counterparts in the VCU School of Nursing, specifically AACN leaders Cindy Munro, Ph.D., R.N., now dean of the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies, and Mary Jo Grap, Ph.D., R.N., who retired in 2015 after a stellar research career. Perhaps their most important breakthrough was the Richmond Agitation-Sedation Scale or RASS, a tool that measures agitation and level of responsiveness in hospitalized patients.

“We had a tremendous research partnership, tackling important causes of infections as well as how best to provide comfort and sedation in the ICU,” Sessler says. “The RASS is probably the most used scale of its kind in the world now.”

Sessler also has served in leadership roles for influential health care organizations. This includes serving as president of the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) and working with the Critical Care Societies Collaborative (CCSC), which links AACN, CHEST, the American Thoracic Society and the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

“The work with CCSC has been especially satisfying as it emphasizes the importance of collaboration at a national level,” Sessler said.

Sessler’s imprint on critical care is clear, and his commitment to collaboration is a big driver of that success—and his latest accolade.

“The thing that I hold close is a strong belief in the power of a team,” Sessler says. “If everyone is pulling together in the same direction, we can get a lot done.”

By Scott Harris


From flakka to opioids: PharmTox alumna’s front-row seat to nation’s drug epidemic

When Teri Stockham, PhD’87 (PHTX), left the MCV Campus, she worked as a forensic toxicologist for Richmond and New York City before becoming one of the nation’s youngest chief toxicologists in Broward County, Florida, in 1991.

Teri Stockham, PhD'87 (PHTX)

Teri Stockham, PhD’87 (PHTX), returned to VCU to speak with students about the ever-changing landscape of novel psychoactive substances and the challenges they present to law enforcement, the medical community and forensic toxicologists.

The move put her at the heart of the nation’s drug epidemic. “Broward County was the epicenter of the Flakka epidemic and was the pill mill capital of the country when the opioid epidemic first started,” says Stockham, who for the last 20 years has owned a forensic toxicology consulting business now based in Parkland, Florida.

During her tenure in Broward County, Stockham has seen the rise of synthetic drugs like flakka, a potent street drug whose high starts as fleeting euphoria but rapidly evolves into paranoia, rage and delirium. This recent round of synthetic drugs — chemical compounds illegally made to mimic the effect of known drugs but with a different chemical profile that evades detection and regulation — got their start in the early 2000s with synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as spice.

“Everything I learned about cannabinoids, I learned from Dr. Billy Martin on the MCV Campus,” says Stockham, referring to the former chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology who had an international reputation in the field.

Synthetic production and its resulting variations changed the game. “It becomes quite the nightmare in the laboratory,” Stockham says. “Standard tests don’t pick up the chemicals. Once we do figure it out, regulate it and create tests to identify it, drug dealers just switch up the chemicals.”

Then it’s back to the lab to create another battery of tests and the cycle begins again. In a spring lecture to forensic toxicology students in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, Stockham spoke of “the shell game of addictive drugs.”

The popularity of synthetic drugs also took off in part because of the Internet, where online dealers could sell drugs from foreign countries where chemicals weren’t as tightly regulated as the U.S.

Yet the good news is that legislation does work. Stockham credits physician-monitoring programs in part with cracking down on illegal pill mills. In addition, the Chinese government banned 140 chemicals after meeting with Broward County officials in 2015.

But it’s a race between the drugs on the streets and what’s known to law enforcement, the medical community and forensic toxicologists. “We’re always a couple of years behind,” Stockham says.

The reasons vary, she continues. The new drugs aren’t yet in institutional databases; no analytical standards are available; and development and validation of the drug tests are time-consuming. “There’s no standard way of testing for synthetics at this point and no field tests.”

That’s why Stockham encouraged the students to enter the forensic toxicology field, spark new ideas and make a difference. She is doing her part to ensure the best and brightest students stay on the forensic toxicology path. In 2017, she endowed a scholarship to support graduate students in the Department of Forensic Science.

“I made it through 10 years of education through scholarships and working – no loans or family assistance,” Stockham says. “I feel blessed to be in this position at this time in my life and wanted to give back.”

Stockham carries fond memories of her time on the MCV Campus, where she says she immediately felt at home. In the 1980s, forensic science programs were still housed in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

Downtown Richmond’s charm, from the historic buildings to the museums, along with friendly faculty, made Stockham’s decision an easy one. She accepted her admissions offer the same day as her first campus visit — and canceled a scheduled interview with another university.

“I knew when I walked on campus that this was it.”

By Polly Roberts


The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao: Art class with dementia patients shines new light on patient experience

After completing a third-year wellness workshop with Art for the Journey, the Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao was inspired to volunteer with the nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to non-traditional groups. The dual degree M.D./M.H.A. candidate wrote about her experience for the Association of American Medical Colleges. In her own words:

Silver or gold?

“Silver or gold?” I ask, showing two paint palettes.

A water color painting by an adult artist from a local retirement community

Over the past year, the Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao spent her Friday mornings volunteering at a local retirement community where she served as a painting partner for adults with early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia. Pictured is one of her adult artist’s creations.

“Silver,” she replies. I place the palette on the table. The artist takes a crumpled ball of foil and dips it into the silver paint. She then presses the foil ball against her canvas creating texture, contrast and depth. At times, the foil ball goes off the page, as if she loses sight of the edge of the canvas. I guide her back to center. When she completes her painting, I ask her, “What would you like to call it?”

“I don’t know,” she says, “What do you think I should call it?” I tell her that it is her artwork. It could be any name. It is abstract art after all.

“How about ‘A Starry Night’?”

“That’s perfect! It reflects the silver texture with the foil paint, the contrast against the darker water-colored background, and the glitter dashed across the page.”

“Well, I meant to do that … that … was what I was thinking.” She takes the pencil in her hand but as she presses pencil to paper, she pauses.

“What was I supposed to do?”

“You are naming your piece and signing your name,” I reply. “Oh, that’s right,” but she pauses again and hesitates. “Can you write it for me?” She asks, “I am not very good at writing this.”

“Sure,” I reply, “I can write the name of your painting, but it’s important to sign your work yourself.” She nods in agreement, and with an unsteady hand, signs her name.

‘Outside of my comfort zone’

Last fall, I did this every Friday morning. My painting partner was an adult artist at a local retirement community. Every Friday morning, since our first session together, I would ask her to sign and name her piece. Every time, she would hesitate, and sometimes, forget what she was doing.

The Class of 2019's Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A.

The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A.

My artist partner has early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia. For 10 Fridays every fall and spring, Art for the Journey, a nonprofit organization located in Richmond, Virginia, offers an abstract art program for adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia called Opening Minds through Art.

An evidence-based program founded by Elizabeth Lokon, Ph.D., at the Scripps Gerontology Center, Miami University, Ohio, OMA aims to restore and maintain quality of life and function for adults experiencing neurocognitive decline. OMA trains young adult volunteers to assist adult artists to help facilitate an inter-generational abstract art-making session. As a volunteer, I do not make any decisions for the artist — I simply provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative. In taking charge of their self-expression, the artists regain their autonomy, demonstrate their inner creativity, and gain a sense of emotional well-being and achievement.

At first, I found the sessions challenging. Her artwork often deviated from the assigned project and I worried that she would be unhappy with her work. At times, she was frustrated that the watercolors had turned muddy or that the masking tape failed to create the negative space that she intended. By far, what was most challenging was discussing her abstract artwork. As a person who struggles to see and analyze intangible patterns or grasp abstract concepts, commenting and giving feedback about abstract art placed me outside of my comfort zone.

But she did not give up on me. Every week she challenged me in interpreting her abstract paintings. She challenged me to see critically the pigments, shapes and shadows that I would easily overlook. And out from those colors, shapes and shadows, I began to see her feelings of achievement, well-being and peace. I came to embrace that it wasn’t about how close or realistic the final product was, but rather, how the unstructured and intangible interpretation of each art-making task healed and preserved her identity.

Hearing a patient’s symptoms vs. listening to their pain

A few months later, while I was shadowing clinic, a middle-aged woman sought help for excruciating chronic pain, numbness and tingling in her right leg. Each time she described her pain she would become overwhelmed and cry. At the conclusion of her interview, her doctor discussed his assessment, presented the advantages and disadvantages of her options, and gave her time to make a decision. What struck me the most about this encounter was how her pain affected her. Where previously, I would have honed in on the science, the clinical dilemma and its associated decision-making — I saw instead, a person’s frustration, their struggle with a chronic condition. I heard how distressing and debilitating the pain was. I heard, but, even more, saw, how that pain stole her autonomy, function, and above all, quality of life.

I never expected an artist to show me how the world of shapes, lines and colors could transfer to an improved ability to understand and appreciate how people interpret and see themselves — how each individual person perceives their health and disease. As a clinician-in-training, it is all too easy to only hear what relevant symptoms indicate what disease, rather than listening to how the symptoms are interpreted by patients. Painting with another person reminded me how important this is for future clinicians. It reminded me to take a step back, tune out the white noise of a bustling, fast-paced ambulatory clinic and dial in to the frame of the patient.

From the sessions, I made a friend who paints and illuminates her world like no other. Through the unique opportunity that I have had in working with Art for the Journey, I gained a better understanding of individuals struggling with dementia not as patients, but as people. On one hand, painting with another person showed how opportunities for artistic expression can rebuild confidence where broken, heal what was shattered and return to others their autonomy through decision making in their own art.

On the other hand, painting with another person has provided a new appreciation and awareness of the often overlooked, unseen, unheard part of a narrative. Who ever thought that a series of simple abstract art-making sessions could so profoundly influence and alter the fundamental way in which I approach interpersonal interactions and serve my future patients?

So pick up a brush and make a choice — silver or gold?

Joanne Chiao’s story was first published by the AAMC; read more first-person accounts on the Aspiring Docs Diaries blog.


Nathan Lewis, M’09: Quietly shaping tomorrow’s emergency physicians

Assistant professor and clerkship director Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12

Assistant professor and clerkship director Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12

As clerkship director at VCU’s Department of Emergency Medicine, Nathan Lewis, M’09, H’12, works to foster an atmosphere where everyone — including Lewis — can be themselves. That is easier said than done, as many medical students do not naturally feel comfortable acknowledging they do not have every answer.

At the same time, that acknowledgment can be a critical first step toward asking questions and learning. With his signature humility, Lewis says the ability to put students at ease is his key gift as an educator.

“Myself along with other folks are trying to promote an environment where it’s a safe place for students to really challenge themselves,” Lewis says. “This gives them more experience and more confidence in what they are doing.”

If you ask why he is such a key part of introducing students to the specialty, he will tell you it is actually a group effort. Talk to his colleagues, though, and you find people who are eager to shine a light on Lewis’ singular talent for guiding medical students through the complex world of emergency medicine.

That talent is what earned Lewis — an assistant professor and director of the department’s clerkship for fourth-year medical students — recognition as Clerkship Director of the Year from the Clerkship Directors in Emergency Medicine, an academy of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine.

“It’s quite an honor for something you see as your day-to-day job,” Lewis says. “I have terrific peers who supported me for the nomination. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we do without great support from the administration and the department. We put a focus on learning.”

Medical education is undoubtedly a team sport, but it’s one in which Lewis plays a valuable role, as colleagues are quick to point out.

“Nathan is incredibly dedicated,” says Joel Moll, M.D., an associate professor and director of the department’s residency program. “He’s meticulous and he’s a good advocate for education. He goes above and beyond but he’s kind of quiet about it.”

Proof of his success may be partially reflected in the growing number of VCU medical students who are going on to pursue residencies in emergency medicine. Emergency medicine is one of the most popular specialties at the School of Medicine and the nation as a whole. In the past five years since Lewis became clerkship director, emergency medicine has hovered in or around the top five most popular specialties. In 2018, 21 VCU medical students matched into emergency medicine residencies, making it the third-most popular specialty choice at the School of Medicine.

Even when other responsibilities hold the potential to shift his focus away from education, Lewis’ peers said he simply does not allow it to happen.

“We had someone leave for another job, and Dr. Lewis was running the coordination side as well as the education side, but the students never noticed,” Moll says. “He made sure things got done and he was willing to take on a lot. He’s going to do what is necessary to make a good experience for students.”

Lewis’ contributions to emergency medicine and medical education reach beyond the clerkship he directs. He also co-hosts EM Stud, a podcast for medical students around the country considering careers in emergency medicine.

“The podcast reaches a lot of students and it has a lot of visibility,” Moll says.

First and foremost, though, Lewis remains dedicated to the clerkship he directs — and the colleagues who help him make it happen. And if he ever needs someone to help him brag, well, they have his back for that too.

“He takes a personal approach to it and students really come to trust him,” Moll says. “He has helped countless students learn more about medicine. He’s an unsung hero, and now he’s getting recognition.”

By Scott Harris


Recognizing graduate student achievement

At the medical school’s graduate student recognition ceremony earlier this spring, more than five dozen SOM-level awards and 18 departmental-level awards were presented.

At the medical school’s graduate student recognition ceremony earlier this spring, more than five dozen SOM-level awards and 18 departmental-level awards were presented.

On May 11, the Sanger Hall theater was full of graduating students, awardees, mentors, family and friends celebrating the scientific achievements of more than 50 graduate students.

“We’re proud of our students and always enjoy highlighting their accomplishments,” says Michael Grotewiel, Ph.D., the medical school’s interim associate dean for graduate education. “But this year was exceptional because we got to announce that seven students were nominated for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting – and two have been selected to attend!”

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an annual gathering of Nobel Laureates and outstanding young scientists. This summer, M.D.-Ph.D. student Chelsea Cockburn and Katie Schwienteck, a Ph.D. candidate in Pharmacology and Toxicology, will attend along with 600 other students, doctoral candidates and post-docs from 84 countries. They will have the chance to interact with 43 Nobel Laureates – more than ever before.

At the medical school’s graduate student recognition ceremony, more than five dozen SOM-level awards and 18 departmental-level awards were presented.

More than two dozen graduate programs in the School of Medicine enrolled about 450 trainees in the 2017-18 academic year. Following the recognition ceremony, 166 students concluded their training with 38 earning doctoral degrees, 54 earning master’s and 74 earning a pre-med graduate health sciences certificate.

The honorees include:

Charles C. Clayton Award established in 1978 to reward outstanding rising second-year graduate students in the biomedical sciences in honor of Dr. Charles Clayton, who served as Professor of Biochemistry and Assistant Dean of the School of Basic Sciences and Graduate Studies. With his own research focused on the area of lipid biochemistry, Dr. Clayton was instrumental in developing the first doctoral programs at MCV. During World War II, the graduate programs had been suspended to devote the entire effort of the faculty to training health profession practitioners in a variety of accelerated programs. After the war he carried extensive teaching responsibilities in all of MCV’s health professions programs.
• Javeria Aijaz, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Rose Bono, Master of Public Health program
• Nicholas Clayton, Physiology and Biophysics master’s program
• Sarah Dempsey, Pharmacology and Toxicology Ph.D. program
• Ellyn Dunbar, Human and Molecular Genetics master’s program
• Emily Godbout, Master of Public Health program
• Briana James, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program
• Ajinkya Kawale, Molecular Biology and Genetics Ph.D. program
• Eric Kwong, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Pavel Lizhnyak, Neuroscience Ph.D. program
• Elizabeth Lowery, Epidemiology Ph.D. program
• Jean Moon, Pharmacology and Toxicology master’s program
• Christine Orndahl, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Rebecca Procopio, Genetic Counseling master’s program
• Sonja Volker, Biostatistics master’s program
• Lauryn Walker, Health Care Policy and Research Ph.D. program
• Jodi Winship, Social and Behavioral Science Ph.D. program

Dissertation Assistantship Award Nomination
• Brian Di Pace, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Steven Masiano, Social and Behavioral Science Ph.D. program
• Sylvia Rozario, Master of Public Health program

Forbes Day memorializes the pioneering effort of biochemist Dr. John Forbes, who was a pioneer of the Ph.D. training program. Along with Charles Clayton, Ph.D., and Daniel Watts, Ph.D., Forbes founded and grew advanced degree education at MCV, which at one time was among the top 10 producers of Ph.D. graduates in medical centers nationally.
• Outstanding Presentation, Dana Lapato, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Outstanding Presentation, Kristen Lee, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Outstanding Presentation, Julie Meade, Pharmacology and Toxicology Ph.D. program
• Presenter, Javeria Aijaz, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Presenter, Ashley Bennett, Physiology and Biophysics Ph.D. program
• Presenter, Ria Fyffe-Freil, Molecular Biology and Genetics Ph.D. program
• Presenter, Mazen Gouda, Anatomy and Neurobiology master’s program
• Presenter, Rebecca Schmitt, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Presenter, Lauryn Walker, Health Care Policy and Research Ph.D. program

Marion Waller Scholar Nomination
• Jun He, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Carrie Miller, Health Care Policy and Research Ph.D. program
• Esraa Mohamed, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program
• Heather Saunders, Health Care Policy and Research Ph.D. program
• Lindsey Sawyer, Genetic Counseling master’s program
• Theresa Wiziarde, Master of Public Health program

Daniel T. Watts Research Day is dedicated to the memory of Daniel T. Watts, a trailblazer in the world of basic health sciences and a nationally recognized pharmacologist who served as the dean of the VCU School of Basic Health Sciences and Graduate Studies and is credited with establishing the foundation of the research enterprise in basic health sciences at VCU.
• Outstanding Presentation, Sylvia Rozario, Master of Public Health program

Lindau Nobel Symposium
• Attendee, Chelsea Cockburn, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Attendee, Kathryn Schwienteck, Pharmacology and Toxicology Ph.D. program
• Nominee, Ria Fyffe-Freil, Molecular Biology and Genetics Ph.D. program
• Nominee, Erin Garcia, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Nominee, Eric Kwong, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Nominee, Luke Legakis, Pharmacology and Toxicology Ph.D. program
• Nominee, Rebecca Mahon, Medical Physics Ph.D. program

Phi Kappa Phi Academic Achievement Award
• Javeria Aijaz, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Shannon Baker, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Aaron Barbour, Neuroscience Ph.D. program
• Courtney Blondino, Epidemiology Ph.D. program
• Brian Di Pace, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Allison DeLaney, Master of Public Health program
• Natalie Dykzeul, Genetic Counseling master’s program
• Om Evani, Physiology and Biophysics master’s program
• Erin Garcia, Microbiology and Immunology Ph.D. program
• Camille Hochheimer, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Hannah Ming, Master of Public Health program
• Kaitlyn Riley, Genetic Counseling master’s program
• Viviana Rodriguez, Biostatistics master’s program
• Vishaka Santhosh, Physiology and Biophysics Ph.D. program
• Lindsey Sawyer, Genetic Counseling master’s program
• Amelia Thomas, Master of Public Health program
• Lauryn Walker, Health Care Policy and Research Ph.D. program
• Siqiu Wang, Medical Physics master’s program
• Tierah West, Master of Public Health program
• Jodi Winship, Social and Behavioral Science Ph.D. program

Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society Nomination
• Varsha Ananthapadmanabhan, Human and Molecular Genetics Ph.D. program
• Erin Donahue, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• John Stansfield, Biostatistics Ph.D. program
• Kate Stromberg, Biostatistics Ph.D. program

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Herbert John Evans Jr. Award
• Melissa Maczis, Ph.D. program

Human and Molecular Genetics’ Lang Kucera Award
• Kaitlyn Riley, Genetic Counseling master’s program

Human and Molecular Genetics’ Roscoe D. Hughes Award
• Navaneetha Bharathan, Ph.D. program

Human and Molecular Genetics’ Roscoe D. Hughes Fellowship
• Dana Lapato, Ph.D. program

Microbiology and Immunology’s Mary P. Coleman Award given in memory of the mother of Dr. Philip Coleman, a professor emeritus in the department, to a graduate student who has demonstrated extraordinary achievement in graduate studies and in research.
• Naren Kumar, Ph.D. program

Physiology and Biophysics’ Certificate of Recognition awarded to select students who display good character and a strong work ethic.
• Brian Ruiz, Physiology and Biophysics master’s program
• Justin Saunders, Physiology and Biophysics M.D.-Ph.D. program
• Jong Shin, Physiology and Biophysics master’s program

Physiology and Biophysics’ James Poland Award given in honor of Dr. James Poland who desired to establish a mechanism to recognize the accomplishments of master’s students.
• Om Evani, master’s program

Physiology and Biophysics’ Robert W. Ramsey Award given in honor and memory of Dr. Robert W. Ramsey, a distinguished muscle physiologist and the department’s first chair, presented to the most outstanding doctoral student in physiology.
• Ashley Bennett, Ph.D. program
• Teja Devarokonda, Ph.D. program

Master of Public Health’s Christopher “Kim” Buttery Award given in honor of the many contributions made by the Division of Epidemiology clinical professor who has been a tireless servant and promoter of public health to a graduating public health graduate student demonstrating excellence in chronic disease epidemiology and bridging research and public health practice.
• Joshua Montgomery, M.P.H. program

Biostatistics’ Student Research Symposium Presentation Award
• 1st Place, Kingston Kang, Ph.D. program
• 2nd Place, Camille Hochheimer, Ph.D. program
• 3rd Place, Brian Di Pace, Ph.D. program

Biopharmaceutical Applied Statistics Scholarship
• Alicia Johns, Biostatistics Ph.D. program

Phi Kappa Phi Love of Learning Award
• Brian Di Pace, Biostatistics Ph.D. program

Mid-Atlantic Chapter American Association of Physicists in Medicine
• Medical Physics Slam Competition – 1st Place Mark Ostyn, Medical Physics Ph.D. program
• Young Investigator’s Symposium – 2nd Place, Mark Ostyn, Medical Physics Ph.D. program

By Erin Lucero


Advocating for children: alumnus Wil J. Blechman honored at Alpha Omega Alpha honor society induction

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58

Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58, wants to talk about babies.

In fact, advocating for the world’s youngest citizens — those under the age of 5 — has been his consuming focus since retiring from his medical practice in 1994. And on April 27, he was honored for this work as the 2018 alumni inductee — and keynote speaker — at the School of Medicine’s Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society annual banquet and induction ceremony.

During his more-than-30-year career as a rheumatologist mostly focused on older adults, Blechman acknowledges, the developmental needs of young children were far from his professional concern.

In 1990, however, he assumed the role of president for Kiwanis International and in that position helped the organization select the focus for a new charitable initiative. Consultation with a wide range of experts led Blechman and the Kiwanis to understand the vital importance of the early-childhood years for brain development and lifelong health, well-being and success — and thus was born what would become Kiwanis International’s now-longstanding worldwide service program: Young Children Priority One. It was also the start of Blechman’s “second career,” as he sometimes refers to it, as an advocate on behalf of young children. Since that time, he has played an active role in a number of charitable and public organizations concerned with the well-being of young children.

At the AOA banquet, Blechman, sporting his signature bow tie, spoke to the gathering about the essential role that environment plays in early childhood. During this period, he explained, the brain undergoes tremendous growth, building neural connections at an astonishing rate. But in this time the brain is also uniquely affected — for good or for ill — by environment and experience. “There is tremendous input from the environment in the first few years of life,” he says.

Significantly, chronic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, family instability and exposure to violence or substance-use disorders can cause lasting harm to developing brains. That carries consequences for learning and behavior as well as mental and physical health that can reach across the lifespan. Children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to being exposed to such adverse childhood experiences.

“There are communities in which you go 20 blocks and there is 10 years’ difference in life expectancy because of the difference of income in those 20 blocks,” Blechman says.

However, early intervention can make a difference — and the earlier, the better. “‘Zero to three’ is where it starts,” says Blechman, referencing the national nonprofit organization that operates under that name.

During this period of rapid brain development, providing resources — such as high-quality early childhood education or parenting support programs — that foster healthy development can help offset the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences. Yet, pointing out that “in too many cases, we wait too long,” he called upon his audience to make this cause their own. “Let the legacy of this group be of activism for early childhood,” he concluded, “and we will all be better off for it.”

Blechman’s call to action was appropriately in the spirit of the occasion of the Alpha Omega Alpha induction ceremony. Founded in 1902, AOA is the only medical school honor society worldwide and seeks to recognize and perpetuate excellence in the medical profession. Membership in the society “confers recognition for a physician’s dedication to the profession and art of healing” that Blechman’s work has personified.

In addition to Blechman, 14 members of the medical school’s Class of 2018 and 19 members of the Class of 2019 were inducted into the School of Medicine’s Brown Sequard chapter of AOA, along with faculty members Gautham Kalahasty, M.D., and Vikram Brar, M’03, H’07, as well as housestaff Chris Young, M’16, Avinash Pillutla, M’15, and Hiba Alam, M.D.

By Caroline Kettlewell

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