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Master’s thesis is foundation for film that shatters old myths of Down syndrome


Benjamin Kaman (front) and his family are participating in a documentary about Down Syndrome that got its start with Kayla Claxton’s master’s thesis.

Leigh Ann Kaman fell to the floor when doctors told her that her newborn son, Benjamin, had Down syndrome. She and her husband, Brian, felt totally alone.

“It’s not the diagnosis you want to hear,” she said. “I felt scared, anxious and sad. I had to grieve the loss of the expectations I had for my first-born child.”

Now 12, Benjamin is enrolled in mainstream classes at school, loves to play sports, read, swim and go hiking with his parents and younger siblings, Samuel and Gracie. A far cry from what his parents feared.

“Quite frankly, we didn’t know what to expect,” Leigh Ann Kaman said. “There wasn’t a lot out there to help us figure it all out.”

That’s why the Kamans are ecstatic to be working with the VCU genetics and film departments on a project to help raise awareness about Down syndrome. Along with about a dozen other local families, the Kamans will be featured in a documentary that will illustrate the needs and aspirations of people with Down syndrome and bring about improvements in knowledge and access to community resources.

“We are just delighted about this,” said Colleen Jackson-Cook, Ph.D., director of the Cytogenetic Diagnostic Lab and professor of pathology. “What is so exciting is how many people have pulled together to make this happen. That is so gratifying.”

The VCU Council for Community Engagement, in partnership with the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond, awarded the project $17,000. Jackson-Cook submitted the grant and is helping to develop the film. But her involvement is just the beginning.


Kayla Claxton, MS’14

As part of her thesis for her master’s degree in genetic counseling, Kayla Claxton, MS’14, developed a survey to assess the educational and service needs of parents who have children with Down syndrome. She distributed the 39-question survey to parents and service providers, analyzed the results, wrote a detailed thesis and presented her conclusions during an event at the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond.

VCU is the only school in the state to offer an accredited master’s degree program in genetic counseling. It is part of the School of Medicine’s Department of Human and Molecular Genetics.

“I feel so proud to be part of the program and part of this project,” Claxton said. “This was not just my thesis project, but it’s something that will help the entire community. It is a great way to help people understand what Down syndrome is and to help parents realize they are not alone. ”

Claxton provided her conclusions and survey results to Sasha Waters Freyer, the chair of the Department of Photography and Film. Freyer is producing the film with help from 15 of her advanced documentary students. They are using the survey results to focus the content of the film.

“This is a great opportunity for the students,” Freyer said. “It’s working with a real world client, and it also serves the needs of the community. It’s nice to work on a project that you know will benefit a large audience.”

Freyer and her students began filming in March and now are in the editing stage. They hope to have a rough cut to show to Jackson-Cook and the Down Syndrome Association by the end of July. After some fine-tuning, the 20- to 30-minute film will be distributed to parents, healthcare providers and medical and education students. The National Down Syndrome Association has also expressed interest in showing it at its annual conference. In addition, plans call for a Spanish translation of the film by Eugenia Munoz, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish.

The documentary will replace a 1980s version that is terribly outdated. The new film will provide more updated information on a number of topics for parents, including insurance, medical advances and research, respite care and support. For medical students, it offers guidance on appropriate ways to deliver the diagnosis and interact with patients and parents. The film shatters the old myths of Down syndrome and shows how children can lead healthy, productive lives.

“I really wish something like this had been available when we were facing Benjamin’s diagnosis,” Leigh Ann Kaman said. “I am so happy to be part of this project, to be a ministry to someone who is hurting and facing a challenge.”

–By Janet Showalter

About Down syndrome
From The National Down Syndrome Society

  • Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.
  • Down syndrome is the most commonly occurring chromosomal condition. One in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome.
  • More than 400,000 people in the United States live with Down syndrome.
  • People with Down syndrome have an increased risk for certain medical conditions such as congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems, Alzheimer’s disease, childhood leukemia and thyroid conditions. Many of these conditions are now treatable, so most people with Down syndrome lead healthy lives.
  • Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades — from 25 in 1983 to 60 today.
  • All people with Down syndrome experience cognitive delays, but the effect is usually mild to moderate.
  • Quality educational programs, a stimulating home environment, good health care and positive support from family, friends and the community enable people with Down syndrome to develop their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

Biostatistics alumnus Karl Peace commended by the Virginia General Assembly

Karl Peace

Alumnus Karl Peace, Ph.D.

Alumnus Karl Peace, Ph.D., has been commended by the Virginia General Assembly as “a prolific biostatistician and devoted educator, [who] has contributed immensely to his field and inspired countless students at the Medical College of Virginia and other universities to achieve greatness in science and medicine.”

Peace earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Biostatistics in 1976 and for more than 30 years has served the department as adjunct or affiliate faculty. In addition to his service on the MCV Campus, Peace is senior research scientist and professor of biostatistics in Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. The college’s Center for Biostatistics and Survey Research bears his name, and he is the founder of the Biopharmaceutical Applied Statistics Symposium, now in its 21st year as well as the Journal of Biopharmaceutical Statistics, now in its 23rd year.

In recognition of his contributions, House of Delegates member Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) offered House Joint Resolution No. 5073, approved by both the House and Senate on June 12.

The resolution describes Peace’s impact on the field of biostatistics and also notes that he has created scholarship awards that have helped more than 50 students earn master’s degrees or doctorates in biostatistics from VCU’s MCV Campus. He also generously supported the Hans Carter Professorship on the MCV Campus and GSU’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health bears the name of his late wife as well as many other education and charitable organizations.

As described in his autobiography Paid in Full, Peace was born into a family of southwest Georgia sharecroppers. He was the first person in his family to go to college and, as an undergraduate, a Georgia State Teacher’s scholarship supplemented by seven part-time jobs helped him complete his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, even while supporting his siblings and cancer-stricken mother.

Education proved to be the road that would change Peace’s life and that of his family. Rising from an entry-level biostatistician position at Burroughs-Wellcome to vice president of worldwide technical operations at Parke-Davis/Warner Lambert, Peace went on to start Biopharmaceutical Research Consultants Inc. in 1989. He provided expertise to dozens of international biotech and pharmaceutical companies and played a key role in the development and regulatory approval of dozens of medicines, including drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, arthritis, anxiety, depression and panic attacks and gastrointestinal ulcers.


Alumnus Cliff Deal’s military service is featured in Richmond Academy of Medicine newsletter


Cliff Deal (first row, 2nd from left) with members of the 945th Forward Surgical Team at FOB Apache’s trauma center in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan.

In December 2013, alumnus Clifford L. Deal III, M.D., returned stateside from his most recent tour of duty: a four-month-long deployment as a combat surgeon in Afghanistan. His experiences are chronicled in the spring issue of the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s quarterly newsletter as the first of a series of articles about Academy members’ military service.

Deal serves as chairman of the Department of Surgery at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital and as a clinical assistant professor in the Division of Trauma and Critical Care Surgery at the VCU Medical Center. The RAMifications article describes his service with the trauma unit as “invaluable to his work as a combat surgeon.”

Deal told the interviewer: “Continuing to do that while I practice saved me while I was in Afghanistan and absolutely led to the saving of some lives, because I had that experience.”

In addition to his status as clinical assistant professor, Deal has multiple ties to the medical school. He earned both his medical degree and a master’s from the medical school, in 2000 and 1995 respectively. He also completed his surgery residency training on the MCV Campus.

You can read more in the RAMifications article that describes his time at a forward operating base Apache that served as headquarters of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in a mountainous valley in eastern Afghanistan.


The Class of 1974’s Edith Mitchell returns to campus, speaks about cancer disparities

Edith Mitchell

The Class of 1974′s Edith Mitchell returned to campus and spoke with a full house about minimizing cancer care disparities. She also had the chance to meet student reps from our Student National Medical Association chapter.

For the Class of 1974’s Edith Mitchell, M.D., FACP, Reunion Weekend was more than a chance to reconnect with classmates and re-visit campus. It was also the chance to encourage a new generation of student doctors to consider racial disparities in cancer diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.

On Friday April 11, Mitchell spoke to an audience of faculty, residents and medical students in the Goodwin Research Laboratory. She discussed the myriad factors that are at work in cancers that disproportionately affect African-Americans and shared the cancer disparities trends she’s seen over a nearly 40-year career.

Mitchell asked the medical students and trainees in the room to include cancer research and treatment among their career options. To get them started, she shared information about a funding opportunity available to young investigators through the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The Jane C. Wright, MD, Young Investigator Award memorializes a physician who performed patient trials in chemotherapy as early as the 1940s. By 1967, when African-American women physicians numbered only a few hundred in the entire U.S., Wright was the highest-ranking African-American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution.

Following Mitchell’s talk, she met student representatives from the medical school’s Student National Medical Association chapter. The SNMA is the oldest and largest student-run organization focused on the needs and concerns of medical students of color.

The SNMA chapter’s president, Stequita Hankton, was on hand. “One thing I found surprising yet refreshing was Dr. Mitchell’s ability to present her extensive science-based research while simultaneously advocating for underserved communities,” said the member of the Class of 2017.

“Dr. Mitchell’s story of being one of only two African-American students was inspiring and was an affirmation as to how far the VCU School of Medicine has come in seeking diversity,” Stequita said. “I believe it is immensely helpful for students to hear from alumni who’ve gone before them. Having the opportunity to network with alumni provides students the opportunity to establish mentors as well as interact with their future colleagues.”

In 2012, Mitchell established the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities at Thomas Jefferson University’s Kimmel Cancer Center. She is a clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology in the Department of Medical Oncology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. Mitchell has also served as the program leader in gastrointestinal oncology for more than 15 years and has a focused research effort in aggressive breast cancers.


Video produced by senior neurology residents vies for Neuro Film Festival honors

Two senior neurology residents, Alicia Zukas, M.D., and Ken Ono, D.O., have produced a video that’s drawing attention in the American Brain Foundation’s film competition.

Their five-minute video, “Back to Life,” brings awareness to the phenomenon of strokes in young adults through the story of 33-year-old Delanie Stephenson. It is currently one of the top 4 vote getters from among more than 50 competition entries.

Go online before March 27 to select your favorite. You will have to register in order to view the videos and cast your vote.

The “fan favorite” winner will be announced at the Neuro Film Festival at the American Academy of Neurology Meeting in Philadelphia in late April.

One in six people is affected by brain disease. The American Brain Foundation aims to reduce the prevalence of brain disease by supporting research into prevention, treatment and cures. The Neuro Film Festival helps raise awareness about the need for more research. This year’s entries feature a diversity of brain diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, autism and Parkinson’s disease.

Zukas earned her medical degree from VCU in 2010, and Ono is a graduate of the NY College of Osteopathic Medicine.


M.D. students tutor elementary children in Fulton Hill after-school program, alumnus lends support


About 10 medical students volunteer with an after-school tutoring program for K-12 students from the Fulton Hill neighborhood.

Last year, the Class of 2016’s Arhanti Sadanand was faced with a choice. Part of her responsibilities as a first-year medical student included participating in LINC, or Learners Involved in the Needs of Communities. She knew she wanted working with children to be part of her community service.

She chose to volunteer with the Fulton Outreach Program, where she could tutor school-aged children in the Fulton Hill neighborhood after school. When her first-year LINC commitment came to an end, Arhanti decided to continue volunteering.

“I wanted to remain in touch with the Richmond community,” said Arhanti, who acknowledges it can sometimes be hard to get out from under the books. “I view Fulton as a really great study break. For a couple hours, I can clear my mind of studying and just focus on helping a kid learn about fractions. It’s refreshing.”

Three other M2s were able to commit for a second year, and they’ve joined forces with about half a dozen M1s. Working together, the students are able to supply tutors for two hours a day, four days a week.

Of the 100 school-aged children in the Fulton community, as many as half are regularly involved in the after-school sessions. While most are elementary school aged, students from kindergarten through high school can come for homework help in reading and math. After a first hour of hitting the books, the second is devoted to games and activities.

“Tutoring has made a huge impact on me,” Arhanti said. “I feel that I have made lasting connections with the kids when I hear that they ask about me over the school vacations, and I consider myself lucky that some of them have accepted me as a regular part of their lives.”

Working alongside the medical students are Fulton residents Chavioleytte Crenshaw and Theresa Burrell who are committed to helping care for and mentor the children in the neighborhood. A program coordinator from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority also assists in running the program.


The first hour of the after school program is devoted to studies and the second is spent in games and activities.

“I think there are often misconceptions about the Fulton neighborhood and generalizations about the kinds of people who live in the projects,” Arhanti said. “After spending time with the kids and exploring the history of the community, I’ve learned a lot about what binds the community together. There are a few amazing women who have invested much of their own time and resources to keep these kinds of enrichment programs alive. Initially, I was surprised by how hard they have pushed to help their own children succeed, and now I am simply in awe of how deeply they care for the entire neighborhood.”

Giving medical students the opportunity to better understand the Richmond community is one of LINC’s goals. The nationally recognized service learning experience serves as a critical link between the school and the community and allows students to experience first-hand the environments in which their patients spend their lives.

“I know that many of us wish we could do more for our community,” Arhanti said. “Realistically, two hours of my time each week isn’t enough to solve big problems, but I find that simply showing up every week, especially for a child who doesn’t necessarily have a stable role model, is undervalued. I’m happy to be part of a medical school community in which others feel the same way.”

The Class of 2004’s Danny Avula, M.D., M.P.H., helped get the project off the ground. He worked with Joan Seldon, family and community services manager with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, to get access to an empty public housing unit in Fulton Avenue to give the tutoring program a home.

Avula, who is the deputy director of the Richmond City Health District, continues to support the program. He stays on the lookout for community partnerships and funding opportunities. He and Seldon teamed up again and were able to secure a small stipend for the program’s coordinator from the Office of Attorney General.

“We think the Fulton initiative is a beautiful example of how committed community residents, paired with dedicated MCV students are making a meaningful difference in the lives of kids in the Fulton neighborhood,” said Andrew Thompson, special projects coordinator with the Richmond City Health District. “And all with essentially zero funding.”

Danny T.K. Avula, M.D., M.P.H., is the deputy director of the Richmond City Health District
You can read about the highs and lows Avula experiences as the deputy director of the Richmond City Health District in a guest column published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch last summer: Healthy family model can make the difference.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Thompson, who also helped in compiling this story.