Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries


Alumni achievements and news archives


Grandchildren ensure alumnus’ legacy lives on through scholarship

Joe Smith (middle) meets the Class of 2017’s John Weeks (left), the recipient of the scholarship that bears the name of his grandfather, the Class of 1911’s Henry Clay Smith (right).

Joe Smith (middle) meets the Class of 2017’s John Weeks (left), the recipient of the scholarship that bears the name of his grandfather, the Class of 1911’s Henry Clay Smith (right).

As a young boy, Joe Smith visited his beloved Grandad every year in Burkeville, Virginia. Growing up in a military family, at times living as far west as California, he and his siblings shared fond memories of those annual trips to rural Virginia.

Their grandfather Henry Clay Smith from the Class of 1911 practiced family medicine out of his home and Smith recalls watching patients come over for appointments as the grandchildren played nearby.

“Grandad would see patients at the house and we would watch them come and go,” Smith says.

His grandfather practiced family medicine in rural Virginia for 61 years and was known to be loved and respected by his patients, many of whom he counted as friends. In 1976, two years after the physician’s passing, his children established the Henry Clay Smith M.D. Memorial Scholarship to honor his life and devotion to medicine.

Each year, the scholarship is given to a graduating fourth-year student interested in providing health care to rural Virginians. Joe Smith recently had the opportunity to visit the MCV Campus and meet this year’s scholarship recipient, John Weeks, M’17.

During medical school, Weeks participated in the International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program, a four-year program for students who declare an interest in and commitment to working with medically underserved populations in urban, rural or international settings.

Prior to medical school, Weeks spent three years as an outreach worker on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He returned to the community during his third-year family medicine clerkship and fourth-year community immersion elective. “People think that to truly find the underserved, you have to go international,” Weeks said of his time on the Shore. “But that’s just not the case. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around you. The biggest similarity of all underserved populations, regardless of location, is access.”

In June, Weeks began his residency at the University of Colorado, Denver, to train in family medicine.

“It’s really rewarding for me to see someone like John receive this scholarship,” says Smith, who has faithfully supported the Henry Clay Smith M.D. Memorial Scholarship for many years. Earlier this year, the fund also received a substantial gift from the estate of Smith’s sister Elizabeth, who passed away in 2016.

Their gifts ensure that their grandfather’s name will appear on the donor wall in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center at the conclusion of the medical school’s 1838 Campaign. Donors who make leadership gifts to the 1838 Fund or to a new or existing scholarship endowment, like the Henry Clay Smith M.D. Memorial Scholarship, will appear on the donor will.

For the Smith family, it marks a fitting tribute to a cherished grandfather whose legacy now lives on in educating future generations of physicians committed to serving those most in need.

By Polly Roberts


A voice for all children

Colleen Kraft, M'86, H'89, takes the reins as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Jan. 1.

Colleen Kraft, M’86, H’89, takes the reins as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Jan. 1. Earlier this year, she spoke at the 39th Annual Pediatrics at the Beach CME conference in Virginia Beach.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then Colleen Kraft, M’86, H’89, might say it takes a pediatrician who knows that village to heal one.

Spending time in the community is what opened Kraft’s eyes to the daily issues and concerns facing the children and families she cared for in the office. Nothing, Kraft says, can replace the education you receive when you observe a child’s everyday environment. Some of her greatest insights came during conversations at the park, visits to the local library, school nurse’s office, daycare centers and church nurseries.

“Kids spend 15 minutes in the office but they live in the community,” she says. “Your investment in the community is what really makes a difference.”

Kraft counts herself as someone who’s been on the receiving end of community investment. Growing up near Akron, Ohio, she was part of the inaugural class of Head Start in 1965. It was there that the seed to become a doctor was planted.

“One of the teachers said, ‘You’re so smart. You could be a doctor when you grow up,'” Kraft recalls.

She carried those words with her throughout her years as a student and trainee. They continued to inspire her when she embarked on a career as a pediatrician, founded the pediatric residency program at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and taught on the medical faculties of the MCV Campus and the University of Cincinnati.

She carries them with her still as she prepares to take the reins in January for a one-year term as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As part of her new role, Kraft served as the keynote speaker for the 39th annual Pediatrics at the Beach conference in Virginia Beach in July. Hosted by the VCU Department of Pediatrics, the continuing medical education course regularly attracts attendees from all over the country and Canada, and sometimes as far away as Saudi Arabia. This year’s 300-plus attendees marked the conference’s largest turnout ever.

Kraft encouraged the gathering of physicians, nurses, medical assistants, medical students and others to be a voice for all children.

“We’re the advocates,” she said. “We know what children need.”

Whether that translates to lobbying for Medicaid funding or working to address bias and discrimination concerns, she reminded the group of another adage about children: they’re always listening.

“We’re in an age with a lot of talk and rhetoric,” she said. “Watch what you’re saying. Children are always listening and they are looking for heroes. That’s where we come in.”

For Kraft, community involvement has no borders. She has worked at hospitals in India, researched neonatal mortality in Ghana and trained nurses in South Africa.

“As pediatricians, we care about kids all over the world,” she says.

In addition to working to improve children’s health, Kraft also aims to improve the health of pediatricians in her role as AAP president. Finding ways to address physician burnout is critical, she says, and advances in technology and team-based care can help.

It’s all about making more time in the day for patients, and spending less time on paperwork and charting. She advised conference attendees to try scheduling a follow-up appointment using telemedicine or hiring a medical assistant to room patients and serve as a scribe as ways to reclaim time that’s been lost in present-day practices.

“We can’t do it by ourselves but we can do it with team-based care,” she says.

It’s the same team philosophy that she applies when talking to members of the community and what inspired her to co-author the book “Managing Chronic Health Conditions in Child Care and Schools,” a resource guide that emphasizes how conditions from asthma to autism are best cared for through partnerships among families, health care professionals and schools.

Sharing pediatric knowledge with these partners results in an empowered community, Kraft says. And that’s how to ensure families and communities, “Go to their pediatrician before Google.”

By Polly Roberts


M74 alumna Edith Mitchell is 2017 ASTRO Honorary Member

Edith Peterson Mitchell, M’74, has been chosen as the 2017 American Society for Radiation Oncology Honorary Member.

Edith Peterson Mitchell, M’74, has been chosen as the 2017 American Society for Radiation Oncology Honorary Member.

Edith Peterson Mitchell, M’74, a leading researcher, medical oncologist and proponent of combined modality treatment, has been chosen as the 2017 American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) Honorary Member. Mitchell will receive this award, which is the highest honor ASTRO awards to distinguished cancer researchers and leaders in disciplines outside of radiation oncology, radiobiology or radiation physics, at ASTRO’s 59th Annual Meeting in San Diego on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.

“Dr. Edith Mitchell has been a longtime proponent of combined modality treatment — using chemotherapy and radiation therapy together in order to provide cancer patients with the best possible outcomes,” says ASTRO Chair David C. Beyer, M.D., FASTRO. “Our specialty is privileged to have a champion such as Dr. Mitchell, who is a widely respected clinician as well as decorated military veteran. Her service to both our country and our field is laudable.”

Mitchell is board certified in internal medicine and medical oncology and serves as a clinical professor of medicine and medical oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. She also serves as the associate director for diversity programs and director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson. Additionally, Mitchell served as the 116th president of the National Medical Association.

Her work on chemoradiation for gastrointestinal cancers has helped raise the profile of radiation oncology by providing clinical evidence for the merits of combined modality treatment. Through the NRG Oncology/Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG), she has provided medical oncology leadership for prospective chemoradiation trials defining standards of care for gastrointestinal malignancies. As a result, Mitchell has authored several peer-reviewed publications on the RTOG trials 0012 and 0247.

“The RTOG trials helped break new ground for radiation oncology,” says ASTRO Immediate Past Chair Bruce D. Minsky, MD, FASTRO, who nominated Mitchell for this award. “Edith is a strong advocate and friend of radiation oncology. I can think of no other medical oncologist who has made more significant positive contributions to our community.”

She has also had leadership positions in trials examining breast, colon and pancreatic cancers involving new drug evaluation and chemotherapy, development of new therapeutic regimens, patient selection criteria and supportive care for patients with gastrointestinal cancer.

Mitchell graduated from Tennessee State University in Nashville with a bachelor’s in biochemistry. She completed her internship and residency at Meharry Medical College followed by a fellowship in medical oncology at Georgetown University.

Mitchell received a commission through the Health Professions Scholarship Program in 1973 to join the Air Force while in medical school. She entered active duty after completing her fellowship at Georgetown. Mitchell is now a retired brigadier general, the first female physician to attain this rank in the history of the U.S. Air Force. Over her military career, she has been awarded more than 15 service medals and ribbons, including the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal and Humanitarian Service Medal, among others.

In her medical career, Mitchell has authored or co-authored more than 130 articles, book chapters and abstracts on cancer treatment, prevention and cancer control. She has served on several National Cancer Institute review panels, including the Clinical Trials and Translational Research Advisory Committee and the Blue Ribbon Panel convened to advise the National Cancer Advisory Board on former Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Initiative. She was awarded the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Control Award for her significant commitment to research, education and diversity.

Mitchell says she is honored to receive the 2017 ASTRO Honorary Membership and looks forward to further research on combined modality therapeutic interventions.

Courtesy of American Society for Radiation Oncology


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

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