Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries


Faculty honors and news archives


Associate Dean Cheifetz receives national honors

As the nation faces an anticipated physician shortage, many medical schools have elected to expand class size. Much of the expansion has been accomplished through the growth of regional medical campuses – campuses geographically separate from the medical school’s main campus.

Craig Cheifetz, M.D.Craig Cheifetz, M.D.

Craig Cheifetz, M.D., associate dean for medical education in the VCU School of Medicine, has overseen the development of the school’s Inova Campus from its earliest stages. Since 2005, Cheifetz has supervised the training of third- and fourth-year medical students at Inova Fairfax Hospital, where the students benefit from the hospital’s diverse patient population and state-of-the-art facilities.

Cheifetz has also served as a leader on the national front, and now has been honored by the Association of American Medical Colleges for his exemplary service in fostering information sharing, communication and discussion of key issues among administrators, staff and faculty of regional medical campuses.

He accepted the Distinguished Service Award from the AAMC Group on Regional Medical Campuses at the AAMC Annual Meeting in Boston on Nov. 3, 2017.

“Regional campuses have been a key component as we look to address the physician shortage, and Dr. Cheifetz has been a national leader in their development and success,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “He’s universally known for his willingness to serve as a mentor – whether you’re a medical student or a peer at another school. I greatly admire his generosity in sharing from his experiences and wisdom.”

Cheifetz has served as chair of both the GRMC Steering Committee and the GRMC Program Planning Committee. He is credited for leadership that led to a marked increase in energy, productivity and visibility for the GRMC. In addition, his published scholarship on regional campuses has helped academic medicine better define and understand the many roles and value of regional medical campuses.

VCU and its faculty played a prominent role at the AAMC’s 2017 annual meeting. Vice President for Health Sciences Marsha D. Rappley, M.D., who also serves as chief executive officer of the VCU Health System, gave a plenary address on Nov. 5 and was honored for her role as chair of the AAMC board of directors. An alumni reception on Nov. 4 celebrated Rappley’s tenure as board chair as well as VCU Health’s selection as a 2017 Baldwin Awardee for its exemplary graduate medical education program.

By Erin Lucero


Hepatologist Arun Sanyal Honored as 2017 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award Winner Recipient

Housestaff alumnus Arun Sanyal, M.D., now on faculty with the medical school, received the 2017 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the American Liver Foundation.

Housestaff alumnus Arun Sanyal, M.D., now on faculty with the medical school, received the 2017 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the American Liver Foundation.

Arun J. Sanyal, M.D., has been honored by the American Liver Foundation with its 2017 Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award. The award was presented on Oct. 23 at an ALF reception in Washington, D.C.

Continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 25 years, his research has spanned the spectrum of translational science from basic discovery to first-in-humans and advanced phase clinical trials as well as regulatory aspects of drug development.

“Dr. Sanyal’s record of achievement is remarkable both for its longevity and also for its scope,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “I am proud to see him receive this latest honor, which is an endorsement of the translational value that his work carries for patients with liver disease – both now and into the future.”

Sanyal’s work has focused on end stage liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis for over 20 years. More recently, he has led several efforts in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-funded TREAT consortium that is investigating the pathophysiology and management of alcoholic hepatitis. He recently established the Liver Forum, which provides a neutral platform for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the European Medicines Agency and other stakeholders in fatty liver disorders to work collaboratively on the regulatory science required to accelerate drug development in liver disease.

Internationally recognized for his contributions to the understanding of the science and clinical implications of non-alcoholic liver disease, he has created a proprietary mouse strain to test potential therapeutics to treat the disease, which has become a leading cause of liver-related mortality.

Sanyal is a professor of internal medicine, physiology and pathology at VCU School of Medicine and completed his gastroenterology and hepatology fellowship training on VCU’s MCV Campus in 1990.

The American Liver Foundation was created in 1976 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease to facilitate, advocate and promote education, support and research for the prevention, treatment and cure of liver disease.


Dean of Medicine Peter Buckley authors book on physical health problems associated with schizophrenia

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., authors book Physical Health and Schizophrenia on physical health problems associated with schizophrenia.

Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., authors book Physical Health and Schizophrenia on physical health problems associated with schizophrenia.

“It’s well known that schizophrenia and serious mental illnesses carry a reduced life expectancy, but it’s often assumed that suicide is the main cause of this disparity,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “Actually, suicide accounts for no more than a third of the early mortality associated with schizophrenia. The vast majority is due to cardiovascular factors.”

Buckley has joined with David J. Castle and Fiona P. Gaughran in authoring a new book on the physical health problems associated with schizophrenia that provides a clear overview of strategies and interventions for tackling these issues.

Physical Health and Schizophrenia is written as a resource for researchers and clinicians in the mental health field as well as those working in primary care. It also includes an appendix designed specifically for patients and those who care for them, with practical tips on how to be actively involved in monitoring and managing physical health problems.

Before joining the School of Medicine as its 24th dean in January 2017, Buckley served for almost seven years as dean of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, with the last two years of additional responsibilities while also serving as interim CEO of the academic healthcare system. Alongside his administrative responsibilities, he has remained active in research on the neurobiology and treatment of schizophrenia and is recognized internationally for his research.

A distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Buckley is a past president of the American Association of Chairs of Departments of Psychiatry and has served as an executive committee member of the International Congress of Schizophrenia Research. With 500 original articles, book chapters and abstracts to his credit, Buckley is editor of the journal Clinical Schizophrenia & Related Psychoses. He is senior author of a postgraduate textbook of psychiatry and has also authored or edited 17 books on schizophrenia and related topics. He serves as associate editor or as a member of the editorial boards of nearly a dozen other psychiatric journals.

Co-author David J. Castle, M.D., is professor and chair of psychiatry at St Vincent’s Hospital at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Fiona P. Gaughran, M.D., is lead consultant in the National Psychosis Service and R&D director of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. She also is a reader in psychopharmacology and physical health at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, U.K.

Physical Health and Schizophrenia is published by Oxford University Press, a department of the University of Oxford in the U.K.

By Erin Lucero


She’s walked in their shoes

And has the stories to prove it

Build resilience. Exhibit compassion. Rise above challenges.

This story first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.

Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89, was a leader in developing the school’s new curriculum, introduced in 2013. She says the new approach takes even further the organ-based studies that first attracted her to the MCV Campus.

Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89, knows the words are easy to come by. So instead of platitudes, she shares her own personal story. For more than two decades, she’s been a role model on the MCV Campus. Now she’s the VCU School of Medicine’s newly appointed senior associate dean of medical education and student affairs, and she’s inspiring students and colleagues alike as she tries to become the best physician she can be.

It’s not unusual for multiple generations to go into health care, and like many students, DiGiovanni was introduced to the world of medicine by her father, who worked in a New York hospital. But her story is a little different; instead of a dynasty of physicians in the family, she came from a humbler background.

Both parents, neither of whom graduated high school, initially worked in a garment factory in New York. But soon after they were married, both were laid off. DiGiovanni’s mother, working outside the home in an era when most women didn’t, ended up working for the postal service. Her father took a different route — one that inspired and influenced his daughter for decades to come.

“My father got a job working as a janitor for New York City in the Queens Hospital Center. He would come home every day and talk about all the fascinating things the doctors were doing in the hospital. The first time I ever heard the word CAT scan was him talking about it.”

His daughter was intrigued, and gravitated toward the sciences. “My dad was a huge influence in my decision to go into medicine,” she says. DiGiovanni made him proud, joining the medical school’s Class of 1984.

To save money, she lived at home during her undergraduate studies. And though there were options for in-state tuition for medical school, she had discovered the MCV Campus.

“I liked the curriculum here,” she says. “At the time, we were one of the few schools that taught an organ-based curriculum. That made a lot more sense to me, to teach in an integrated way.”

Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89

Susan DiGiovanni, M’84, H’87, F’89: “We want to open [students’] eyes to what it’s like to work with patients who are very different. As a physician, you have to be understanding.

VCU was a great fit for her. But she also was able to complete an elective at the hospital where her father still worked, which was fun for both and led to some great stories, as DiGiovanni was able to impress her New York colleagues with her connections. “If there was a problem in the clinic where I was working, I could just pick up the phone and call my dad. Five minutes later, he and his crew would show up.”

After earning her medical degree, she completed internal medicine and clinical nephrology training on the MCV Campus. She practiced privately for a while, and then won an intramural research training award from the National Institutes of Health. She remained at the NIH for four years, publishing her work on the AQP-2 water channel
in multiple journals. In 1995, though, she opted to return to VCU, eventually shifting from physician-scientist to physician-educator and making her mark at the university — while raising a daughter as a single parent. She dived into various roles including director of the second-year renal course and program director of the nephrology fellowship program. Early in 2017, she was appointed to her current position.

“I have had the pleasure of watching Susan teach for 34 years — as a resident, fellow, faculty, program director and now senior associate dean,” says Elizabeth B. D. Ripley, M’86, H’89, F’92, the medical school’s interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs. “She is passionate about helping students at all levels understand, and she nurtures our curiosity and personal development. She is committed to all students’ success.”

Influencing curriculum
DiGiovanni’s interest in VCU’s curriculum is today even stronger than it was in her medical school days. She was a leader in developing the school’s new curriculum, which was introduced in 2013. She says that new approach takes the organ-based studies that first attracted her here even further.

Now the curriculum — the medical school’s biggest change in three decades — gets medical students into clinical areas earlier, working as part of teams and being ready to face the challenges of a new way of practicing medicine.

The new curriculum came about from a “backwards design,” DiGiovanni explains. “We started out by thinking about what we want our graduates to look like when they walk out the door. We listed knowledge, skills and attitudes. A lot of this has to do with professionalism and communication, empathy and respect — things that are just as important as knowing which medication to use.”

Now that the first class under the new curriculum has gone on to residency, she’s made a few tweaks to the program. “I’ve learned that even though certain things sound really grand on paper, keeping things simple is the way to go.”

Administration recently simplified the terminology, reorganized a few areas and are improving the assessment pieces to include multiple miniassessments.

While she’s thrilled to be able to influence the curriculum, teaching remains DiGiovanni’s first love. And as part of her role as a faculty member in the Department of Nephrology, DiGiovanni finds innovative ways to reach her students.

Thinking like a patient
“One of the things we do in the renal course is make the students walk in the shoes of a kidney patient,” she notes. “A patient on dialysis has a restricted lifestyle. On dialysis days, they have to sit in a chair for four hours straight.”

So DiGiovanni asks students to do the same. Living that life — even for a day — gets students thinking, she says, as they write prescriptions for dialysis or other lifestyle modifications. “It makes them reflect on how hard it was. And when the patient doesn’t comply, do you understand why? I try to get them to think about it. As physicians, we can look down on patients who don’t follow our instructions. You did it for one day; can you do it for 365?”

Encouraging empathy in students is a big focus in the School of Medicine. Many students have worked with patients from underprivileged areas, but some have not. “We want to open their eyes to what it’s like to work with patients who are very different. As a physician you have to be understanding.”

‘It’s OK to seek help’
DiGiovanni’s commitment to making sure every student feels supported goes beyond the academic. She readily shares personal stories of overcoming a battle with severe depression to encourage student awareness and coping strategies.

“Depression runs in my family. I had my first episode when I was 14, didn’t get treatment and I didn’t snap out of it for months.” The depression continued, and only  years later did she get help.

“As a medical professional, you think it could ruin your career,” she admits. Instead, with proper treatment, her career flourished, and today, a quarter century later, she tries to de-stigmatize the condition. “I am very open to talking to students about my struggles with depression, and that I spent time in a psychiatric ward and had electroconvulsive therapy. It’s OK to seek help and so much better to go get the care.”

Students need to hear stories like that to boost resilience to the stresses of medical school, says JOY SANDERS, assistant dean of the School of Medicine’s development and alumni affairs office. She has worked with DiGiovanni mentoring students in small groups for a decade. “She has been inspirational to so many students. And she’s able to balance kindness with no nonsense.”

DiGiovanni has inspired so many students, Sanders says, because she shows that you can thrive despite a humble background and a severe chronic condition. “We have a lot of first-generation students sitting around that table, and she knows how it feels. She’s been there.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Reynolds Jr. Chair in Neuro-Oncology propels work of Mark G. Malkin

Mark G. Malkin, M.D., holds the William G. Reynolds Jr. Chair in Neuro-Oncology.

Mark G. Malkin, M.D., holds the William G. Reynolds Jr. Chair in Neuro-Oncology.

Less than 1 percent of neurologists in the country are board-certified in neuro-oncology, a subspecialty that treats patients with cancers of the brain and spinal cord. In Virginia, more than 700 people are affected by primary malignant brain tumors each year, and about 4,000 more face complications from other cancers that have spread to the nervous system.

Mark G. Malkin, M.D., is the only board-certified neuro-oncologist in the Richmond, Virginia, area and one of just three in Virginia. In 2013, he was recruited by VCU from the Medical College of Wisconsin to build from scratch a comprehensive neuro-oncology program at VCU.

Today, that program is thriving. Malkin developed a neuro-oncology program with both clinical and academic elements, enlisting a staff of two more neuro-oncologists, a neuropsychologist and a nurse practitioner. In addition to seeing patients and creating an educational program for medical students, neurology residents and hematology-oncology fellows, Malkin has dedicated much of his time to research.

“Our team is focusing on translational research that takes innovative ideas from bench to bedside,” he says. “We’re able to bring the science that has been developed in the lab and apply it in our own clinical trials.”

In its first year, the team saw 33 patients, with one patient par­ticipating in the division’s single clinical trial. This year, Malkin says, the team is on track to see 294 new patients. In 2016, 19 patients participated in nine clinical trials, including a phase I study of the drug dimethyl fumurate used with standard care for glioblastoma, the most common primary malignant brain tumor.

“The initial lab experiments that suggested we explore this possible treatment further were conducted right here at Massey Cancer Center,” Malkin says. In June, he traveled to Chicago to present the results of the trial at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, where 38,000 oncology professionals from around the world gathered to discuss the latest developments in cancer research.

Endowed chairs and professorships are among the highest forms of recognition provided by a university to a faculty member. These prestigious positions are critical in recruiting, retaining and supporting the work of distinguished faculty. The funding provides the resources needed to take their work to the next level.

Malkin’s recruitment and successes on campus can be attrib­uted, at least partially, to the William G. Reynolds Jr. Chair in Neuro-Oncology he holds. Reynolds, former vice president of government relations and public affairs at the Reynolds Metals Co. and former member of the MCV Foundation board of trustees, died from a brain tumor in 2003. In 2006, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation pledged $1 million to support the VCU School of Medicine to establish, in his memory, VCU’s first chair in neuro-oncology.

“We believe that William G. Reynolds Jr. would share our enthusiasm for the pioneering work being done in his memory by Mark Malkin,” says Richard S. Reynolds III, the foundation’s president and cousin of William Reynolds. “We are very excited with his work and know that his achievements will only grow in importance as he continues in that field.”

Until now, the next nearest neuro-oncology specialist was located at the University of Virginia Health System in Char­lottesville, Virginia. Ashlee Loughan, Ph.D., who specializes in neuropsychology on Malkin’s team, says that many of their patients can’t drive because of physical or cognitive side effects of their treatments and depend on family members or friends to get to their appointments.

“So many of our patients have commented on what a relief it is to have more convenient care,” Loughan says. “Our team is committed to doing anything we can to reduce the burden on our patients and their families.”

Malkin says none of this progress would have been possible without the generosity of the Reynolds Foundation. He sees endless opportunity for the program’s continued development. In addition to holding clinics at hospitals in downtown Rich­mond, Stony Point and South Hill, Malkin is now focusing on increasing the program’s reach into the community by expanding as far as Williamsburg, Virginia, to make expert care even more accessible to patients in need.

This story by Brelyn Powell first appeared in Vol. 11 of Impact, VCU’s quarterly publication that shares stories about how philanthropy makes an impact for students, faculty and programs.


Real Beauty, Real Science

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is the face of science.

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D.

Anatomy and neurobiology’s Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., was recently featured on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign, pointing out that beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

At least one of them. You might have seen her on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Neigh recently responded to an online survey, suggesting they feature a woman in science because beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

To her surprise, Dove asked her to share that message herself.

Neigh, who’s been at VCU’s School of Medicine about 18 months, aims to increase the visibility of women in science – and inspire the next generation to see it as a viable career path.

“When I was growing up [in rural Pennsylvania], the only scientist I had any idea existed was Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon,” she says. She studied biology as an undergraduate, intending to go to veterinary school. But she began to doubt that career choice, and talked to her professors about other possibilities. “I knew some did research, but I didn’t really know what that entailed. My professors suggested I do some small research investigations.”

That led to an independent field study, camping out on the side of a hill in all weather to watch the behavior of a herd of llamas. “After that, I decided against field research,” she says. But research itself was a fit, and she ended up in an internship at Ohio State University. “The first time I saw a real, functional NIH-funded lab, I loved it and knew that was what I wanted to do.”

In her psychoneuroendocrinology and psychoneuroimmunology lab at VCU, she is studying the effects of stress on the body, and the biological changes that result in mental health challenges such as depression. She also sees the lab as a chance to mentor aspiring scientists and welcomes undergraduates onto her team.

“The steps following undergrad are highly competitive and sometimes difficult to navigate,” she says. “I want to help students figure out what they want, what they need to get to that goal, and encourage them along their chosen path.”

Neigh’s participation in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was born of that spirit. As social media editor of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s journal, she admits that she spends more time on Twitter than the average scientist might. “I’m always looking for ways to make it more publicly known that there’s a broad range of scientists.”

So when she noticed Dove’s call for participants in the Real Beauty promotion and wrote in, she was ready to recommend some peers. But Dove ended up asking her to be a face of the campaign.

Her quote:
“Real Beauty is using what makes you special to make the world more beautiful. I use my scientific abilities to study the brain with the goal of improving mental health.”

“People come in all shapes and sizes and areas of interest, and you can be more than one thing – scientists are more than just scientists,” she says. The multifaceted diversity in backgrounds, experiences and interests that the university offers were why she chose to come to VCU.

“VCU offers amazing programs to increase diversity in science. To have so many programs in one place is quite impressive and a tremendous opportunity to advance science.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

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