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Associate Dean Sally Santen to lead evaluation of AMA initiative to improve medical education

Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D.

Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D.

Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for assessment, evaluation and scholarship, will lead the evaluation of the Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium initiative through a contract with the American Medical Association. While at the University of Michigan Medical School, she was the co-principal investigator on a $1.1 million grant to transform the medical student curriculum starting for five years. As the grant evaluator, Santen will work with the AMA team to determine outcomes and publish the findings.

The Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium schools are working together to develop common solutions to transform medical education in key areas such as health system science, coaching and competency based education.


Biostatistics alumna turns award into chance to honor mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD'03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor, associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS).

“Stop. Think. Tell the story.”

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), proudly displays these words in her office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. An associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics, she draws inspiration every day from the advice given her by her mentor, Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS), more than 15 years ago.

“He was very clear in his approach in the classroom,” Cofield says. “He always believed in telling the story – in showing students why the data matters in the real world.”

Her students approve. Cofield was awarded the 2018 UAB President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for the School of Public Health at UAB in April. The award recognizes faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in teaching.

“One of the reasons that I have this honor is because of Dr. Best,” Cofield says. “He taught me so much. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”

To honor the influence he had on her life, Cofield is using her teaching award as an opportunity to establish a scholarship in Best’s name. The Dr. Al M. Best Biostatistics Teaching Award will support a biostatistics student interested in teaching. The annual award will provide about $1,500 toward books, tuition and travel for conferences. Some of those funds were raised when Cofield auctioned off the parking spot she won as part of the President’s award.

“On the face of it, it’s astonishing that a biostatistics professor would receive a teaching award because of the reputation biostatistics has as dry and boring,” says Best, VCU’s director of Faculty Research Development in the School of Dentistry and affiliate professor in the medical school’s Department of Biostatistics. “That Stacey would pull this off, however, is not. She connects with students in real ways.”

Cofield, who grew up in Minnesota, graduated from Washington and Lee in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and mathematics. She enrolled in VCU’s certificate program in statistics, then moved into the master’s program. Before she completed it, she went all in by transferring into the doctorate program in biostatistics.

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD'84 (BIOS)

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS)

“I liked him immediately,” she says. “Instead of just teaching statistics, which can be very unexciting, he applied it to everyday life. We were in the classroom solving problems.”

She served as Best’s teaching assistant for three years and watched in amazement as he helped shape students.

“I remember watching these students go from resenting the fact that they had to be there to engaging in the problem at hand,” Cofield says. “It changed my trajectory.”

Instead of pursuing a career as a research biostatistician in sports medicine as she had planned, she joined the UAB faculty. She also has been involved in numerous research projects, focusing on combination therapies for multiple sclerosis and clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis. She is currently involved in a study examining whether people taking certain medications are more prone to developing shingles after receiving the shingles vaccine.

“I absolutely love what I do,” Cofield says. “Whether it’s working in research or with my students, I enjoy helping people define what it is they need to know and using biostatistics to help them reach their goals.”

By Janet Showalter


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


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


Dean Buckley advocates for expanded patient and physician access to investigational drugs and inclusion in clinical research

As chair of Clinical Research Pathways’ board of directors, Peter F. Buckley, M.D., plays a leading role in the public charity’s mission to help desperately ill patients get expanded access to experimental treatments and increase minority participation in clinical trials.

Peter F. Buckley, M.D.

“Our focus is on improving lives by opening access and advancing treatments,” says Buckley, who is dean of the VCU School of Medicine. He has served on the board of the organization since 2015.

Clinical Research Pathways helps physicians and institutional review boards streamline the Food and Drug Administration’s expanded access process to make it easier for desperately ill patients to try experimental medicines. The 501(c)(3) organization also works with government officials and drug development companies to make information about expanded access readily available to patients and their physicians.

The issue of access is receiving heightened attention with Congress’ recent passage of “right to try” legislation that has spurred debates over the best approach to providing terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs. Buckley and Clinical Research Pathways advocate for keeping the Food and Drug Administration as part of the process with the safeguards provided through its Expanded Access program.

“There is a great need to facilitate opportunities and access to novel treatments for patients with life-threatening health conditions,” says Buckley. “Clinical Research Pathways is strategically positioned to advocate for enhanced access.”

Clinical Research Pathways also seeks to increase opportunities for people to benefit from clinical research regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, age or gender. With its partners in healthcare, academia, government and industry, Clinical Research Pathways strives to increase diversity by reducing barriers to research participation and engagement.

Formerly known as WCG Foundation, the organization was established in 1968 when it pioneered independent ethical review via the creation of the Western Institutional Review Board, the nation’s first IRB.


New program supporting cardiac research launches with help of alumni reviewers

William Miles, M'77, H'80, external reviewer for the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program

William Miles, M’77, H’80, served as an external reviewer for the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program.

Pauley Heart Center physicians and scientists have long sought novel solutions to improving cardiovascular health. Now, donors are helping to fund promising early-stage research through the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program.

“Despite the global realization that cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, efforts to increase research funding to improve awareness, clinical outcomes and quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease continue to fall short of meeting the demands,” says Pauley researcher Fadi Salloum, PhD’05 (PHIS). “With continuous budget cuts to major funding sources including the National Institutes of Health, promising new and mid-career investigators, in particular, are facing major challenges to secure grant funding for innovative research.”

The pilot grants provide funding for research proposals that meet three criteria: an innovative idea to improve cardiovascular health, a project that is feasible in 12 to 18 months and the potential to attract additional funding.

The first grant applications were due on Sept. 19 — in honor of the birthday of heart center benefactor Stan Pauley. Housestaff alumnus Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., H’07, recruited an external review committee composed of alumni, retired faculty of the heart center and international experts.

William Miles, M’77, H’80, chief of electrophysiology at the University of Florida, calls serving on the committee “an honor.”

“All the institutions I have gone to have given me something in return,” he says. “MCV marked the beginning of my medical career. It provided a really broad exposure to all of medicine through an active emergency room and diverse patient population. If I’m invited to serve as a reviewer, I’ll always say yes. I’d love to participate again.”

Miles reviewed two applications and says he enjoyed seeing the type of research taking place in the heart center. “I was impressed with the quality of what I saw,” he says. “These were substantive, cutting-edge projects with application to everyday cardiology.”

Pauley Pilot Research Grant recipients

Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program recipients (l-r): Drs. Salvatore Carbone, Lei Xi, Mohammed Quader and Stefano Toldo

In November, the program awarded four grants for a total of $112,229:

• Integrated in vitro-in silico-in vivo modeling of engineered tissue vascular growth, development and function, by Stefano Toldo, Ph.D., and Joao Soares, Ph.D. (School of Engineering), $37,229
• Unsaturated fatty acids enriched-diet to improve metabolic flexibility and glucose tolerance in obese patients, by Salvatore Carbone, M.S., and Francesco Celi, M.D. (Division of Endocrinology), $25,000
• Nutraceutical therapy for alleviating cardiotoxicty of cancer chemotherapy, by Lei Xi, M.D., $25,000
• Optimal preservation condition for the donation after cardiac death heart (transplant), by Mohamed Quader, M.D., and Stefano Toldo, Ph.D., $25,000

“The four projects are diverse in nature, ranging from a partnership between tissue engineering and small animal surgery to enhance coronary artery bypass graft surgery, dietary modifications to enhance cardiorespiratory fitness, nutraceutical therapy to alleviate cardiotoxicity of chemotherapy and attempts to increase the pool of potential donor hearts for transplantation,” says Salloum, who served on the internal review committee.

The projects began Dec. 1. The grants will allow the investigators to pursue their ideas and possibly glean important data that will make future proposals more competitive for external research funding.

“Excellent ideas submitted to the NIH and other federal funding organizations fall short of funding if not substantiated with strong feasibility and preliminary data,” Salloum explains.

If you would like to inquire about making a donation to the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program or serving as an external reviewer, please contact Carrie Mills, senior major gift officer, at cmills@vcuhealth.org or (804) 828-0423.

Annual fund donations to the Pauley Heart Center were critical to funding the new program. An additional $115,000 also has been donated to the program by several individuals.

“The generosity of our donors is greatly appreciated,” Salloum says. “Numerous meritorious grant proposals often go unfunded due to the lack of sufficient funds.”

In the future, “we hope to further grow this program. Our goal would be to make sure that every meritorious proposal from a Pauley researcher gets funded by a pilot grant.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Beat, a publication of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center.

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Updated: 04/29/2016