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Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson selected for Hall of Heroes

An admissions office routinely recruits and processes applications with an eye toward building a strong class. But a pair in VCU’s School of Medicine have been lauded for going above and beyond, supporting students before, during and after medical school.

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D.,

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., for their work to increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, senior associate dean of admissions, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., assistant dean of admissions and director of Student Outreach Programs, were tapped for induction into the Hall of Heroes of the Student National Medical Association.

The Hall of Heroes distinction is SNMA’s most prestigious recognition, honoring administrators, physicians and others who champion the cause for a diverse physician workforce. SNMA says its mission is to support current and future underrepresented minority medical students, address the needs of underserved communities and increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson, nominated by current and former students, were unanimously elected about a year ago, but won’t be formally inducted until this year’s SNMA conference, April 12-16, in Atlanta. Both said they were surprised to find they’d been selected – and it took some time before they realized that the other also had been. That the nomination came from students was especially meaningful. “You never know how you touch someone,” Jackson says.

The two have worked together for more than a decade, and share a common philosophy and priorities.

“Our goal is always to have a diverse class,” says Whitehurst-Cook, who also serves as associate professor of family medicine and population health. “It’s not just about minority status, but bringing together a new class each year of individuals who’ve done awesome things in their lives. They will be sharing their upbringing, their culture and their varied experiences.”

Ultimately, she says, that leads to a richer experience for students and better medical care for patients, as physicians-to-be learn to relate to diverse populations.

But diversity alone doesn’t ensure success, so inclusion is equally important. With so many different backgrounds converging in a high-stress environment, it’s important to offer support and encouragement, Whitehurst-Cook says. “We’ve worked hard to enhance our diversity here and to support students once they get here. You can recruit a medical student, but you want all of them to be happy and to thrive. “

On the MCV Campus, offerings for minority students include the SNMA and the Latino Medical Student Association. The two student organizations team up to present the “Second-Look” program that gives accepted students and potential recruits opportunities to interact with faculty and students in a more relaxed atmosphere than the usual formal tours and interviews. At VCU, underrepresented minority students are defined as African-American, Latino, Native Americans, Alaskans and Pacific Islanders.

What’s needed to enroll more diverse students, though, is an increase in scholarship money, and Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson are hoping that in the near future, they’ll be able to offer assistance to more students.

Plenty of potential students are on the admissions radar while they’re still in high school or undergraduate programs. Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson help those students – and often their parents – find a path to success in medical school, whether that’s at VCU or elsewhere.

When they’re building a class for the medical school, Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson agree that students should show a commitment to nonclinical community service by helping people. “In addition to a passion for medicine, we want them to show compassion,” Whitehurst-Cook says. “In other words, we want them to be smart – and nice.”

The admissions office has an open-door policy, so students, potential students and graduates who need a place to unwind can find a friendly ear, advice and occasionally some free pizza.

“I think it’s important that we try to make all of our students feel like they’re part of a family. We really do care about what they’re going through,” Jackson says. The feeling is mutual, she said, as a large contingent of SNMA members attended her son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.

“I think they feel like we are more than student and administrator.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Microbiology alumna seeks Zika answers

The Zika virus topped the list of Google’s trending health-related questions in the U.S. in 2016, according to CNN. People wanted to know “What are the symptoms of Zika?” and “How long does Zika last?”

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, studies if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

As warm weather nears, questions remain about the Zika virus. Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, takes on the epidemic the best way she knows how — in the research lab, where she’s studying if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Jean Kim, PhD’10 (MICR), had questions about Zika, too. She went to the research lab for answers.

Now the principal investigator on a Zika project for RTI International, where she works as a research microbiologist, Kim is asking “Can Zika be transmitted through the air via coughing or sneezing?”

The Zika virus is known to be transmitted via an Aedes aegypti mosquito that bites an infected person and then transfers the virus to another person via its salivary glands. A pregnant woman also can pass the virus to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads due to underlying brain damage. Sexual intercourse also has been identified as a route for transmitting the virus.

“Yet little research has been done on the possibility that the Zika virus could be spread through other secondary routes including aerosol transmission,” says Kim, whose research typically centers on indoor air quality, including the impact of black mold on human health. “We wanted to be proactive about providing solutions to the Zika situation. How could we address this public health issue?”

After presenting a concept to the company CEO in spring 2016, Kim and her colleagues immediately began their research: studying if Zika can survive in human respiratory, oral and salivary environments, whether the cells from the oral and respiratory tract allow for propagation and how long the virus can persist in saliva.

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

By January 2017, Kim finished her initial research and submitted results to a research journal. While she can’t disclose outcomes until after publication, she emphasized the importance of wanting to complete the research in a quick timeframe.

“Zika isn’t going away,” Kim says. “We’ve just been in a lull because of the winter season and not seeing any mosquitoes. Even babies who might not display microcephaly are still experiencing other effects. We still have a lot to learn about the pathology of the virus and the impact it has on infants.”

Research teams in labs all over the country are investigating different aspects of the Zika virus. Kim and her colleagues also are interested in investigating if a heel prick can detect Zika in infants at birth to determine whether they may have been exposed in utero.

Her natural curiosity for what causes disease is what ultimately led her to study microbiology and immunology. “I’m extremely interested in how something so small can be so successful at survival. How can it cause disease and withstand all of the challenges that it faces when inside a host?”

A multiple degree alumna from VCU, Kim also received her master’s in biology from the College of Humanities & Sciences. She points to a bacterial pathogenesis course team-taught by Cynthia Cornelissen, Ph.D., and Richard Marconi, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, that led her to pursue her doctorate.

“There is no more gratifying feeling than to know you may have played a part in stimulating a student to pursue an occupation that I consider to be among the most rewarding,” Marconi says. “The ability to pursue your own ideas and do something new every single day is remarkable.”

Kim now enjoys motivating today’s students, recently welcoming a group of VCU basic science students to Research Triangle Park to discuss non-academic career opportunities for Ph.D. candidates.

“In academics, you ask very deep and probing questions, and become an expert in one area,” she says. “Here at RTI, I take a much broader view. Research is not as probing, but it’s far-reaching. One of the things I enjoy is taking basic science research and seeing how it can be applied and used elsewhere … thinking outside the box.”

Or in the case of Zika research, thinking outside the Google search box.

By Polly Roberts


Dean Buckley, wife present Gov. McAuliffe with traditional Irish crest

Every St. Patrick’s Day since 1952, an Irish ambassador or even the prime minister has traveled to the U.S. to hand-deliver to the American president a cluster of Irish shamrocks to celebrate the day.

Dean Peter F. Buckley, M.D., and his wife, Leonie, both Irish-born, present Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (center) with a traditional Irish crest.

School of Medicine Dean Peter F. Buckley, M.D., and his wife, Leonie, both Irish-born, present Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (center) with a traditional Irish crest on St. Patrick’s Day.

School of Medicine Dean Peter F. Buckley, M.D., and his wife, Leonie, both Irish-born, brought their own spin on the tradition to Richmond and to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“We thought it would be nice to give the governor something that’s Irish in the same kind of tradition,” says Leonie Buckley. “My sister and mother were coming to visit from Ireland so we asked them to bring a plaque with the McAuliffe name and crest. We also presented him with handmade Irish candy.”

The Buckleys were familiar with Gov. McAuliffe’s interest in his Irish heritage after they met at a VCU basketball game and discussed how he traces his ancestry to County Cork, the same county that Dean Buckley’s father hails from.

The Buckleys’ St. Patrick’s Day visit was arranged by Matt Conrad and Karah Gunther from the Office of Government Relations for VCU and the VCU Health System. “We really appreciate how Matt and Karah joined in with the spirit of the day and facilitated this celebratory opportunity,” Dean Buckley says.

Gov. McAuliffe appreciated the gift, sharing with the Buckleys the meaning of the crest and what each color represented. “He talked with us about Ireland and his family,” Leonie says. “His family came over from Ireland many generations back.”

Dean Buckley grew up in Dublin, and Leonie in Limerick, Ireland. At 30, they came to the U.S. on green cards and became citizens five years later. “We’re very proud and happy to be Americans,” Leonie says. “We love this country and wouldn’t want to leave, but we’re also proud of our Irish heritage.”

And particularly on St. Patrick’s Day, they enjoy sharing it with others. “St. Patrick’s Day is thought of as a day to establish friendship,” Leonie says. “We would like to do something at the state Capitol every year, no matter who is the governor.”

By Polly Roberts


Housestaff alumnus named New York State EMS Physician of Excellence

Scott S. Coyne, H’81, remembers his first days as a radiology resident on the MCV Campus. The enormity of the work had started to sink in when Fred Vines, M.D., former division chair of diagnostic radiology, offered these encouraging words.

“He said to me, ‘When you finish here, you’ll be able to handle anything — nothing will be hard for you.’ And he was 100 percent right.”

Housestaff alumnus Scott S. Coyne is the New York State EMS Physician of Excellence.

Housestaff alumnus Scott S. Coyne is the New York State EMS Physician of Excellence, recognized for the implementation of life-saving programs that have helped improve safety and resulted in statewide EMS protocol changes.

Coyne says that level of preparedness and training — “the intensity and immediacy of the clinical experience, going 24/7” — is what prepared him to ultimately spend a decade as Department of Radiology chair at then-named Northshore University Hospital at Glen Cove, now Northwell Health, a health network of 21 hospitals in New York and New Jersey where he worked for 19 years.

Now the chief surgeon and medical director for the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, Coyne was named the New York State EMS Physician of Excellence in October 2016.

The award recognizes a physician who has demonstrated exceptional dedication and experience in the pre-hospital care environment. Since joining the police department in 1992, Coyne implemented life-saving programs that have helped improve the safety and well-being of Suffolk residents, as well as resulted in statewide EMS protocol changes.

In 2008, he created the medical crisis action team, or MEDCAT. Made up of nearly 30 police officers trained as advanced life support paramedics or critical care EMTs with specialized training in combat medicine, Coyne calls MEDCAT a “medical SWAT team.”

Trained to deliver care under fire, the team operates under the principle of taking advantage of golden minutes to begin care at, what Coyne calls, the “point of wounding.” Five MEDCAT physicians complement the team.

“Our team is trained to deal with the threat and then immediately begin care of the injured,” Coyne says. “Many victims may only have minutes to survive with certain types of injuries. We are on call 24/7 and will respond as a special operations team to these types of situations.”

In 2015, Coyne and three MEDCAT officers received the International Association of Chiefs of Police Lifesaving Award for saving the life of a police officer who was gravely injured by fleeing felons.

“The officer was intentionally hit by a car as the felons pulled away and left to die in the street,” Coyne says. “Miraculously, we had three MEDCAT officers within a couple of miles of the crime scene.”

Coyne has trained thousands of police officers and emergency services personnel to respond in high-risk operations such as active shooter situations and has equipped all patrol officers with combat tourniquets to effectively respond to such incidents. He has maintained a high standard of police academy medical training, requiring all Suffolk County police officers to become certified EMTs before graduation.

“Most departments have a few EMTs but we actually have five weeks of EMT training built into our academy so that our police officers also are state-certified EMTs,” Coyne says.

In addition, he has certified 1,500 police officers to administer Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses opioid overdoses.

“In the last four-and-a-half years, our officers have given Narcan 720 times,” Coyne says. In 2014, the U.S. Attorney General recognized Suffolk County’s Narcan program as a nationwide model for law enforcement.

Coyne readily shares his expertise beyond Suffolk County. In February, he served as keynote speaker at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine’s multidisciplinary trauma symposium “Creating Order out of Chaos.” He spoke on threat suppression, patient management and coordination of trauma care in a mass casualty incident and also led a separate workshop on the development of key principles of a hospital-based active shooter plan.

He says his training at a major trauma referral center was the foundation for his work in the field. “My fondest years really were at the Medical College of Virginia, not only for the premier training it offered, but also for the friendships and professional relationships I developed. It was absolutely one of the most important times in my life.”

Coyne returned to campus in 2016 to meet with Department of Radiology Chair Ann S. Fulcher, M’87, H’91, vice chairs Melvin J. Fratkin, M’64, H’68, F’69, and Mary Ann Turner, H’75, and professor emeritus Jaime Tisnado, M.D. Coyne also toured VCU Medical Center, including Main Hospital, which was under construction throughout the duration of his residency.

“I was overwhelmed at the growth of MCV into such an impressive state-of-the-art facility. MCV was always my first choice. I remember so clearly, as a student at Downstate medical school, when envelopes were handed out on Match Day and not knowing where life was going to take me. Acceptance at MCV was the best news I could have ever received. Little did I know that MCV would become such a cornerstone in my life.”

By Polly Roberts