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WIS: nurturing a love of science

While learning skills to advance their own careers, graduate student organization Women in Science (WIS) at VCU is paying it forward. Its members are guiding the next generation of students toward vocations in healthcare professions, biomedical research, engineering and other sciences.

For the ninth year, the group hosted its Girl Scout Medical Sciences Career Day in April, offering middle school girls the opportunity for hands-on learning and mentoring by graduate students who were in their shoes just a few years before.

Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photography by Elizabeth Do.
Girl Scouts prepare to dissect the brain of a mouse and identify different regions of the brain using color-coded maps. Photography by Elizabeth Do.

The day’s organizers say the reward of seeing young students exploring science was almost rivaled by the announcement that WIS won VCU’s Community Service Project Leadership and Service Award for the career day project. This is the second time WIS received the award; the first was in 2013.

The ambitious project brings about 100 Girl Scouts and 40 adult chaperones to the MCV Campus for a day of science modules created to introduce the visitors to various aspects of scientific career options. “We do clinical lab sciences, pathology, forensic science, human genetics, pharmacy, nursing, engineering … and more,” said Elizabeth Do, MPH’12, a Ph.D. student in psychiatric and behavioral genetics and the outgoing president of WIS. “From the feedback we got, the girls especially like the hands-on activities.”

One favorite was learning to extract DNA from a strawberry. Rita Shiang, Ph.D., associate professor of human and molecular genetics, organized the activity and got to see students marvel at the white cloud of DNA rising from the liquid extracted from a crushed berry in the bottom of the test tube. “It is a really neat thing,” said Shiang who is a faculty advisor for WIS.

The day’s activities made a big impression. “It’s a hands-on experience that girls my age wouldn’t normally have. I loved being in a lab using test tubes,” said Hannah, a middle-school Girl Scout from Spotsylvania who participated in the career day activities.

School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel.  Photography by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.
School of Pharmacy student Brittany Speed instructs one of the Girl Scouts on how to prepare an ibuprofen gel. Photography by Rita Shiang, Ph.D.

Jamie Sturgill, Cert’05, PhD’12 (MICR), introduced the idea of the career event when she was a member of the newly formed WIS in 2006. “As a Girl Scout myself, I can remember doing activities, hands on things at a program at Marshall University in West Virginia. I started to reach out to Girl Scouts here and started laying groundwork.” Sturgill is now an assistant professor and director of Biobehavioral Laboratory Services in VCU’s School of Nursing.

In addition to helping the next generation of scientists find their calling, WIS also helps support education and promote the career development of its members both at the university and in the sciences.

It was formed as an offshoot of VCU’s long-running Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine Faculty Organization (WISDM), said Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., the medical school’s associate dean for Graduate Education and a faculty sponsor of WIS. “We basically just asked students, ‘do you want to have an organization like this,’ and people stepped up to the plate.”

“It’s important,” said Sturgill, “because it’s easy to feel like you’re in a silo when you spend most of your time in a lab. The genesis of WIS was finding a way to foster career development and networking and all of these important things that are not necessarily learned on the bench.”

During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photography by Ayana Scott-Elliston.
During a pathology rotation, Girl Scouts (at right) learned to use a microscope to visually observe differences between healthy and unhealthy human cells while others (at left) looked at organs from patients with different conditions. Photography by Ayana Scott-Elliston.

The focus of WIS, however, is not all on its members; there’s a robust service aspect, that includes supporting Toys for Tots, Cinderella Dreams and the local food bank, as well as the Girl Scouts, noted Chlebowski.

The chance to mentor young students one-on-one is a big draw. Anuya Paranjape, MS’12 (MICR), who plans to finish her Ph.D. later this year in microbiology and immunology and microbiology, serves currently as one of WIS’ vice president of Community Outreach. She said she was impressed when she first attended the Girl Scout career day and saw its effect on students.

“I would have loved to do something like this when I was younger.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school

At the medical school’s convocation ceremony, Psychiatry’s Chris Kogut, M’04, reminded the graduates of the path they’d taken.

Organic chemistry, MCATs, essay-writing, interview suit-buying. PCM. POGIL. Study, study, study. Step 1. Step 2. Step 2 CS.

So we wondered, what did they pick up along the way?

Here are 16 things the class of 2016 learned in medical school:

  1. How to go on little sleep and keep a big smile on your face.
  2. Don’t think you are above anyone or anything. Your willingness to help others in any task will go a long way.
  3. During 1st and 2nd year, there were days when my friend and I would mutually agree that we had made a poor life choice with med school. Then 3rd year came… and I took care of my first pediatric patient… and all of that changed. I now have no regrets at all.
  4. Where belly buttons come from.
  5. You will have even less time later; make time for the things you love now.
  6. Above everything else: Airway. It’s more important than either of the more often cited “breakfast” or “family.” We may give you breakfast at the hospital. Under very special circumstances, we may give you a new family. But if you come to the hospital without an airway, we’ll definitely give you one.
  7. Medicine is a team sport.
  8. Always wear layers! You never know what the temperature will be in the hospital, the VA, Egyptian Building or McGlothlin MEC.
  9. It’s okay to lean on your family and friends when times get rough. Whether you are stressed from an exam or dealing with a difficult case in the hospital, reaching out to them can help you through challenging times.
  10. Kids are more easily controlled while they’re still in the belly.
  11. You can always find coffee in the hospital, even in the middle of the night. If you want good coffee, that’s a different question.
  12. It’s hard not to let the people you work with in a given rotation color your view of a specialty, for better or worse. I don’t know that it’s possible to prevent it, but always be aware of it.
  13. Lung function is like a rubber band. If you can picture that, it’s easy to remember that compliance (which means easy to distend) is the opposite of elastance. Fibrosis is like a thick rubber band with its increased elastic fibers, so compliance is low. Emphysema is like a thin rubber band with its decreased elastic fibers, so compliance is high.
  14. Sitting outside in the Sanger courtyard eating lunch on a pretty day is as good as it gets.
  15. Work hard and be willing to accept every opportunity that comes your way. If someone is willing to write you a letter of recommendation, include you on a research project or invite you to a meeting … always take that opportunity. You can never predict the future and every opportunity will open a new door for your career.
  16. I would do it all over again.

16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school


Class of 16’s Michael Brady honored with Humanism in Medicine Award

In medical education circles, the quality of humanism is prized and cultivated in students. But it can be hard to spot, often because it’s demonstrated behind the scenes in acts of service, both large and small.

In a twist to that typically low-key profile, each year a graduating medical student is pulled into the spotlight, nominated and selected by his or her classmates for the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award.

The Class of 2016’s Michael Brady was honored with the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. Here he’s pictured at the medical school’s convocation ceremony.

This year, the Class of 2016’s Michael Brady was chosen for the honor in thanks for the countless hours he’s devoted to public service and to his classmates during his four years in the VCU School of Medicine.

“Michael embodies the definition of humanism,” wrote his classmate Grayson Pitcher, who nominated him for the award. His nomination gives a glimpse into a character and compassion that has shaped Brady’s four years on – and off – the MCV Campus.

“He is a friend of the homeless community in Richmond,” wrote Pitcher, “including two homeless men in particular.” Pitcher described how Brady would invite them over for a meal and shower once a month, and how he’d wash one man’s clothes each month as well.

Brady’s resume is full of academic achievements from serving as a Class of 2016 student representative on the curriculum council to completing the rigorous requirements of the International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program. The program fosters the knowledge, skills and values needed by doctors to provide quality and compassionate care to the less fortunate.

Atop Motigo, the highest point around Bomet, Kenya: Earlier this year, Brady spent three and half weeks in sub-Saharan Africa at Tenwek Hospital in Bomet. Because he’s headed into the field of internal medicine, he asked to spend time on the medical service with the medical interns. Here he’s pictured with Victor, who’s a clinical officer intern at the 200-bed teaching facility that is a referral hospital for about 500,000 in the region. While at Tenwek, he did rounds in the ICU and general medical wards. He also had the chance to spend time with the home hospice team, in the chest/TB clinic and to go into the community to vaccinate infants. Some of the cases he saw are common in the U.S., but he also gained knowledge of conditions that are relatively uncommon in America, like tuberculosis, malaria and pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia that is mostly seen in patients with suppressed immune systems.

“Michael is the kind of student who quietly inspires all those he encounters,” said Mary Lee Magee, M.S., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. She’s gotten to know Brady through her role as director of the I2CRP program.

“His consistent kindness, generosity of spirit and commitment to promoting the dignity and value of others are remarkable. It has been an honor to witness his development as a physician over the past four years. I feel a great sense of hope when I think of his good work moving forward.”

For four years, Brady has served as a student leader with the MCV Campus’ chapter of the Christian Medical and Dental Association, and he’s also worked to bolster the academic success of others. He volunteered with Fulton Hill’s after-school program for K-5 students during his first two years of medical school and, for four years, mentored a student in the Armstrong High School Leadership Program of Richmond Hill. They’d meet at least monthly, sometimes on the basketball court and sometimes at events hosted by the leadership program.

Michael Brady with Jeannie Concha, Ph.D., M.P.H, and pharmacy resident Estela Lajthia, Pharm.D., who developed the Diabetes Wellness Coach Program CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, where Brady had volunteered for years. For his I2CRP capstone project, Brady evaluated the effectiveness of the program’s trained community health volunteers to coach diabetes patients. He found patients in the program had improved their knowledge of diabetes along with improved lab results and medication adherence.

“Many people, groups, and experiences that have influenced me and helped to direct my steps,” said Brady. “My classmate Grayson, the I2CRP program, CMDA, for example. By extension, they are all recipients of the award, too, since they have greatly shaped who I am today and who I will be in the future. Being a part of the East End Fellowship community has had a profound impact on my life as well as I have received great mentorship and teaching about life and faith from the leaders and through the relationships formed in that community.”

This summer, Brady will begin an internal medicine residency at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. But before he left the MCV Campus, he was fêted on Honors Day.

Brady had company in the spotlight: Paula Ferrada, M.D., associate professor of surgery, who’s been selected as this year’s faculty honoree of the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. Since 1991, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation has presented awards annually at to a graduating medical student and a faculty member who are nominated and selected by their peers.