Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries

Main

Featured archives

14
2017

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

28
2017

Eight years running: family medicine student group receives national honors

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association is again among the nation’s top student groups for their activities to generate interest in family medicine. This is the eighth year in a row the group has been recognized by the American Academy of Family Physicians at its annual conference for residents and medical students in Kansas City.

SFMA

The Student Family Medicine Association received national honors for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine. Courtesy Tiffany Matson Photography

“The [Family Medicine Interest Groups] we honor this year have gone above and beyond allowing students to put into practice the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom,” said Clif Knight, M.D., senior vice president for education at the AAFP. “These programs help students develop leadership skills that will serve them in their future practices and communities, and better understand the vital role that family medicine plays in our health care system.”

Seventeen student groups were honored with Program of Excellence Awards on July 28. The SFMA was singled out for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine, and SFMA student leaders were on hand in Kansas City to accept the award on behalf of the 383-member organization.

“The Student Family Medicine Association has been honored year after year for their exceptional programs,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “I am so proud to see the AAFP hold them up as role models for other student groups around the country.”

The group was recognized for its programs like Career Profiles in Family Medicine, a faculty panel that introduces first- and second-year medical students to family medicine’s broad scope of practice, as well as its popular sports medicine workshop. The fully subscribed three-hour workshop described the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and gave students time to practice their clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.

SFMA

The SFMA was recognized for its excellent programs that included a three-hour workshop introducing students to the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and providing time to practice clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.

The AAFP has posted SFMA’s winning application online as an example of best practices and programming ideas for FMIGs nationwide.

Twenty-two MCV Campus students made the trip to Kansas City to participate in the AAFP conference.

“This is the largest group we’ve ever had attend,” says Judy Gary, M.Ed., faculty adviser to SFMA and assistant director of medical education for the VCU Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “We were also proud to see that six of the students were awarded AAFP scholarships to attend the conference.”

In addition, a pair of fourth-year students had the chance to serve as student delegates at the AAFP National Congress, weighing in on issues like improving health care access and addressing student and physician burnout. Kenneth Qiu voted on behalf of Virginia medical students, and Ryan Ortizo represented Guam, where he was born.

“It is critical we continue to garner interest and attract students to the specialty of family medicine,” said the AAFP’s Knight. “The physician shortage in primary care continues, and programs such as FMIGs are key to exposing students to real-world experiences that will help them dig deeper into — and ultimately choose — family medicine.”

Founded in 1947, the AAFP represents 129,000 physicians and medical students nationwide. It is the only medical society devoted solely to primary care. Family physicians conduct approximately one in five office visits. The organization notes that family physicians provide more care for America’s underserved and rural populations than any other medical specialty.

By Erin Lucero

27
2017

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