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13
2017

Reflections on Pinares as HOMBRE team heads back to Honduras

Medical students travel to Honduras, as part of HOMBRE.

Medical students travel to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigagda Relief Effort.

This June a team of more than a dozen health sciences students head to Pinares, Honduras, as part of the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigada Relief Effort, where alongside faculty they will provide medical services and health care education to the country’s underserved and rural populations.

Nine medical students will travel with this year’s team, led by faculty members Michael Filak, M.D., and Sandra Tandeciarz, M.D., who have a combined decade of HOMBRE experience between them.

“We are ever grateful to our School of Medicine faculty for their volunteerism, as well as mentorship, as exemplified here in this global outreach with our dedicated medical students,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., Dean of Medicine.

Team members also include Kate DiPasquale Seelig, M’12, an HOMBRE alumna now returning for the second time as faculty. As a student, Seelig received an Aesculapian Scholarship, made possible through the medical school’s Annual Fund. Even a partial scholarship relieves the burden of debt today’s medical students face and can make it easier for recipients to choose to travel and gain global health experience.

In Honduras, team members will work in health care clinics or on public health projects geared toward improving villagers’ quality of life. On the trip, held June 13-24, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

After HOMBRE’s summer 2016 trip to Honduras, nonprofit partner Shoulder to Shoulder provided a glimpse into the landscape and people of Honduras, as well as the work of the HOMBRE team. Read on for highlights from the Shoulder to Shoulder blog as this year’s team embarks on a new journey.

As the crow flies

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education.

HOMBRE team members provide medical services and education to Honduras’ underserved and rural populations.

“As the crow flies …” is a great expression, probably a little bit overused in the U.S. We don’t hear the expression here in Honduras very much. Primarily, I guess, because we don’t have too many crows. We do have vultures, “zopilotes” we call them, and they fly across the mountains with great ease. Perhaps that’s more the reason why the expression doesn’t get used that often here. It is just a little too depressing to think on how quickly a zopilote crosses from one mountain peak to the other, a matter of a minute or two, and then to think that the same trip takes up to an hour or two in a four-wheel drive pickup. It’s just a little bit too humbling to think that nature is that far ahead of human ingenuity. Here, the terrain and the elements of the natural world continue to present tremendous challenges to human dominance. Perhaps not so much in the U.S. Here, we prefer to not remind ourselves how much easier it is to be a crow or a zopilote.

The Frontera is a really small place, less than 700 square kilometers, smaller than El Paso, Texas. But, there are no straight lines and nothing is ever level. One goes north to arrive at a destination to the south, or up in order to go down. This counterintuitive travel is yet worsened by roads that would not merit the designation of a road in the U.S. Steep volcanic mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, but living within them is hardly practical.

San Marcos de La Sierra is the first municipality that one encounters in the Frontera, driving south from La Esperanza. The road here is still at a high elevation and one doesn’t really see any evidence that people live here. Virginia Commonwealth University and Fairfax Family Practices have been coming to this area three times a year for many years. They were just here once again. We dropped them off at the school and clinic in Pinares and we came back about a week or so later to pick them up. If we didn’t know what they do while they are there, we might assume they just hang out and admire the tremendous vistas they are privileged to view. But we do know better.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience.

During HOMBRE, medical students gain interdisciplinary experience working alongside nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students.

Hiding behind those mountains, across ravines and beyond the treacherous slopes, are about 9,000 residents. Few of them make their way to the health clinic. This is not surprising. They are poor, simple people. They have all they can do to maintain a small home and, if they are fortunate, a small plot of land on which to farm. They travel to a river for water. They collect wood for a fire to cook humble meals. They battle daily with a harsh, unforgiving environment so that they can stay ahead of a mortality curve. They remain unseen, forgotten, abandoned, invisible if you will, except for the zopilote vultures that circle their heads. If anyone is going to know these people, if anyone is going to care for them, treat their illnesses, recognize their dignity, then it demands going to them. They can’t come to us.

We sometimes look naively upon a just response to inequity and poverty. It would be easy to sit outside the school at Pinares where VCU/Fairfax houses their service team and admire the beauty of majestic mountains. It takes insight, compassion and even sacrifice to gain the view of a zopilote that flies beyond the mountains with ease. For the doctors, students, translators and volunteers, they brave the rough terrain to make their way to unseen, ignored people who live in poverty. They climb into the beds of pickup trucks, squished in among the bins of medical supplies, and bump along to destinations where most anyone would not dare to go. They stare down the cliffs as they go. They stop when they can go no further with a car because the road has fallen down the mountain. They sling their supplies over their shoulders and into backpacks. Then they walk. Perhaps even as they trek along, they wonder about this odd journey: going south to arrive to the north, and up in order to get down. Then they finally arrive in a little village, a place mostly unknown. Maybe they look up and see a zopilote circling their heads. Perhaps they indulge themselves with a knowing smile.

This is how we discover people. We make our way along treacherous journeys. Once again, VCU/Fairfax has made their journey to reach a poor, forgotten, invisible people. The people they have met are happy and grateful for the encounter. For this journey, to have arrived to where the crow flies, everyone has been enriched.

13
2017

For the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham, persistence and resilience earn a second chance

The pride overflows from the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham as he talks about life on the MCV Campus as a first-year medical student.

“It’s been blissful to finally be here,” says Pham, his smile growing wider. “Pure happiness. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”

At 34, he says he’s finally where he’s supposed to be.

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and family

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and his wife with four of their five children, ages 5, 10, 11 and 14. Not pictured: their newest addition, a 1-year-old boy.

Five years ago, Pham found himself in a much different spot. He was running his family’s business in Seattle, Washington, having dropped out of college years earlier when he became a young father. He was making ends meet for his family but longed for a sense of fulfillment.

“I saw my children, who were so young and just beginning their lives, as a biological miracle,” Pham says. “The process of life is fascinating. They came out pretty perfectly yet so many things could have gone wrong. I wanted to understand this amazingness.”

So in 2012 the then-father of three went back to the University of Washington, where he had been one political science class shy of graduating, to finish his bachelor’s degree and earn his prerequisites. “This time I knew I had it in me. It was four hours round trip to school. I studied on the bus. I studied while brushing my teeth. It’s amazing what time you can find,” he laughs.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU. “He is truly the one man who understands me completely. Perhaps also my greatest supporter.”

A Vietnamese immigrant who moved to the U.S with his parents and three siblings at age 10, Pham’s parents had always dreamed of him becoming a doctor. “Most immigrant families feel the need to be successful. You have to finish school. Be somebody.”

For much of his life, Pham followed this track. A bright high school student, he took community college classes his junior and senior years, earning his associate’s degree at the same time he graduated from high school. But he resisted his parents’ push toward medical school and ultimately abandoned his undergraduate studies. Eventually he found himself far from the life he’d envisioned.

It wasn’t until someone told him, “You made a mistake, but I believe you can recover from it,” that Pham began to reflect on what he could give back to society. “When you don’t have anything, you appreciate your body and your health. In Vietnam, it was how you could get work in the fields. My family was poor — we were on welfare when we came to the United States — but we had our health.

“I want to be the ‘keeper of health’ for the underserved and the poor,” Pham says. “That’s what I was. Now I want to pay it forward to the next generation.”

But while his career path was now clear to Pham, he had more work to do before being accepted into medical school. On the advice of senior associate dean of admissions Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, he completed VCU’s post-baccalaureate graduate certificate program.

“When I was emailing medical schools, Dr. Whitehurst-Cook was the only one who emailed me back personally and said ‘here are some of the things you could do,’” Pham says. “Other schools sent an auto response but this school, this person, found time to respond. It’s like the kind of doctor I want to be. VCU felt like the right school.”

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic, Virginia’s largest free clinic where Pham volunteered prior to medical school and continues to give his time.

After earning his certificate and a 4.0 GPA, Pham spent 2016 volunteering at CrossOver Ministry in Richmond under the mentorship of James Darden, M’58. Seeing the patients at CrossOver, Virginia’s largest free clinic serving more than 6,000 individuals, reinforced his desire to become a doctor and work with the underserved.

Whitehurst-Cook says Pham’s persistence and hard work showed he would be successful at VCU and as a physician.

“We saw a real passion in Jay for helping others,” she says. “He is a great role model. He’s learned a lot from his life’s journey and can share it with other students and help others develop cultural sensitivity, not just to his heritage, but to his path to medical school. Resilience is so important.”

Since arriving on campus, Pham’s path has been made a little easier as a recipient of the Lillian H. and Steward R. Moore Scholarship, which partially funds his tuition. “I’m very proud to be worthy of a scholarship and appreciate any amount that I don’t have to borrow. It’s tremendous.”

Providing meaningful scholarship support for students with financial need is the goal of the medical school’s 1838 Campaign. Full and half-tuition scholarships are most urgently needed. They are one of the medical school’s best resources for recruiting and rewarding deserving students like Pham.

The now married father of five is a leader in his class — other students affectionately call him “Pappy”— and in his family, where he and his children often study side-by-side. “It’s easy to tell them to study when they’re always seeing me study,” he laughs. “We are students together.”

It’s not the path to medical school Pham may have chosen, but he’s shared the ups and downs of his journey with his children, ages 1 to 14. He tells them while it’s OK to make mistakes, sometimes there is a better way.

“Do things right the first time,” he says. “Fixing it is hard.”

But as Pham eyes his second of year of medical school, he knows better than most that it’s possible.

By Polly Roberts

19
2017

Servant leadership promotes academic excellence

Dr. Peter Buckley’s Philosophy has Brought Him to the Medical School as Its New Dean

Peter F. Buckley, M.D., has arrived on the MCV Campus as the 24th dean of the VCU School of Medicine and executive vice president of medical affairs for VCU Health. A psychiatrist and expert in the neurobiology and treatment of schizophrenia, Buckley is a national leader in academic medicine and recognized internationally for his research. Most recently, he served for more than six years as dean of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, where he had been recruited in 2000 to lead the psychiatry department. During his tenure as dean, the medical school expanded to become the ninth largest by class size, grew to encompass five regional campuses, built a new medical education home and acquired new endowed chairs and scholarships, including a $66 million gift to the medical school.

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

His previous academic appointments include serving on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University, where he rose through the ranks to become professor and vice chair of the psychiatry department. While in Ohio, he also served as medical director for Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare and its three state inpatient psychiatric facilities, leading it to become the best-rated psychiatric hospital in the state.

With 500 original articles, book chapters and abstracts to his credit, Buckley is senior author of a postgraduate textbook of psychiatry and also has authored or edited 16 books on schizophrenia and related topics. He serves as editor, associate editor or as a member of the editorial boards of more than a dozen psychiatric journals.

DEAN PETER F. BUCKLEY, M.D. SAYS …
The MCV Campus and VCU are gems in the commonwealth of Virginia, so I’m very pleased to join you here. Of course I’ve known about the School of Medicine and its reputation for many years. And specifically, a few years back, I had the opportunity to learn about it in much more depth, and I was very impressed by the talented faculty here.

Moreover, when I was dean at the Medical College of Georgia, I was involved in planning for a new curriculum and new facility, and so our team naturally visited Richmond to take a look at the remarkable McGlothlin Medical Education Center. They returned to Augusta and reported that it more than lived up to its reputation as a pioneering learning environment, and we built our facility and curriculum based on what we learned.

I’m Irish by birth, and traveled to the U.S. with my wife, Leonie, in the early 1990s. We’re very proud to be American citizens. As part of that, we feel a great onus to give back, and, in this instance, to work as dean of this great medical school to help improve the health of the citizens of the commonwealth and beyond.

Q: You’d been at Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia since 2000 and had served as dean there for the past six years . What led to your move?
We enjoyed our time in Augusta and were well involved in the community. But life’s a journey, and it was time for us to take the next stage of our journey together. We were really drawn to Richmond and to this community. We’re energized by the medical school’s great collaborative spirit as well as by the science, both the basic science and the clinical translation science.

The impact of any academic medical center should be best felt in its own community. There’s not a better medical school or a university than this one to display how a university can positively impact the health care of the people in the region and the overall population’s wellbeing.

These attributes as well as the vibrancy of Richmond and warm welcome of the community drew us to enthusiastically make our new home here.

Q: What is your vision for the School of Medicine?
This school is extremely well poised, in terms of both its research profile as well as the foundation of funding, to increase its rankings in federal funding. I will be working with my colleagues to try to broaden the research portfolio and broaden the focus on community-based research that’s meaningful, that’s impactful, within the local region.

Presently, I am meeting people from our institution and community as I gain an understanding of the institution, its culture and our environment. It’s really a labor of love at this stage, and enjoying the support and help of others as I focus in on the strategic growth and development opportunities here into the future.

Q: Your own specialty is psychiatry. What shape has that taken over your career?  

I have specifically focused on schizophrenia because I consider the condition itself very disabling, as well as very intriguing from a neuroscience point of view. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with some great colleagues over the years as we looked to try to understand its basic science. Can we predict how people relapse and what factors affect it? We’ve been fortunate to do work on how medications can forestall relapse and try to predict which medicines work better as well as understanding their
side effects.

More recently we have been studying the neurobiology of schizophrenia. Presently, we make an artificial distinction based upon symptoms as to whether someone might have a mood problem or schizophrenia. Some of our more recent collaborative work has suggested that there may be an underlying substrate that delineates these conditions in a different manner. We are working on federally funded collaborative research with major centers across the country to tease out the neurobiological “signature” of psychosis.

Peter Buckley, MD, and family>Q: What do you want the alumni body to know about you?
Several things. Firstly, Leonie and I are very pleased to be here and we have great respect and appreciation for the traditions of medicine. The impact of this university, and specifically the medical school on the community stretches back to 1838. It’s an amazing history and it also influences us daily and into our future. I see an excellence today in both research as well as in clinical care that makes me excited about the school’s remarkable momentum.

Of course, there are challenges now that weren’t here in 1838. Obviously, the finances of running a medical school that’s interconnected with a health system is a very complex situation of its own. It’s further complicated as we move to more value-based care.

But an opportunity comes with that, too. One of the things this university and this medical school have done fantastically is to train doctors and health care providers as a group. The MCV Campus’ enviable collection of schools provides an environment to train health care teams in a collaborative group. That’s essential today, and our impressive new curriculum earned flying colors from last year’s accreditation visit. Quality is not a singular doctor, or a nurse or an allied health provider. It’s a team event. In medicine, we are moving ever increasingly towards more team-based learning and team-based practice of care. To that end, we were also recognized this year as recipient of the Baldwin Award from ACGME, acknowledging our excellence in training, quality and humanism.

We have a great medical school: a remarkable legacy and an impressive momentum and future direction. There is much to do and we will do it together as we advance our medical school’s 179-year legacy of being innovative at the forefront of research, education and excellence in clinical care.

12
2017

Biostatistics alumnus returns to campus, shares stories from the pharmaceutical industry

Biostat alumnus Tony SegretiWhat can you learn about a career in pharmaceuticals from America’s pastime?

Plenty, says Anthony Segreti, PhD ’77 (BIOS), a card-carrying member of the Society for American Baseball Research, the organization that has developed sabermetrics, the empirical analysis of baseball statistics. (Think about the 2011 Brad Pitt film, Moneyball, depicting a general manager who built a stellar team of undervalued players using sabermetrics.)

Baseball and pharma have some things in common, said Segreti. “Baseball teams draft and sign a lot of players to contracts and, of that number, only a few are going to make it to the major leagues. In the pharmaceutical industry, there are a lot of contenders but not a lot make it to the approval stage.

“You can have a lot of notoriety and expectations, but what really matters is how you perform on the field – or in the clinical trials. Everything is based on evidence, just like everything is based on how a player is able to succeed on the field.” And as in baseball, you can’t always win, he said. That’s part of the game.

Segreti joined the pharmaceutical industry in 1979 at Burroughs Wellcome Co., and remained there through mergers with Glaxo and SmithKline, until leaving in 2006 to work at two contract research organizations for a few years. He then joined biotechnology firm Targacept and remained there until his 2014 retirement.

To use another baseball analogy, Segreti made it to the show. At the Department of Biostatistics graduation ceremony on May 12, he shared stories of some big wins.

Those include being in the lineup in the development of some highly successful drugs, including Acyclovir, an antiviral drug that started a new era in herpes treatment; Zidovudine, for HIV treatment; and epoprostenol sodium, a game-changer for pulmonary arterial hypertension. “Drug development is a team sport,” he noted.

And that’s where his training on the MCV Campus especially came into play.

“I always felt that VCU was a real springboard to my career. There’s a wonderful opportunity for graduate students to interact with researchers and solve real world problems and learn a lot of the activities you don’t learn in a textbook. You learn to be an effective consultant, researcher and how to get along with those who don’t see the world the way that you do.”

Because recruiting new talent to the field is important, he remains active in the Biopharmaceutical Applied Statistics Symposium (BASS), a forum where researchers and scholars in academia, government agencies and industries to share knowledge and ideas. He’s chairing this year’s meeting and working to support the next generation of biostatisticians who attend.

In addition to sharing his time and expertise with the Biostatistics Department and its students, Segreti and his wife, Wendy, have made several generous donations to the university. “There’s nothing I’d rather spend money on – outside my family – than giving something back to the university that really helped my career.”

He fondly recalls his years on the MCV Campus and how the biostatistics graduate students would exercise together during lunch. For two years in a row they won the intramural basketball championship of their league. “The joke was that nobody under 6 feet would get a scholarship,” he said.

Like many players, Segreti eventually worked as a manager, leading between 15 and 40 statisticians. Those professionals, he said, tend to like to work independently, so he knew he needed a special strategy.

Naturally, he looked to sports for a management philosophy, taking a cue from a famed baseball manager. “Tommy Lasorda said, ‘Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away.’”

By Lisa Crutchfield

09
2017

The Class of 2017’s Ashley Williams is first SAEP grad to earn M.D.

The Class of 2017’s Ashley Williams got her start on the MCV Campus in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program.

The Class of 2017’s Ashley Williams got her start on the MCV Campus in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program. Now she’s headed to Emory University for a pediatrics residency and ultimately plans to practice with underserved populations.

Ashley Williams had a pretty good idea she’d be successful in her studies at VCU’s School of Medicine. She had a sneak peek a year before she actually started.

Williams was part of VCU’s inaugural Summer Academic Enrichment Program in 2012. On May 12, she’ll become the first SAEP grad to go on to complete the M.D. program on the MCV Campus. SAEP provides students with an academically rigorous experience to simulate the first year of health professional school. Students choose a concentration from among four disciplines: dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and physical therapy.

“Not only are you exposed to different subjects and the rigors of long days and long nights, you get to know some of the faculty,” Williams says. “That gives you a leg up when you’re applying to medical schools, and you’re more confident when you get there.”

Williams received her undergraduate degree from Xavier University and a master’s in medical science from Hampton University before entering medical school.

The SAEP program, which provides housing and a stipend to participants, includes core classes, discipline-specific instruction, test-taking workshops, mock interviews and coaching.

The program is designed to see if students can manage an intense health sciences program and to demonstrate the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork that today’s professionals must possess, says Donna Jackson, M.Ed, Ed.D, the medical school’s assistant dean of admissions and director of Student Outreach Programs.

In addition, Jackson says, “We’ve added a community service component so that students understand that part of the privilege of being a health care professional is giving back.” Participants, for example, volunteer at health screenings at nearby St. Paul’s Church.

Williams has spoken on behalf of the SAEP program as well as at events hosted by the Student National Medical Association.

During her four years in medical school, Williams has spoken on behalf of the SAEP program as well as at events hosted by the Student National Medical Association.

SAEP also has benefits for students-to-be. For Williams, it allowed her to experience the kind of support she’d receive as a student on the MCV Campus, which sealed the deal for her. In addition to an open-door policy in the Admissions and Administration offices, she found a mentor in Stephanie Crewe, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of pediatrics. Williams also was encouraged during her four years of study by students in the Student National Medical Association and International/Inner City Rural Preceptorship Program, which allowed her to attend to underserved populations, something she plans to do when she finishes her residency in pediatrics at Emory University in Atlanta.

Overall, about 67 percent of SAEP graduates eligible to matriculate to health professional programs had done so by the start of this past school year.

Her success at VCU, Williams says, might not have been possible without financial support she received in the form of several partial scholarships. “Not having to worry about finances allows you to focus on your schoolwork,” she says. “It was especially helpful when I had to travel to residency interviews.”

The medical school hopes to be able to offer more of those scholarships through the $25-million 1838 Campaign (named for the year in which the school was founded), which will build the school’s endowment. A goal of the campaign is to give a competitive edge for recruiting and rewarding top students, and reducing student debt.

By Lisa Crutchfield

27
2017

Woodworking unlocks creativity, teaches patience for health behavior and policy student Tyler Braun

The Department of Health Behavior and Policy’s third-year Ph.D. candidate Tyler Braun’s research on Spillover Theory analyzes how Medicare policy indirectly influences private insurance markets and effects private insurance enrollees.

He makes a point of finding time away from his research to spend in his woodshop creating one-of-a-kind pieces of art. In his own words:

Tyler Braun, Department of Health Behavior and Policy Ph.D. candidate, uses his woodworking skills to create a dining room table.

Tyler Braun, Department of Health Behavior and Policy Ph.D. candidate, uses his woodworking skills to create a dining room table from the reclaimed wood of an old storage unit dating back to Church Hill’s 1800s.
Photo by Kevin Schindler

Woodworking is something that I grew up with. My grandfather is a world-renowned decoy carver and my dad is very handy with tools. So at an early age, due to my grandfather’s and dad’s love for woodworking, I was exposed to chisels, power tools and a knack for understanding woodworking and artistry.

As I progressed through my doctorate, I needed a stress reliever and decided that I would attempt to take up woodworking as a hobby much like my grandfather and dad had. One day I blew off the old sawdust on the woodworking tools my grandfather and dad gave me and I began carving. I started off making college sports logos and state flags as gifts for friends and family, and through word-of-mouth,my wood art has been in high demand ever since.

Finding leisure time while working on a Ph.D. can be difficult, especially with multiple deadlines, but I make an attempt every day to keep Ph.D. work in regular business hours so I can go home to my woodshop to relieve the stresses of school, reflect on life and let my imagination run wild to create pieces of one-of-a-kind wood art.

Woodworking is a hobby that has grown my imagination and taught me patience and to pay attention to detail — luckily these characteristics have also carried over into my dissertation and doctoral work, which are very important to succeed in a Ph.D. program.

My suggestion to graduate students is to find a hobby that makes you happy, grows your imagination, relieves stress and helps you to continuously grow as an individual and a scholar.

By Tyler Braun