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Longtime Microbiology faculty member Deborah Lebman endows scholarship via her estate plans

Deborah Lebman, Ph.D.

Deborah Lebman, Ph.D.

She makes a difference in students’ lives every day. Now she’s laid the groundwork for her impact to continue even after she leaves the MCV Campus.

Associate Professor Deborah Lebman, Ph.D., joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in 1989. A self-proclaimed “fan of our students,” for 18 years she’s directed the immunology course for the medical students and with the advent of the medical school’s new C3 curriculum became co-director of the Infection and Immunity Division.

For several years, Lebman has been a member of the medical school’s admissions committee where, she says, she sees what a great need there is for scholarships.

Earlier this year, she decided to take action and made provisions in her estate plans to create a medical student scholarship.

“I believe that our greatest impact comes from what we give to others,” said Lebman. “Creating a scholarship fund serves the dual purpose of expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to teach the next generation of physicians and giving someone else the opportunity to leave a mark on society.”

Her bequest was featured in the July edition of VCU’s philanthropy email newsletter, Black & Gold & You, that described how bequests can promote academic excellence and strengthen VCU as a diverse premier urban research institution.

The newsletter outlines some benefits associated with bequests:

• Easy to make — You retain your assets throughout your lifetime.

• Revocable — You can make changes to beneficiaries of your estate throughout your lifetime.

• Flexible — Your bequest can be directed to support the university as a whole or a school/program that is important to you.

Photography by Will Gilbert


Student group to receive national honor for promoting the scope of family medicine

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association is one of 17 student interest groups in the nation to be honored this year.

Each year, the American Academy of Family Physicians honors student-run Family Medicine Interest Groups for their outstanding activities in generating interest in family medicine.

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association is one of 17 FMIGs to be honored this year. They’ll accept the Excellence in Promoting the Scope of Family Medicine award on July 29 during the AAFP National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students in Kansas City, Kansas.

The SFMA on the MCV Campus is one of the oldest and most active student organizations in the medical school and in the state of Virginia. Annually it organizes workshops as well as community and clinical experiences to give medical students a chance to learn more about the role family physicians play within the field of medicine and in the greater community. In addition to a variety of lectures, this past year it coordinated health screenings and sports physicals in medically underserved communities as well as volunteering opportunities and workshops.

“Our SFMA does an exceptional job of finding ways to demonstrate for their classmates how dynamic and diverse family medicine is,” said faculty advisor Judy Gary, M.Ed., assistant director of medical education in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health.

SFMA Workshop

SFMA organizes workshops for practicing physical exam skills as well as bringing in community physicians to address hot topics like vaccines and palliative care.

“They organized workshops for practicing physical exam skills as well as bringing in community physicians to address hot topics like vaccines and palliative care. And each time, the physician speakers discussed the field, their experience practicing in a variety of settings and how they incorporate special interests like sports medicine, women’s health, geriatrics and integrative care into their practice.”

The AAFP’s Program of Excellence Awards recognize FMIGs from around the country for their efforts to promote interest in family medicine and family medicine programming.

“Attracting medical students to the specialty of family medicine is critical to addressing the ongoing primary care physician shortage,” said Clif Knight, M.D., senior vice president for education at the AAFP. “Excellent FMIGs such as these award winners are an important component in these efforts. They’re essential to helping medical students understand the professional responsibilities and satisfaction of being a family physician.

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


All time high for Medical Student Research Day

Medical Student Research Day

The Class of 2018’s Stephanie DeMasi took first place at Medical Student Research Day. The judges reported that the quality and quantity of her research was exceptional given the limited time period in which the research was conducted, and particularly so given that this was her initial experience with a bona fide research project.

The 2016 Medical Student Research Day featured poster presentations from both the basic and clinical sciences, with students tackling topics as diverse as dengue and chikungunya viruses, surviving melanoma and hand hygiene in the operating room. There were also several research projects that examined medical education topics like encouraging compassion and learning to place intravenous catheters.

With 49 medical students participating, Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate education, noted it was the largest number of presenters in the event’s three-year history.

“Having M.D. students gain some type of research experience during their training has been a point of emphasis by the medical school’s dean, Dr. Jerry Strauss, and also by the LCME, the accrediting body for the M.D. program,” said Chlebowski.

Student interest in research has been steadily growing over the past eight years, and the introduction of the M.D. program’s new curriculum has provided more opportunities for students to build research experience over the course of their training.

Dean of Medicine Jerry Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., was on hand to review the research and speak with the presenters.

“It was an impressive show of talent! The research projects were diverse, and the students who walked me through their posters were extremely knowledgeable,” said Strauss. “This was a truly exceptional year in terms of the number of participants, and the quality of the work presented. I am particularly grateful to the research mentors who invested significant time and effort in making these research experiences productive and rewarding.”

The posters presented at Medical Student Research Day are eligible for prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250. A panel of judges reviewed the presentations’ originality, understanding, clarity and discussion.

Stephanie DeMasi with Jack Haar, professor emeritus of anatomy and neurobiology, who established the James D. Popp Summer Research Fellowship that made DeMasi’s research possible.

Stephanie DeMasi with Jack Haar, professor emeritus of anatomy and neurobiology, who established the James D. Popp Summer Research Fellowship that made DeMasi’s research possible.

This year’s winning entry was the Class of 2018’s Stephanie DeMasi, New Platinum Agents, Triplatin and Triplatin NC, Suppress Advanced Breast and Pancreatic Cancer. With financial support from the James D. Popp Summer Research Fellowship, she conducted the research under the guidance of Kazuaki Takabe, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery.

“The judges felt that the quality and quantity of the research achieved by the winner was exceptional given the limited time period in which the research was conducted,” Chlebowski said. Their interactions with DeMasi during her presentation provided convincing evidence of her immersion and understanding of the complex nature of the study..

“This was compounded by the report that this was her initial experience with a bona fide research project.”

The judges also awarded:
– Second place to the Class of 2017’s Mashya Abbassi and Reza Nabavizadeh, co-presenters and classmates, and
– In a tie for third place: the Class of 2018’s Christopher Bednarz and the Class of 2018’s Imran Khatri.

Many of the research findings described in the poster presentations were products of the Medicine Student Summer Research Fellowship Program. The student-initiated eight-week projects take place between the students’ first and second years of medical school.

“Students submit a proposed project and have to identify a faculty mentor on their own,” explained Chlebowski. If the project is approved, students receive a $2,500 stipend to support their research.

By Erin Lucero


A dozen fourth-years do clinical rotations in Italy and Spain

Katie Waybill, M’16, was awestruck by the pace of life in Messina, Italy.

“It was so much slower,” she said. “It really gave us a chance to feel the culture of the city, to live every moment.”

Waybill was one of six fourth-year medical students to travel to Italy in February as part of a four-week international exchange between the VCU School of Medicine and the University of Messina. Another six students just returned from Spain as part of an exchange with the University of Cordoba.

“It’s so much better when you are learning a language to be immersed in the environment,” said the Class of 2016’s Ellie Balakhanlou. “I feel like I left there more competent because I was forced to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and really converse in the language.” Pictured here: The students on the Cordoba rotation on a trip into the High Atlas Mountains, where they visited some Berber villages.

“This is a great way for our students to see how healthcare is performed in other parts of the world,” said Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, associate dean for student affairs who helps coordinate the exchange. “This experience helps our students become well-rounded in dealing with patients who come from different backgrounds.”

The medical exchange between the three schools began 10 years ago. This year, about 30 students from the MCV Campus expressed interest, with 12 selected through a lottery process. When they applied, they selected the specialty that interested them the most and were matched with physicians to shadow.

“Medical students there don’t get as many hands-on experiences as we do here,” said student Sushmita Gordhandas, who traveled to Spain. “But I still learned a lot. It was interesting to see how different healthcare is in another country.”

Gordhandas, who will be moving to Seattle for her OB-GYN residency at the University of Washington, rotated in radiology while in Spain. She saw a variety of cases, from a brain tumor to broken bones.

“In the U.S., there’s more of a mindset that your life is your job,” she said. “In Spain, you do your job and go home to your family. You work hard, but family is the priority. That was one difference, but the biggest thing we encountered was the language barrier. That was a little challenging, but it all worked out. We had friends on our side.”

Many of their counterparts who already had rotated on the MCV Campus as part of the exchange were happy to lend a helping hand, and many of the assigned professors spoke English.

“Some of the residents had already been here and were familiar with MCV,” said Waybill, who will stay in Richmond to complete her internal medicine residency. “Their English was really good. They helped us so much.”

For Ellie Balakhanlou, the trip to Cordoba gave her the opportunity to flex her Spanish-speaking muscles.

“It’s so much better when you are learning a language to be immersed in the environment,” she said. “I feel like I left there more competent because I was forced to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and really converse in the language.”

“It was a clinical rotation for us, but we learned so much outside of that,” said Waybill, who rotated in radiology. She reviewed chest x-rays and saw everything from bowel cancer and congenital heart anomalies to pneumonia. She also had the opportunity to run CT scans on two Vatican mummies. “I am so appreciative for the chance to live in another culture.” Pictured here: The students on the Messina rotation on a day trip to Sicily.

Balakhanlou will stay at on the MCV Campus for her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. While in Spain, she was part of the physical rehabilitation rotation and worked with cardiac, pulmonary and pediatric patients.

“I got to do some exams and talk with the patients,” she said. “It was great. The doctors introduced us as Americans and all the patients were so welcoming. They joked with me that I got the chance to practice my Spanish with them while they got to practice their English with me. It was a fascinating experience.”

Each group made time for sightseeing. In Italy, for example, the students spent a weekend in Tuscany, visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa and saw Greek ruins in Agrigento.

“It was a clinical rotation for us, but we learned so much outside of that,” said Waybill, who rotated in radiology. She reviewed chest x-rays and saw everything from bowel cancer and congenital heart anomalies to pneumonia. She also had the opportunity to run CT scans on two Vatican mummies. “I am so appreciative for the chance to live in another culture.”

With a growing number of students applying for the exchange, the medical school hopes to expand the program to include more countries in the coming years.

“In an ever increasing globalized world, it’s important to have inter-cultural experiences,” said Michael Ryan, M.D., assistant dean for clinical medical education. “It makes our students more valuable and better equipped to understand our complex world.”

And become better physicians in the process.

“Health care is different no matter where you go,” Waybill said. “No one system is perfect. But if you can take the strengths from all, it will allow us to have a cohesive relationship with other nations and work toward a stronger healthcare system for everyone.”

By Janet Showalter


MacGyver medicine: Medical school team wins wilderness medicine event

Stabilizing a patient with spinal cord injury. Emergency tracheotomy. Intubation. It’s all in a day’s work.

Except now imagine doing these procedures while mountain biking, canoeing, running through the woods with map and compass, and carrying all your supplies on your back.

The Class of 2016’s Phil Griffith, Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, and the Class of 2017’s Jenika Ferretti-Gallon prevailed in the Mid-Atlantic MedWAR that combines wilderness medicine and adventure racing.

Sounds almost impossible, but the medical school’s Lactated Ringers team prevailed at the Mid-Atlantic MedWAR (Medical Wilderness Adventure Race) competition on March 19.

MedWAR events pit three-person teams of wilderness medicine enthusiasts against each other for a day-long event that challenges their medical knowledge, orienteering skills and stamina. The competition, held in several locations throughout the U.S., was created in 2000 by two emergency medicine physicians with a passion for adventure racing. MedWAR events have no route markers, water stations or cheering spectators; instead they simulate backcountry rescue situations so participants can test and improve their skills.

The Class of 2016’s Phil Griffith heard about the event last year and decided it was the perfect venue for his love of the outdoors and career plans as an emergency physician. “Emergency medicine fits with wilderness medicine,” he noted. Except in the outdoors, “You’re practicing with fewer resources, higher evacuation times and the same principles of stabilize and improvise.”

He participated in the event for the first time last year with Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, on a team dubbed the Lactated Ringers. This year, the Class of 2017’s Jenika Ferretti-Gallon joined them.

An associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Woleben is also associate dean for student affairs in the medical school. Though he’s far more experienced in medicine, Woleben calls the students “the masterminds to our team’s success.”

The competition, held in Newport News, includes three loops (four for more advanced competitors) consisting of questions and hands-on scenarios. Each team must navigate to checkpoints where they will encounter physical challenges or wilderness medicine simulations, which they must successfully complete before moving forward.

The team takes its name from Ringer’s lactate solution that’s often used for fluid resuscitation after blood loss due to trauma, surgery or other injury.

During the race, which the Lactated Ringers completed in under seven hours by mountain bike, canoe and foot, they performed a cricothyrotomy on a pig trachea and removed a fish hook from someone’s skin (using a pig’s foot as a stand-in). One memorable scenario involved stabilizing a skydiver who had landed in a tree and sustained spinal cord injury.

The trio capitalized on the lessons learned from the experiences of the 2015 team.

“The reason for our success was that we planned in advance,” said Ferretti-Gallon. “We practiced orienteering the weekend before the race at a Boy Scout camp.”

The group also knew what to carry in their pack, smaller than last year’s but still a hefty 20 pounds of wilderness supplies. “The most important thing you can have is gloves,” said Griffith. “And a knife is always useful.” The group also hauled water purification equipment, shelter, epinephrine for anaphylactic shock, gauze and a CPR mask. A skin stapler came in handy, too, for making quick repairs on their simulated victims so the team could get back on the course.

With few penalties for wrong answers and some bonus points for their knot-tying skills, the team was named winner of the Intermediate division. In addition to bragging rights, the team won a copy of “Improvised Medicine,” a book Griffith dubs MacGyver medicine. “Actually, I’ve had my eye on that for a while,” he said.

It also gave them confidence. “MedWAR can change the way you think about practicing medicine,” Ferretti-Gallon said. “It gives you skills to apply in the field. It’s encouraging and it’s empowering.”

She’ll hold down the fort next year at MedWAR, as Griffith moves to Ohio for residency.

However, he remains prepared for anything he encounters. “I always try to keep my medical bag with me. And my keychain is just exploding now with a bag of gloves, a pocket knife and other supplies.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


“My country needs me” – Trio of Fulbright students working to improve medicine back home

Soon after realizing her dream of becoming an assistant professor at King Edward Medical University in Pakistan, Javeria Aijaz, MBBS, noticed a startling deficiency at the medical institution that’s renowned in her native country.

“Despite being a top-ranked university, there was hardly any research work being done,” she said. “There is such a great need.”

She knew earning a Ph.D. in human and molecular genetics would put her one step closer to helping her country research and fight disease. With limited educational opportunities in this field available in Pakistan, she turned to the United States.

Aijaz applied for a Fulbright scholarship, which enables graduate students, young professionals and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the United States. When she received word last year that she was accepted into the program, she was overwhelmed.

“I’m so thankful every day that I’m in this position to help my country,” she said.

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program operates in more than 155 countries worldwide. Approximately 4,000 foreign students receive Fulbright scholarships each year. Once students are accepted, the merit-based program helps match them with universities that best meet their needs.

For Aijaz, that meant the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. She arrived on the MCV Campus in the fall and will remain in Richmond for the next four to five years while completing her Ph.D.

“I’ll then return home,” she said. “My country needs me.”

Aijaz is not alone in her quest. Two other Fulbright scholars are also on campus. Gladys Langi, from Indonesia, and Viviana Rodriguez, from Colombia, also are on a mission to improve medicine in their home countries. All three are enrolled in degree programs within the School of Medicine.

“To have three Fulbright scholars at the same time is pretty exciting,” said Jan Chlebowski, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate education in the medical school. “It’s definitely a unique set of circumstances we have not seen before.”

A handful of Fulbrighters have been enrolled at the VCU School of Medicine in the past, but in Chlebowski’s 38 years on campus, he’s never seen three in the same year.

“We’ve had more exposure in the international arena,” he said. “As that footprint has grown, awareness and appreciation of VCU as a potential destination has grown. Remember that for these students, English is not their first language. Everything they do is even more of a challenge. They are managing it very well. These students are amazing.”

Meet these Fulbright students.

Javeria Aijaz
from Pakistan,
pursuing a PhD in
the Department of
Human and Molecular
Gladys Langi
from Indonesia,
pursuing a master’s
degree in the
Department of Human
and Molecular Genetics
Viviana Rodriguez
Viviana Rodriguez
from Colombia,
pursuing a PhD
degree in the
Department of

Javeria Aijaz

Growing up in Pakistan, Aijaz thought she would study engineering. But her father encouraged her to take the medical route. She earned her medical degree from Punjab University in 2002, then completed a fellowship in hematology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

She was named assistant professor at King Edward Medical University in 2009. She joined the GIZ Health Sector Support Program’s Safe Blood Transfusion Project two years later. Since its inception, SBTP has delivered a series of improvements that have significantly contributed to blood safety standards.

Javeria Aijaz, from Pakistan; pursuing a PhD in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics

“I learned that in a resource-strained country like Pakistan, safe blood transfusions would not be possible without eliminating preventable, transfusion-dependent genetic diseases,” she said. “The experience strengthened my desire to promote research in genetics as a public health measure.”

With her three children growing older, Aijaz decided the time was right to apply for the Fulbright program and pursue her Ph.D. Her husband and children remain in Pakistan but are applying for visas so they can join her here.

“I knew now was the time to make the move, otherwise it would be too late,” said Aijaz, 36. “I miss my family terribly, but there is a lot of pressure here at school to take my mind off that.”

Some of the challenges facing Aijaz are sophisticated labs and technology.

“Javeria had all this clinical knowledge when she came, but had not worked in a lab,” said Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., vice chair of education for the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “She was not fazed at all about that. She’s always craving more information and has really shined.”

Gladys Langi 

After earning her bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia, Langi dreamed of a career in human genetics.

“Then I thought, do I really want to do this?” she said. “I decided to work first before returning to school.”

Gladys Langi, from Indonesia; pursuing a master’s degree in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics

She joined Mochtar Riady Institute for Nanotechnology as a research assistant in the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms laboratory. For two years, she searched for genetic variants in transforming growth factor beta receptor genes and their association with liver disease progression. With her interest in genetics growing deeper, she knew more education was a necessity.

She’s on the MCV Campus pursuing her master’s in human and molecular genetics. She hopes to one day earn a Ph.D. in the same field.

“She has such a work ethic,” Lloyd said. “She’s a very high achiever academically. She has clear goals and is committed to them.”

Langi plans to return to Mochtar Riady as a principal investigator, focusing on complex diseases such as substance abuse and cancer.

“I want to be a scientist studying the genetic profile of Indonesian people,” Langi said. “We have limited knowledge of that.”

While Langi, 27, misses her family, Skype and social media has helped keep her in touch. She’s also making new friends here. She’s joined study groups, and the school’s international office matched her with a volunteer who is making the transition to a new culture a smoother one.

“I was worried at first because this is my first time living abroad away from my family,” she said. “I find Richmond is such a great place full of diversity and the people are very welcoming. I feel like I blend right in.”

Viviana Rodriguez

While working as a research assistant in a clinical trial, Rodriguez met a premature baby who changed her life.

The baby girl was struggling to survive, an image that has stayed with Rodriguez for years.

“I knew the thing that I was studying could help people like that little girl,” she said. “I knew I had to finish what I started.”

She earned a bachelor’s in statistics from Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota in 2006, then a master’s in clinical epidemiology in 2012. She now has her sights set on a Ph.D. in biostatistics.

Viviana Rodriguez, from Colombia, pursuing a PhD in the Department of Biostatistics

“In spite of the image of biostatisticians as people handling exclusively computers and incomprehensible data, their work plays an essential role in the improvement of our health services,” said Rodriguez, 32. “I want to devote my life to health research.”

With her husband also in Richmond, Rodriguez is settling in nicely to a new routine.

“She is doing well in everything,” said Roy Sabo, Ph.D., program director for the Department of Biostatistics. “She is extremely motivated, very mature and incredibly strong. If all Fulbright students are like her, we need to start hunting them down.”

Before coming to Richmond, Rodriguez worked as an assistant professor in the Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department of the School of Medicine at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota. After completing her Ph.D., she will return as a researcher and professor.

“I know I could make more money outside of healthcare, but here, I can really help people,” she said. “That is what I want to do.”

Most of the analysis used in health research in Colombia ignores the clinical conditions and variables of the environment, Rodriguez said.

“Through research, we can do a better analysis of which treatments are most beneficial,” she said. “Thanks to the Fulbright program, I will be able to help my country. It’s a dream come true.”

By Janet Showalter