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From 2 percent to 50 percent: 100 years of change

What a difference a century makes! Knowing the School of Medicine’s modern day 50-50 mix of men and women – right in sync with national numbers – it’s startling to remember that the first female medical students didn’t arrive on campus till 1918, three women among a class of 42.

At the time, 80 years after the school’s founding, admitting women to medical school was intended as a stopgap measure resulting from the dearth of available male applicants during World War I. As it turned out, women made excellent students and physicians. Whether they were actually welcome to the party during the next 10 decades varied considerably from person to person.

Share your story with us at MedAlum@vcu.edu

While there is work left to do, as president of the WISDM (Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine) faculty organization, Sanford points to a century’s worth of women who have paved the way by working toward acceptance as professional equals and, ultimately, recog-nizing that “You can have it all, but not without help.”

Women comprised as little as 2 percent and as much as 13 percent of each graduating class till about 1980, when the number jumped to 30 percent and continued to climb. That’s primarily because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was advising college career counselors to expand their range of recommended occupations for women. Traditional fields could not absorb the increased number of college graduates. Thus enrollment in professional (and traditionally male) programs saw unprecedented numbers of female applicants. Added to that were 1960s racial unrest, antiwar sentiment and student activism, fueling young people’s interest in careers involving public service. Fast forward to 2018. “The percentage of women entering medical school today is a huge accomplishment,” says Kimberly Sanford, M’01, H’06.

Sanford is an associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology with educational and clinical responsibilities. “Women have reached equality in terms of the number accepted into medical school nationally,” she says. “But we do not see that same acceptance into upper-level or executive medical positions. In addition, there are still problems with inappropriate behaviors and comments of a sexual nature directed to women. These two issues are the biggest problems facing us today.”

To pay tribute to these trailblazers who’ve made their alma mater proud, we talked to School of Medicine alumnae from the past seven decades. Some of their experiences will sound familiar; others will not. Ironically, the racial unrest and prejudice that inspired some students to go into medicine also created major issues for black female students, the first of whom was admitted in 1951. Many thanks to the following alumnae for sharing their individual perspectives. They represent thousands of accomplished women, pioneers in a profession that had been closed to them for hundreds of years.

DOROTHY URBAN WRIGHT, M’56, Syracuse, New York
Dorothy Urban Wright M'56

The first time Wright noticed disparate treatment for women was when classmates divided into homecall groups. “Boys who I thought were fond of me didn’t want me in their group,” she says. That came as a surprise.

In general, however, Wright was more conscious of racial discrimination in the segregated South than of gender disparities. Blood banks, for example, were separate.

As third year ended, she and her husband, neurologist A. WILLIAM WRIGHT, M’53, welcomed a baby boy. Because men weren’t traditionally encouraged to do housework, it was only late in the evening, after cooking and cleaning, that she could study.

Following an internship, Wright settled into her career as a pediatrician. “I have a lot of guilt about leaving the four children with caregivers. Eventually, they allowed people to do residencies part-time, which would have been ideal.”

Wright, whose husband died in 2004, retired from practice at age 80. “I still miss it terribly,” she says. “It’s in the blood.” But her legacy continues. Before retiring, Wright began a palliative care unit at her hospital, where she still volunteers. And her daughter – who at age 16 accompanied her parents to Haiti for a monthlong mission at Albert Schweitzer Hospital – is now a physician.


MARGARET “PEGGY” ZEE JONES, M’61, H’66, East Lansing, Michigan & Gainesville, Florida
YVONNECRIS SMITH VEAL, M’62, St. Albans, New York

Margaret Zee Jones, M'61

Margaret Zee Jones, M’61

Jones recalls an uncomfortable discussion with her undergraduate alma mater’s dean of medicine, who said, “We always take a few women students to improve the decorum of the class.”

Instead, she matriculated at MCV, where she found that most students and professors were absorbed in their work and their lives. “They weren’t involved in making life difficult for others.”

But years later, Jones worries that her own preoccupations blinded her to the difficulties faced by Veal, her only black female classmate.

After Jones married JOHN W. “JACK” JONES, M’57, H’61, she felt classmates were acting a bit distant. But her experience didn’t compare with Veal’s, who found that her gender or race – or both – could be problematic.

Veal recalls receiving markedly different treatment from two male professors, one of whom would not pass her after second year. Graduation was delayed, and funding was difficult.

“You can hurt me for just a little while,” Veal philosophizes, “but you’ll never stop me from trying to do what I feel is right.” Still, it did hurt when it came time to select home-call groups, and the men exercised their option of refusing a woman or black student. That hadn’t changed since Dorothy Wright’s experience in the ’50s.

Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M'62

Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M’62

Fortunately, there were exceptions among Veal’s fellow students, like Jones, whom Veal remembers as “nice and helpful.” When some classmates changed seats rather than sit next to Veal, Jones would come and sit beside her.

Veal found neither gender nor race to be issues as she entered her practice in New York. She was named a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1996. In 2009, she retired as senior medical director for the U.S. Postal Service from a career that included serving as president of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization predominantly representing physicians and patients of African-American descent.

Jones, who retired after 30 years as professor of neuropathology at Michigan State University, earned her M.Div. degree and spent several years as a board-certified hospice chaplain and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

Nearly six decades after graduating, the two former classmates have reconnected, to their mutual excitement. Jones still wishes she had been more fully aware of Veal’s circumstances. “Peggy,” Veal responds, “graduating with an M.D. degree from MCV is one of my proudest life accomplishments. And yes, you were part of my sustaining recipe.”


REBECCA M. “BECKY” BIGONEY, M’79, H’83, Fredericksburg, Virginia

A college guidance counselor advised Bigoney, who had wedding plans, not to tell medical school admissions committees for fear of rejection.

Becky Bigoney, M'79

“There was a fair amount of feminist sentiment, but it was still very sexist,” Bigoney says of the ’70s.

Once Bigoney arrived on campus, she says, “Women had a sense of camaraderie and feeling fortunate we got in.” That’s also around the time applications started climbing.

In the classroom, Bigoney recalls, “You were on your own. You sank or swam on your own merit.” If a professor made a questionable comment or exhibited behavior that was construed as sexist – such as the anatomy professor who used photos of Playboy Bunnies as illustration – female students felt free to “get angry, shout them down or walk out.”

Classmates were respectful and friendly, and the female faculty she knew were accomplished yet approachable. But the expectation was that “women would go the community or practice route rather than academe.”

An internal medicine physician, Bigoney credits J. THOMAS RYAN, M’72, H’75, as a mentor who encouraged her to volunteer for leadership assignments. Her career more recently took an unexpected but satisfying turn when she accepted the first administrative position leading to her current role as executive vice president and chief medical officer for Mary Washington Healthcare.


JACALYN B. BLACKWELL-WHITE, M’84, Windsor Mill, Maryland

When Blackwell-White applied to medical school, she was about 10 years older than the typical first-year student. Discouraged by a professor in pre-med, she had switched to psychology.

Jacalyn Blackwell-White, M’84, at graduation with her mother.

Jacalyn Blackwell-White, M’84, at graduation with her mother.

But still wanting to be a physician — and despite hearing that medical schools “don’t want you encumbered” (i.e., married with children) – she requested an interview.

“MCV had a reputation as being a good ol’ boys school,” recalls Blackwell-White. As an African-American, her heart sank when she met the interviewer. “He looked so much like Col. Sanders!”

Instead of discouraging her, however, then-Dean of Admissions MILES HENCH, PH.D., was encouraging … and honest. “He looked at me and said something like, ‘You have a hard road to travel. But if you really want to do this, put in an application!’”

Hench and others on campus were supportive of the few African-American students, and Blackwell-White doesn’t recall negativity from classmates.

That wasn’t always true of faculty or patients; as Yvonnecris Smith Veal had found in the ’60s, it was hard to tell if they were reacting to Blackwell-White’s gender, race or both. Occasionally patients weren’t keen on her treating them. She was delighted whenever she changed their minds. One such patient at the McGuire VA Medical Center, after she worked with him, “even gave me a gift!”

Following an internship and residency in Massachusetts, she returned home to Maryland as a practicing pediatrician.


LIBBY Y. KOT, M’94, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

As a female medical student in the early 1990s, Kot “didn’t feel any distinction at all. The faculty were there to teach you. They had a vested interest in producing good doctors.

Libby Kot, M'94, with husband James Kot, M'94.

Libby Kot, M’94, with husband James Kot, M’94.

“You have to be able to function under stress, but I met the most amazing people!”

Those amazing people included her husband-to-be, cardiothoracic surgeon JAMES KOT, M’94. Their whirlwind fourth year included matching, graduating and getting married, all within a matter of weeks, then moving to New Orleans, where she completed her OB-GYN training under TOM NOLAN, M’77.

It wasn’t till she began practicing in Mississippi that Kot saw a difference in attitude. “New Orleans is such a mishmash, nobody thought twice about gender,” she says. “But here in Hattiesburg, it was more traditional, with disproportionately fewer female physicians.”

Or maybe, she speculates, it was more evident in community hospitals than in academic medical centers. In 2001, she was one of two women OBGYNs among 300 full-time physicians at Hattiesburg Clinic. For patients, “the thought of seeing a female OB-GYN seemed weird at the time.”

Now, she says, “The younger generation seems to prefer female gynecologists. And at the clinic, about 45 of our 350 full-time physicians are women.”



By the time Sherwin hit campus in the early 2000s, medical school classes were approaching 50-50 in terms of gender.

Libby Sherwin, M'05 (left), and Becca Clary, M'05, on their White Coat Ceremony day, 2001

Libby Sherwin, M’05 (left), and Becca Clary, M’05, on their White Coat Ceremony day, 2001

She feels fortunate in having quickly found a group of eight “really tight, really amazing women who are great role models and still some of my best friends.”

The group worked and studied well together; competition was not a factor. Though Sherwin has experienced gender differences at times throughout her medical career, she does not recall gender bias or significant differences during medical school. She appreciated the support of great faculty mentors, including the now-retired CYNTHIA HELDBERG, PH.D., associate dean for admissions, and LINDA COSTANZO, PH.D., who was then assistant dean for pre-clinical medical education.

Since becoming an attending physician and practicing at different hospitals, she has heard male colleagues say they’re aware that women have to work two to three times as hard to be seen as equals.

A pediatric cardiologist and electrophysiologist with Children’s National Health System, she notes practical differences still exist, such as making allowances for women who are breastfeeding. “It’s not negative, it’s just reality.”

Last year, her tight-knit medical school group attended her wedding. Missing was REBECCA CLARY HARRIS, M’05, who died in 2007. Inspired by Harris’ example, the group created a scholarship in her name. “Her personality and light should live on,” Sherwin says.


ESTHER M. JOHNSTON, M’11, Seattle, Washington

Esther Johnson, M'11

Esther Johnson, M’11

Reflecting on her medical school years, Johnston doesn’t remember her gender being the dominant force impacting her education. “In fact, from my graduating class – thinking of historically male-dominated professions like surgery – that year, the surgical intern class was all female!”

Johnston is director of family medicine programs and interim chief medical officer for Seed Global Health.

The challenges faced by today’s women in the workplace, she feels, are often structurally and societally based. “When female physicians have children, the lost time and lack of resources can set women back.”

She does see a difference in how people perceive female leaders in the medical profession and hopes that will change over time. Citing the Implicit Association Test, which measures hidden gender and racial bias, Johnston says, “When we take the effort to make ourselves aware of biases, then we make the effort to change them.”

Be it classroom or workplace, that’s how progress is made.

In honor of the medical school’s 100 years of women, 12th & Marshall is pleased to share these alumnae stories. We appreciate that they were frank with us, telling us about both the good and the bad. Your experience might have differed. We hope you, too, will share your story with us at MedAlum@vcu.edu. As our alumnae noted, they are grateful for the opportunity to have studied medicine. But gender discrimination and sexual harassment have been and continue to be issues in medicine just as in society. We hope all of our readers will take the challenge offered by ESTHER JOHNSTON, M’11, to be aware of our biases and change them. Recent reports from the AMA, the National Academy of Sciences and others shed light on the issue and offer guidance in addressing it:

JAMA Perspective: Sexual Harassment in Medicine — #MeToo
AMA Wire: Medicine must address #MeToo moment—and beyond
ACP Hospitalist: Medicine’s #MeToo movement
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: 2018 report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Implicit Association Test measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations or stereotypes


History in the Making

VCU’s Past & Future Meet in Anesthesiology Chair John Butterworth, M’79

Anesthesiology Chair John F. Butterworth IV, M'79.

Anesthesiology Chair John F. Butterworth IV, M’79. Photography by Kevin Schindler

Across American history, many great journeys and success stories have unremarkable beginnings – you might say they started on the ground floor. For John F. Butterworth IV, M’79, there’s a twist to that concept.

Butterworth has a deep personal history with the School of Medicine, which is  celebrating its 180th anniversary this year. It goes beyond his past as a student or his resent as chair of the Department of Anesthesiology that’s now marking the 50th year  since its founding.

His father, John Butterworth III, M’52, H’57, studied and trained on the MCV Campus. Four of Butterworth’s cousins also graduated from the medical school, and additional family members graduated from other VCU health professions programs over the years. “I have a lot of family members who came here, and we all have a real connection to this place,” Butterworth says.

But there is still more to the story. Well before he ever set foot in the anatomy lab, one of his early childhood memories took shape in a more modest part of the MCV Campus, when his father was a resident in orthopaedic surgery. “I can remember as a little kid, when my father was a house officer, eating dinner with him in the basement of what was then known as Hunton Hall at the corner of 12th and Marshall streets,” Butterworth says. “My mother tells me that the three of us could eat at a discount on Sundays. The medical center has been a part of my life – almost since the time I was born – and ever since.”

It was on that foundation that Butterworth, 64, began to build his own personal journey. Decades later, he is still building that legacy, helping to usher his department into the next generation of health and medicine. In particular, as anesthesiology chair, he’s serving as a pioneer in the increasingly complex world of pain management.

“He’s always thinking of different ways to do it,” says Wilhelm Zuelzer, M.D., H’81, professor and vice chair in the VCU Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and chief of Perisurgical Services operations for VCU Health. “He’s always engaging with patients, colleagues and team members to find a better way. He’s an outstanding clinician, he’s broadly experienced and he’s nationally recognized.”

Butterworth weighed a few different career possibilities before choosing VCU. Ultimately, his family tradition and the early experiences he had on the MCV Campus pointed him toward the School of Medicine.

John Butterworth III, M’52, H’57, holding John F. Butterworth IV, M’79 in 1955.

John Butterworth III, M’52, H’57, holding John F. Butterworth IV, M’79, in 1955.

“I changed my direction from basic science research to medicine because of good advice from a mentor and my particular skill set,” Butterworth says. “Another reason I chose to come here was the tradition, because my father came here, along with some of my other family members.”

A Richmond native, Butterworth is a student of history when it comes to VCU, its MCV Campus, the Department of Anesthesiology and the city that surrounds them all. He’ll tell you, for example, about surgeon Charles Bell Gibson, M.D., a faculty member on the MCV Campus, who in 1848 became the first physician to use anesthesia in Virginia.
More recently, as Butterworth worked his way through medical school, major changes unfolded around him. Those changes, he says, are reflected in the faces of the school and city he sees today.

“The population of Richmond and the School of Medicine is now more diverse by whatever measurement a person might wish to use compared to the era when I was a student,” Butterworth says. “There have been huge changes in Richmond. So much has changed for the better.”

Butterworth looks fondly on his time in the basement cafeteria and later in the hospital setting, when it gave him the chance to observe his father in a professional setting. There, Butterworth learned more about his father – and what it takes to be a good doctor.

“He could be gracious to almost anyone,” Butterworth recalls. “When he would walk through the hospital, he knew everyone’s name, from the nurses to the people who swept the floor. He wasn’t glad-handing; he was just nice to them. As a student I worked at one of the community hospitals where he did surgery. People liked to work with him. He was calm and reasonable. He just enjoyed medicine and orthopaedic surgery so much. It was very nice to watch a parent in the hospital that way. It had a real impact on me.”

After leaving the MCV Campus, Butterworth completed residency training at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He then spent time on the medical school faculty of Wake Forest University and as chair of the Department of Anesthesia at Indiana University before returning to the MCV Campus in 2011.

John F. Butterworth IV on graduation day in 1979, 27 years after his father earned his medical degree.

John F. Butterworth IV on graduation day in 1979, 27 years after his father earned his medical degree.

“It felt right to return to VCU,” Butterworth says. “I have all this history here, and Richmond will always be home.”

Just as it has shaped many other facets of modern life, technology has made its own imprint on medical education and medicine itself. As a physician and faculty member, Butterworth sees how technology affects all aspects of learning and clinical care.

The very nature of learning is fundamentally different since Butterworth earned his M.D. degree. Increasingly, coursework is moving away from a traditional format in which students absorb (but do not necessarily retain) large amounts of information in preparation for testing. Constant evolution in biomedical and clinical knowledge, combined with the proverbial informational fire hose that is the Internet, means more students are acquiring not just knowledge itself but the skills to continue as learners throughout the course of their careers. As for the system in which they will one day practice, students also are gaining more exposure to the technologies, such as electronic health records, that they will use on a daily basis.

“Just during the time I’ve been here, systems have evolved,” Butterworth says. “There is a difference in how people look up medical information, and how they use patient data within the electronic health record. Members of the anesthesiology department such as Dr. Paul Murphy and Dr. Pranav Shah assemble clinical data from our anesthesia records to help us improve quality.”

Social media is another pervasive technological force, and it’s another trend Butterworth says he embraces. Managing a medical school department’s Facebook page is a task some chairmen might feel comfortable leaving to others. Butterworth, however, jumps right in with enthusiasm over its reach and ability to connect colleagues and alumni with the department and one another.

“We use our departmental social media accounts to keep people up to date on what’s going on in the department,” Butterworth says. “It works much better than a web page, because people don’t check web pages every day, but we are used to checking social media. It’s a scrapbook of what everyone has been up to. We want keeping up with departmental news to become a part of someone’s regular routine.”

That willingness to engage with change is evident on a much larger scale in Butterworth’s work to improve the quality of patient care. With medical centers expanding emphasis on care outcomes and cost controls, quality and safety measures are more important all the time. Anesthesiology can play a key role in these kinds of efforts. A growing national focus on pain management across the care continuum is leading physician leaders to design new approaches that improve patient health and well-being and reduce the need for opioid drugs. “We are lucky to have Dr. Marc Huntoon to lead our pain programs,” Butterworth says.

“These days, you have to be a relentless improvement machine, and Dr. Butterworth is a great contributor to that,” orthopaedic surgery’s Zuelzer says. “He’s always looking for ways to promote quality, efficiency and accountability.”

Overall anesthesiology services on the MCV Campus have, by Butterworth’s estimation, expanded by about 5 percent each year since his arrival. The department also has gained national prominence under Butterworth, who is a member of the International Anesthesia Research Society board of trustees’ executive committee.

From lunches shared in Hunton Hall to days spent fishing on a lake, John F. Butterworth IV, M’79, absorbed lessons from his father and fellow alumnus. “He could be gracious to almost anyone.”

From lunches shared in Hunton Hall to days spent fishing on a lake, John F. Butterworth IV, M’79, absorbed lessons from his father and fellow alumnus. “He could be gracious to almost anyone.”

There are certain areas of clinical care in which VCU is leading the country. One of these is Enhanced Recovery After Surgery, an umbrella term for a bundle of strategies designed to promote earlier and better recovery after an operation. Michael Scott, M.B., Ch.B., in the Department of Anesthesiology leads those efforts at VCU.

Under optimal conditions, ERAS is a patient-centered approach that improves patient satisfaction, decreases length of stay and even reduces the use of pain medication (including opioids) after discharge.

“Our department has unusual strength in other areas, aside from ERAS, including regional anesthesia, cardiac anesthesia and interventional pain management,” Butterworth says. “The department is still evolving, but we’re in a pretty good place. Our graduates have a right to feel a certain sense of pride. We’re on the map now.”

In large part, the School of Medicine has one of its own, and the multigenerational history that inspired it, to thank for that.

By Scott Harris


Endowed professorships, chairs propel medical school forward

2018 Investiture Dinner

Endowed professorships and chairs represent the highest academic honor a university can bestow on a faculty member. They aim to help universities recruit and retain the brightest teachers, research-ers and clinicians, enriching the academic and clinical environment for students and patients alike.

In September 2018, the VCU School of Medicine honored 34 faculty members who have recently been awarded endowed professorship and chair positions. They, along with other faculty across the university, were formally invested and presented with medallions during an Investiture Dinner.

“It’s truly an honor to see this remarkable group of colleagues recognized for their work to advance our missions of education, patient care and discovery,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who presided over the ceremony along with School of Business Dean Ed Grier.

“We wouldn’t be able to provide such outstanding recognition of our faculty’s work without the support of our donors,” Buckley says. “An endowed professorship or chair serves as a lasting tribute to the donor who established it, and their generosity will be felt on the MCV Campus — and in the lives of students and patients — for many years to come.”

The School of Medicine celebrated a milestone year for philanthropy during fiscal year 2018, benefiting from more than $42 million in philanthropic giving that put the medical school 80 percent of the way toward its goal in its ongoing $300 million fundraising campaign.

“A successful campaign translates to great things for the students, faculty and programs in our school,” Buckley says. “It is vital to sustaining our core values of cultivating a life-changing learning experience for students and trainees, exceptional care for the sick, and a curiosity for medical research and discovery.”

2018 Investiture Dinner

Congratulations to the newest incumbents of the following endowed professorships and chairs:

    • Hamid I. Akbarali, Harvey B. and Gladys V. Haag Professorship
    • Douglas W. Arthur, Florence and Hyman Meyers Endowed Chair in Radiation Oncology
    • Charles E. Bagwell, Arnold M. Salzberg Professorship in Pediatric Surgery
    • Gonzalo M. Bearman, Richard P. Wenzel, M.D., M.Sc. Professorship of Internal Medicine
    • Vikram S. Brar, Riffenburgh Professorship Endowment
    • Francesco S. Celi, William G. Blackard Chair in Endocrinology
    • Daniel H. Coelho, G. Douglas Hayden Professorship in Otology
    • Alan W. Dow, Seymour and Ruth Perlin Professorship in Health Administration and Internal Medicine
    • Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, Martha M. and Harold W. Kimmerling, MD Chair in Cardiology at MCV/VCU
    • Michael J. Feldman, James C. Roberts, Esq. Professorship in Cardiology at MCV-VCU
    • Zachary M. Gertz, Hermes A. Kontos, MD Professorship in Cardiology at MCV-VCU
    • Gregory J. Golladay, Allison D. and J. Abbott Byrd, III Chair in Orthopaedic Surgery
    • Daniel C. Grinnan, Dianne Harris Wright Professorship in Pulmonology
    • Amy D. Harper, Shirley Van Epps Waple Professorship
    • Robin, Gene N. Peterson, M.D. Professorship in Safety, Quality and Service


  • W. Gregory Hundley George W. Vetrovec Chair
  • Vigneshwar Kasirajan, Stuart McGuire Chair of Surgery Fund
  • Stephen L. Kates, John A. Cardea M.D. Chair in Orthopaedic Surgery
  • John F. Kuemmerle, Caravati Chair in Gastroenterology Fund
  • Victoria G. Kuester, Beverley Boyden Clary Chair in Pediatric Orthopaedics
  • James L. Levenson, Rhona L. Arenstein Professorship in Psychiatry
  • Marlon F. Levy, David Hume Endowed Chair
  • Mark M. Levy, H. M. Lee Professorship in Transplant Surgery
  • John McCarty, G. Watson James Professorship
  • Frederick G. Moeller, C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research: Addiction Science
  • Lawrence D. Morton, John M. Pellock Professorship in Child Neurology
  • Guilherme M. Rocha Campos, Paul J. Nutter, MD Professorship in General Surgery
  • Fadi N. Salloum, Natalie N. and John R. Congdon Sr. Endowed Chair in the VCU Pauley Heart Center
  • Arun J. Sanyal, Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology
  • Keyar Shah, David E. Tolman, MD Professorship in Heart Failure
  • A. Gordon Smith, C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research: Neurology
  • Wally R. Smith, Florence Neal Cooper Smith Professorship in Sickle Cell Disease Research
  • Daniel G. Tang, Richard R. Lower, MD Professorship in Cardiovascular Surgery
  • Steven H. Woolf, C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research: Population Health and Health Equity

Medical School lands pair of AMA grants to study student experience

A pair of $30,000 grants from the American Medical Association will support research into students’ experiences.

“The two grants are great opportunities for VCU to partner with the AMA and other institutions to improve medical education,” says Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for assessment, evaluation and scholarship. “One project will incorporate coaching and individualized learning plans to improve wellness for students entering surgery and other specialties, and the second will explore inclusion and engagement in medical students.”

Stephanie R. Goldberg, M.D.

Stephanie R. Goldberg, M.D.

The first project will explore the role of wellness coaching for fourth-year students who are applying to surgery residencies.  A collaborative effort among four medical schools, the study is led by VCU’s Stephanie R. Goldberg, M’03, H’10, an associate professor in the Department of Surgery, and includes VCU, Oregon Health & Science University, University of Connecticut and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Physician wellness and resiliency is necessary to alleviate burnout and promote career satisfaction,” Goldberg says. “Surgeons have some of the highest burnout rates among physicians, and so this pilot project will focus on fourth-year medical students who are preparing to transition into surgery residencies. If we can show its usefulness, the program will be application to all medical students regardless of specialty.”

The project will pair students with faculty coaches in monthly sessions that guide students in areas like self-directed learning, professionalism and maintaining physical and emotional health. Each student will create a personalized plan that identifies areas for growth that could include understanding communication styles and goal setting as well as recognizing warning signs for burnout and what to do when it occurs.

In a second project, Donna Jackson, Ed.D., will collaborate with the University of Connecticut and the University of California Davis to study student diversity and engagement.

Donna Jackson, Ed.D.

Donna Jackson, Ed.D.

Jackson notes that a diverse and culturally humble health care workforce is a critical component in addressing the persistent disparities in health and health care in the U.S. While pipeline and pathway programs in and to medical school are essential, this project aims to address retention, wellness and the social determinants of the medical schools’ learning environment, an equally important goal.

“Medical school may be a journey through comfortable, familiar, friendly territory; or the journey of a stranger in a strange, confusing and sometimes hostile land,” Jackson says. “Unfortunately, students may experience alienation, isolation, microagressions, and the goal of this effort will be to validate and implement a survey that is a useful tool to provide a 360-degree perspective on students’ experience in specific courses and clerkships. Its results will help us identify spaces where students question their sense of belongingness so that we can work toward making those places more inclusive.”

The three public medical schools will collaborate on creating a holistic tool to that surveys students’ experience of inclusion/engagement at multiple times throughout the academic year. They also will evaluate the relationship between student inclusion/engagement and academic performance. The researchers believe the assessment tool could be used to prompt interventions to improve student experience and achievement and result in further workforce diversification and inclusion to better address healthcare disparities. Toward that end, the lessons learned will be shared with other medical schools across the country.

The studies are supported through the AMA’s 2018 Accelerating Change in Medical Education Innovation Grants Program that aims to develop common solutions to transform medical education in key areas like coaching medical students and student well-being.


VCU schools of the Arts and Medicine launch physician-scientist-in-residence program

John E. Nestler, M.D., the first physician-scientist-in-residence at the VCU School of the Arts.

John E. Nestler, M.D., the first physician-scientist-in-residence at the VCU School of the Arts.

John E. Nestler, M.D., has been named the inaugural physician-scientist-in-residence at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. Former chair of VCU’s Department of Internal Medicine in the School of Medicine and a member of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Nestler will bring his in-depth knowledge of medical science, the local medical environment and clinical research to the School of the Arts.

The physician-scientist-in-residence program, one of the first residencies of its kind in an arts school, is part of an ongoing collaboration between the School of the Arts and the School of Medicine to help improve medical education and advance the clinical health and well-being in the community by addressing and solving problems through art and design.

“The creation of our physician-scientist-in-residence program is fueling the frontier of artistic discovery within Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond and beyond,” says Shawn Brixey, dean of the School of the Arts. “Dr. Nestler will accelerate the more than 20 existing collaborations between Arts and Medicine, helping to shape future discoveries. From using design to improve the daily lives of cancer patients, to using virtual reality to treat patients with anxiety disorders, we can use our specialized creative skills to solve real-world problems. We are thrilled to have Dr. Nestler on board to help share our future discoveries.”

While serving in his residency, one of Nestler’s primary responsibilities will be creating a School of Medicine elective, “Medicine, Art and the Humanities,” which will launch in spring 2019. The course will have a transdisciplinary approach, bringing together various arts principles and techniques, with the support of arts faculty members, to help bring new perspective to the medical student curriculum.

“We’ve seen lots of wonderful programs and projects grow out of partnerships between faculty from the School of Medicine and the School of the Arts,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “We are particularly enthusiastic about Dr. Nestler’s new role because he will be looking so broadly for new opportunities. From solutions to clinical problems to teaching medical students empathy, humanism and observation skills, or even building resiliency and fighting physician burnout, the intersection between arts and medicine has the potential to be life-changing.”

As physician-scientist-in-residence, Nestler, who holds joint appointments as professor in the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pharmacology and Toxicology, will assist with projects in the Arts Research Institute, which serves faculty in their creative research and interdisciplinary practices across the university.

By Suzanne Silitch


Girl Scout Science Fun Day: ‘They can do anything they set their mind to’

Young girls take a closer look at different organs in formaldehyde as part of Women in Science's Girl Scout Science Fun Day.

Young girls take a closer look at different organs in formaldehyde as part of Women in Science’s Girl Scout Science Fun Day. The event aims to expose participants to the world of science and possible careers in the field.

Girls of all ages embraced their scientific potential as graduate student organization Women in Science hosted its 12th annual Girl Scout Science Fun Day in April. Approximately 115 girls in the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth region came to the MCV Campus to participate in a day filled with live demonstrations and hands-on experiments.

“This event allows girls to get a chance to see what’s out there in the world of science and what careers are available,” says Tanya Puccio, WIS president who is pursuing her Ph.D. in Oral Health Research. “WIS wants them to know that they can do anything they set their mind to.”

The Girl Scouts, ages 8 to 14, broke into small groups and rotated through 10 different stations, exposing them to knowledge in pathology and neurosciences, clinical lab, biomedical engineering, dentistry, nursing and forensic sciences.

Girls could be heard talking to each other as they walked between the different events, loudly proclaiming, “I want to be a gynecologist” or “I can’t decide between engineering or chemistry.”

WIS’s mission is to support and promote women students and trainee development in their career fields and to build a community where women can develop their leadership skills, visibility and academic success.

Female volunteers from the Department of Pathology and NeuroNerds, a student organization for scientists interested in neurology, led three of the day’s stations: Intro to Pathology, How the Brain Works and Becoming a Neurologist — A Medical SuperSleuth. Girls built brain caps and pipe cleaner dendrite models, and saw different organs kept in formaldehyde to learn about tumors and diseases, and how pathology works to find their cures.

“It’s so important for young girls to gain a stronger foundation in the sciences because science is so intrinsic to our lives,” says Megan Sayyad, NeuroNerds president and a student in the School of Medicine’s neuroscience doctoral program.

After the station rotations and lunch, the Girl Scouts watched WIS skits detailing the lives of historical women scientists, titled “Women in Science: Portraits of Courage” and performed by Chantal Ing and Stephanie Gianturco, current doctoral students in the Department of Pharmacy.

With the continuing growth of the program, several of the volunteers hope to take part in the event next year and show the next generation the benefits of STEM studies and encourage them to follow science-related careers.

“It’s empowering to talk to the girls and give them information we didn’t have as kids. It’s fun to share these stories,” says Sarah Thomas, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Pathology and program volunteer. “I hope that we can spark any interest they have in science and they can see us as women in these roles and know they can do it, too.”

By Catalina Currier

Virginia Commonwealth University
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Updated: 04/29/2016