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20
2016

WIS: nurturing a love of science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lisa Crutchfield

13
2016

16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school

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

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

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

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

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

16 Things the Class of 2016 learned in medical school

29
2016

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

20
2016

The Write Stuff: M4 Jennifer Tran shares her journey through blogging

Butterflies wreak havoc on Jennifer Tran’s stomach when she thinks about speaking in public.

“I’m not great at it,” she said. “I get really nervous. But I enjoy sharing my thoughts and ideas with others.”

So Tran, a fourth-year student in VCU’s School of Medicine, turned to blogging.

“For me, writing is a way to reflect on things I’ve done,” she said.

Tran began blogging as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. A recipient of the scholarship in 2007, she wrote career and motivational pieces for other scholarship winners.

After graduating in 2011 with a degree in biology, she worked for a year at the National Institutes of Health before coming to the MCV Campus. During her second year of medical school, she began blogging for the AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Diaries, and during her third year for Merck Manual website’s Student Stories, a medical education blog.

“I hope those who read my blogs get a real sense of what the day-to-day life of a medical student is like,” says the Class of 2016’s Jennifer Tran. “I hope they inspire and educate young people who are thinking about a career in medicine.”

“In medical school, you are always on the move,” she said. “Writing gives me a chance to stop and really think about things.”

She’s written about clinical rotations, encountering a simulated patient (mannequin), the value of mentors, lessons learned from her first patients, volunteering with the underserved, being a fourth-year, Match Day, traveling abroad and taking national exams, among other things.

“I hope those who read my blogs get a real sense of what the day-to-day life of a medical student is like,” she said. “I hope they inspire and educate young people who are thinking about a career in medicine.”

In one blog, for example, she talks about her pediatrics rotation: “Pediatrics wasn’t what I expected. Going into the clerkship, I thought this was going to be one of my top three, even toppling family medicine or internal medicine as my intended field of choice. Back in college, much of my medical volunteering and shadowing was in pediatrics. I had found kids to be so fun, their conditions to be interesting, and the attendings to be some of the most kind teachers. Yet, after six weeks, I find myself no longer wanting to be a pediatrician. I still really like kids, laughing and playing with them, but I’m not sure I want to forever be perceived in a kid’s mind as the evil one or the one that is trying to hurt them.”

She’s also written about her dream of becoming a family physician and serving the poor, a goal strengthened by the School of Medicine’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship Program. I2CRP is a four-year program that fosters the knowledge, skills and values needed by doctors to provide quality and compassionate care to the less fortunate.

“Blogging has really helped me be sure of what I want to do,” she said. “It’s helped me solidify my career goals. It allows me to reflect on experiences – what I liked about them and perhaps what I didn’t like. It keeps the experiences fresh.”

Working with the underserved, Tran said, will allow her to provide quality medical care to those who might not otherwise receive it.

“I’m really drawn to this area,” she said. “I’ve seen people who live on the fringes of the healthcare system. It’s my mission to make sure they get the care they need.”

Tran, who is heading to Brown Medical School’s Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island for her family medicine residency, is the eldest child of Vietnamese refugees and the first in her family to attend college. For her, becoming a physician is almost surreal.

“My parents are very proud,” she said. “But I have not come to terms yet that I’m going to be an actual doctor. As a medical student, there is always faculty there to supervise and help. As a resident, my name will be on the patient’s record. It will all count. For me, it’s a bit scary. ”

The perfect topic for yet another blog.

“Writing is such an individual thing and a great way to share your hopes and your fears,” Tran said. “It’s something I’ll always find time to do.”

An excerpt from a blog for Aspiring Docs Diaries about her volunteer experience at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) expedition in Wise, Virginia, during her second year.

“In my role as a volunteer, I was able to listen to patients’ stories and gain an understanding of their health problems in the context of the socioeconomic obstacles that they face on a daily basis. Each day of the clinic, I met patients who had been up at four o’clock that morning, so that they would be one of the first hundred in line for the opening of the clinic at six o’clock. I talked to patients about different chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Nevertheless, hearing some of the stories and seeing some of the medical conditions broke my heart at moments.

“With access to a primary care physician, the pain of a broken bone that did not heal correctly, the inability to read a book, the chronicity of arthritis in one’s joints, among other complaints, may have been resolved sooner so that these patients could return to having the best quality of life possible. Yet, by the end of the clinic, I realized that my efforts and the endeavors of all the RAM volunteers were worthwhile and at times, potentially life-saving. We were able to provide preventive care and other specialty services in over 3,000 patient encounters, giving people health care they would have otherwise gone without. It was my first RAM expedition, but I do hope to return in the future. Most importantly, this clinic has helped me reaffirm my passion for helping the medically underserved, which is something that will enable me to persevere through the long year of challenging, but interesting, courses.”

Continue reading at AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Diaries.

By Janet Showalter

20
2016

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

18
2016

Pair of M16 marathoners top off four years with personal records

When classmates Amanda Filiberto and Suzanne Giunta stood at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in April, there may have been a sense of déjà vu. They’d raced those same streets two years ago when they were second-year students, and had returned this spring to cap off four years of medical school – and four years of 5 a.m. workouts.

“The Boston marathon is electric,” says Filiberto, a member of the VCU School of Medicine’s Class of 2016. “There is no other race like it. There are volunteers and people cheering for a full 26.2 miles. There is something about the entire experience that makes those 5 a.m. runs in the snow, sleet, rain, wind or whatever so worth it.”

For Giunta, Boston was the eighth marathon she’s run since beginning medical school. Like Filiberto, she was a runner in college.

“I ran varsity cross country and track at the University of Rochester, then transitioned to marathon running once beginning school at MCV,” says Giunta. “It’s been quite a ride balancing my studies with my training, but I’ve loved having running as my stress reliever and have been lucky enough to see significant improvement in my times throughout the last four years.”

Giunta and Filberti Boston marathon 1 crop

Classmates and training partners Suzanne Giunta (left) and Amanda Filiberto at the finish line of the 2016 Boston Marathon in April.

The Boston Marathon was a personal record for her with a time of 3:06. She averaged 7:05 minutes a mile, which placed her in the top 1.4 percent of all Boston’s female finishers.

“Ending medical school with such a great performance was incredible and I was very happy with my time.” She says that the best part of the weekend, though, was having two of her best friends come to watch the race and getting to start the race with her training partner, Filiberto.

Filiberto has run five marathons and six half marathons while in medical school. Her time in Boston this year was 8 minutes faster than her 2014 time – coming in at 3:16. Though it was a personal record, she wasn’t satisfied with that, “because I trained really hard and knew that I was in excellent shape and could run faster.”

So she quickly signed up for the Long Island Marathon near her hometown of Northport, New York. Running it just two weeks after Boston, she turned in her best time ever – 3:03:59 – and finished first among the women.

“I was a sprinter/middle distance runner for four years at Brown University, and once I graduated I never thought I would run competitively again,” says Filiberto. “Suzanne was actually the one who got me started on the whole distance running thing and encouraged me to run the Richmond half marathon in November of our first year of medical school. I still remember the very first 8 mile run we went on together – and ever since then I’ve been hooked.

“Having a training partner to hold you accountable has made it so much easier to train, and those long runs have been a good way to catch up and de-stress from the rigors of medical school. Running has been such a huge part of my life for so many years, and despite starting residency in July, I hope to keep it that way!”

Filiberto will begin her general surgery residency training at the University of Florida College of Medicine-Shands Hospital this summer. Giunta is headed to the state of Washington where she’ll train in family medicine at Swedish Medical Center.

By Erin Lucero