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In focus: medical student Trammell Cox helps thousands see

The Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox

This August the Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox is in Cambodia, where he’s supplied more than 13,000 pairs of glasses over the past six years.

Trammell Cox has a vision: to help others see.

While studying at VCU’s School of Medicine (and serving as president of the Class of 2018), Cox runs a nonprofit that helps provide eyeglasses for countless patients overseas.

The organization, Seeing is Believing, began on a small scale with a few pairs of reading glasses. Six years and more than 13,000 pairs of glasses later, it’s still going strong as Cox returned to southeast Asia in August to continue what he started as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008.

As he was teaching in Cambodia on his mission trip, he realized that some students weren’t participating. “Often we’d ask people to read but they’d say they couldn’t. For a while we assumed that it was that they never learned to read. But as we probed a little bit, we found out it was because they couldn’t see.”

Cox and colleagues went out and purchased reading glasses for many people. At about $1 a pair, it didn’t seem too daunting. But then he realized how many people needed them.

Trammell Cox, M’18

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” says Trammell Cox, M’18. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

On one of his twice-yearly calls home, he described the situation to his younger brother, Parker. When Cox’s family came to see him in Cambodia, they delivered cash and donated eyeglasses that Parker had collected as part of his Eagle Scout project.

For about $100, the brothers conducted vision screenings and provided eyewear to children in an orphanage.

After returning home in 2010, Cox, his wife, Jen, and his brother founded Seeing is Believing. At least once a year, they go back to help some of the world’s poorest people.

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” Cox says. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

Poverty is rampant in Cambodia, which still struggles with aftereffects of dictator Pol Pot’s genocide and policies. Cox notes that Pol Pot directed the killing of any intellectuals he deemed a threat to his organization. Eyeglasses became a symbol of intelligence, and those who wore them were targeted by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Fluent in Cambodian, Cox has established a network to support the nonprofit.

“Through our connections, we identify those with the greatest need, and those who can benefit the most. We then work with the Cambodian optometrists to screen them. Rather than undermine the local Cambodian market, we support and encourage economic growth by relying on the optometrists to make the prescription glasses, which we buy from them.

“We can provide those in need with an eye screening and brand new pair of prescription glasses for about $5 a pair.”

Trammell Cox, M’18

“We’re giving glasses and sight,” says Trammell Cox, M’18, “but also vision.”

Cox said his School of Medicine classmates and faculty have been supportive, and many have donated to Seeing is Believing. His enthusiasm and generosity have made an impression, said Assistant Dean for Curriculum Lelia Brinegar, Ed.D. “When I think of Trammell, some of the first words that come to mind are supportive, encouraging and friendly. He is the first person to step forward when a request for volunteers is announced.”

Cox is visiting Cambodia and neighboring Laos in August and will return to VCU’s MCV Campus for his third-year of medical school. He isn’t sure what type of medicine he’ll practice when he graduates; while ophthalmology is a possibility, he’s still considering his options.

But he’ll definitely continue to help others see. “We chose the name Seeing is Believing because it has such a positive connotation. That’s the effect we believe sight can have. We’re giving glasses and sight, but also vision.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Donate cash or eyewear:
visit http://www.seeingisbelieving.vision/donations/
for details.


Leaving his mark: Former tattoo artist takes non-traditional route to Ph.D.

Ed Glass was working as a tattoo artist in a small strip-mall shop when he had a clear vision of his future.

“I suddenly realized that when I’m 85, I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t do anything.’ “I wanted to leave a lasting positive mark.”

With a bachelor’s degree in computer science from VCU already in hand, Glass set his sights on a Ph.D. in biostatistics because of his love for computers and science. His first obstacle in achieving his goal became quite obvious as the application process began.

Ed Glass, PhD candidate

“Don’t ever handicap yourself by being afraid,” says Ed Glass, who should be awarded his Ph.D. in August.

“I’m not your typical Ph.D. candidate – far from it!” Glass said. “I imagine most professors were rightfully suspicious of this guy who just walked out of a tattoo shop and showed up saying, ‘Hey, this math stuff looks interesting.’ I was totally intimidated. But I’m not shy.”

There was also the matter of Glass’ age. When he applied to the MCV Campus, he was in his mid-40s. That’s more in line with the age of a professor, not a student. But after reviewing strong recommendation letters and a passionate cover letter, the biostatistics program welcomed Glass with open arms.

“Ed is definitely a role model to others,” said Russell M. Boyle, M.A., assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics. “People look at him and say, ‘he’s put in all this hard work, I can too.’ Ed is a wonderful contribution to the culture here.”

Still, Glass had no idea what to expect his first day of class in 2011.

“I’m not sure my classmates knew what to make of me,” he said. “I was surrounded by 20-somethings. But you know what? I never felt out of place. They made me feel right at home.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. After the first two semesters, Glass and his classmates had to pass a qualifying exam that included both theory and applications. They took a comprehensive exam and completed their dissertation proposal in the following years.

Glass will defend his dissertation, which examines the variability of coefficient estimates when applying linear regression to biological data, at the end of July. He should be awarded his Ph.D. in August.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” said Glass, now 51. “At this age, the brain starts to slow down. I have pulled all-nighters on more than one occasion. There’s definitely more recovery time, that’s for sure.”

After graduation, Glass hopes to work in research for a few years before teaching at the college level.

“I want to pass the baton to the next generation,” he said.

Glass grew up in Hampton and planned to work in the family surveying business. Being severely allergic to poison oak, however, did not bode well for his career as a surveyor. He then tried his hand at several jobs, including painting T-shirts at the mall.

In 1995, he attended the Richmond Tattoo Festival and found what he thought was his calling.

“I saw there the most beautiful artwork I had ever seen,” said Glass, who has about 10 tattoos. His favorite is the “feet of clay” lettering on his toes.

He got his tattoo license and began practicing in Richmond, but after a few years enrolled at VCU to study psychology. To meet core requirements, he had to take remedial algebra.

“I figured I was dumb at math,” he said. “But as I began to understand it, I really liked the stuff.”

He changed majors to computer science just as the industry was exploding. But by the time he graduated in 2001, the economy had weakened. He dusted off his portfolio and went back to tattooing.

Ten years later, he wanted more.

“Biostatistics is a marriage of my love for computers and science,” Glass said. “The work is so important. People who work in research and conduct clinical trials will one day find a cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s. These people are heroes, but rarely do you hear about them. Instead, we devote a full section of the newspaper to sports or entertainment. There’s something wrong with that.”

Glass hopes that as a teacher he can be a role model to others, sharing his passion for science and instilling a work ethic that knows no limits.

“I knew getting my Ph.D. wouldn’t be easy,” he said. “But nothing worthwhile is. If there’s something you want to do, don’t hesitate. Don’t ever handicap yourself by being afraid.”

By Janet Showalter


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.


Medical student hurdling toward Olympic Games

Many athletes have gone to medical school before or after the Olympic Games. Very few, however, try to pursue the two simultaneously.

The Class of 2017’s Mallory Abney, a 400-meter hurdler, has kept up world-class training during his time in VCU’s School of Medicine. He’ll begin his fourth year of study later this summer – right around the time he hopes to be competing at the Olympic Games in Brazil.

The Class of 17’s Mallory Abney

The Class of 17’s Mallory Abney has kept up world-class training during his three years in medical school. Now the 400-meter hurdler is aiming to turn in a qualifying time to make it to the Olympic Trials.

But first he’s got to get to the Olympic Trials. A few months ago, he would have automatically qualified as one of the top hurdlers in the country. But several athletes have since beat his qualifying time, pushing him down a notch and necessitating a faster finish before the end of June. He hopes to accomplish that this weekend in Maryland; otherwise, he’s got another chance later in the month.

While most of his competitors are training full time, Abney is tackling an acting internship in emergency medicine at VCU Health. “It’s been challenging,” he admits. “It’s hard to get the rest you need. But it’s helped keep me focused and organized.”

“Mallory is tough,” said his coach, Leslie Young. “As hard as he works towards his medical degree, that’s how hard he works at his hurdling.”

On a typical day, Abney gets up around 4:45 a.m. and is out the door for an endurance run by 5:15. He spends the day on VCU’s MCV Campus in school or the hospital, then heads to Virginia State University in Petersburg for a track workout followed by a weight-lifting session. He goes home to his (“very patient”) wife around 7 p.m., eats dinner, studies until almost midnight, and catches a few hours of sleep before starting it all over again.

It’s a grueling schedule, but Abney says he appreciates the support he’s gotten from medical faculty, staff and other students. Some classmates have gone to watch him run or accompanied him to training sessions. They’ll be rooting for him to qualify for the games, even though Abney admits he’s an underdog.

“People call 400-meter hurdles the toughest race in track,” he says. “It requires you to train in a few different disciplines. It’s a sprint race, so you need speed. But it’s the longest sprint race — a full lap around the track, so you need stamina. And then there are these 10 hurdles in the middle of it all, so you need flexibility.”

The Olympic Games weren’t part of his plans a decade ago.

After a solid – but not spectacular – track career at the College of William and Mary, Abney thought he’d just be a casual runner. He worked as a medical scribe at Memorial Regional Medical Center in Mechanicsville, Va., planning to take the MCATs and apply to medical schools.

But a chance encounter with a former rival reignited the desire to compete and he eventually re-entered serious training. After a coach told him his hurdling form was ineffective, Abney refined his technique and found his times dropping significantly, propelling him to national and international levels.

The MCATs were put aside, as he continued working as a scribe and competing. But in 2011 – just after he’d qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials – he was sidelined by injury. Rather than sitting around during recuperation, he enrolled in the Premedical Graduate Certificate Program on the MCV Campus as a refresher and finally took the MCATs.

He was accepted to VCU’s School of Medicine and began in 2013.

Now 30, he realizes 2016 may be his last shot at the Olympics. If he makes the team, he plans to postpone applying for residencies for a year, since the September application deadline would be too tight. If he doesn’t make it – “the easiest road, but the saddest” – he’ll continue his medical training.

Both are really good options, he admits. “I’d be ecstatic to make the team. But whatever happens, I’m just happy I stuck with it.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


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


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