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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


All time high for Medical Student Research Day

Medical Student Research Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erin Lucero


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.


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