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Personal Touch: Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry forges one-on-one connections in Australia

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry traveled to Australia to study data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. While there, she also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Amanda Gentry flew halfway around the world to collect complex data for her dissertation, but the long journey proved even more important in a very personal way.

“I got to work one-on-one with the most amazing scientists,” she said. “In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated. I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor. You need personal interactions to get the creative juices going.”

Gentry, who this fall starts her fifth year as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biostatistics, traveled to Australia in June to work with scientists collecting and studying data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. Gentry’s work examines current methods for analyzing personality, drug use data, and high-dimensional genomic data.

“I’m developing methods to try and determine what personality and DNA measures are related to marijuana use,” she said. “Can you predict someone’s marijuana use based on the information we have on their personality, their demographics and their genes? That’s pretty cool stuff.”

She spent more than two weeks at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane working alongside world renowned scientists, some of whom have spent their entire careers collecting and researching the data from the twins study.

“Here I was this stranger, and these brilliant scientists welcomed me,” said Gentry, who also attended the Behavior Genetics Association conference while in Brisbane. “To sit across from them and be able to ask questions was very humbling.”

Gentry’s research is funded through a research education grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, led by Michael Neale, Ph.D, at VCU’s Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. At VIPBG, she began collaborating with Nathan Gillespie, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, who worked alongside Gentry in Brisbane. Both Neale and Gillespie are part of Gentry’s dissertation committee.

“Amanda works very hard and is intellectually curious,” said Neale, a professor of psychiatry and VIPBG’s associate director. “She’s stellar really. I have no doubt she will go on to have a very successful career.”

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

“In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated,” said Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry. “I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor.” This photo taken by Gentry shows Brisbane in the evening.

While she is not sure of the exact path she will take, Gentry hopes to return to Australia soon.

“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to travel there,” she said. “If not for people like [Neale and Gillespie], I never would have had this type of opportunity. They have really taken me under their wing, and I am so appreciative.”

While much of her time was devoted to research in the lab, Gentry did make time to experience the countryside. She enjoyed local markets, bookstores and shops. She also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where she got to hold two koalas, as well as North Stradbroke Island just off the coast.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “Not only did I learn from some of the brightest minds out there, but I got to see so much of this beautiful country.”

Gentry, 27, grew up in Richmond and graduated from Bryan College in Tennessee in 2011. She worked as a pharmacy technician for a year before coming to the MCV Campus.

“I was drawn to biostatistics because it’s a combination of two things I love – mathematics and medicine,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor because I can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m much more comfortable dealing with numbers. I can’t wait to see where this all leads.”

By Janet Showalter


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.


Exploring what’s possible: Ph.D. student attends Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Matthew Riblett was awestruck when Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, Ph.D., spoke at his college graduation four years ago.

But he had no idea what to expect when he met the man in person.

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett with Steven Chu, Ph.D.

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett was inspired by his talk with Steven Chu, Ph.D., who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. “Let’s go out and explore and discover for ourselves what’s truly possible,” says Riblett.

So Riblett, a Ph.D. student in VCU’s medical physics program, took a chance and introduced himself to Chu during the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, earlier this summer.

“He came across as this really cool guy – someone you could really talk to,” Riblett said. “I’m happy to say he was exactly the same in person. He was more interested in hearing about what I was working on than talking about his own accomplishments. I was surprised by how eager all the laureates were to talk with us and encourage us.”

Riblett, 26, was one of 400 young researchers from around the world selected for the weeklong meeting, and the fourth VCU student to attend.

“Matt is a joy to have in our lab and is doing great work, so I am really pleased for him that he was selected,” said Geoffrey Hugo, Ph.D., director of the medical physics graduate program and Riblett’s adviser. “He is very inquisitive and creative. He brings great ideas to the table.”

Riblett is applying physics to improve the quality of diagnostic imaging that can often be blurred due to the breathing motion of patients during image collection. Quality images are crucial in radiation therapy. If the physician can’t precisely identify the location of a tumor, for example, it becomes more challenging to direct the radiation beam to hit the tumor and avoid healthy tissue.

“I like dealing with the hardware side of things,” Riblett said. “I’m not a blood and guts kind of guy. But I wanted to get involved in helping doctors treat their patients. For me, this is personal.”

Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett

At the 66th Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Ph.D. student Matthew Riblett had the chance to meet many of the 29 Nobel Prize winners in attendance. He even got to hold the Nobel Prize of German physicist Klaus von Klitzing.

Riblett was in middle school when his father was diagnosed with cancer and often accompanied him to the hospital for treatment. His father is cancer free today.

“It was a sobering reality that this happens to people,” said Riblett, who grew up in Richmond. “I got to meet the radiation oncologists and came to realize that they were doing something of major importance.”

He credits several high school teachers with introducing him to the nuclear sciences and pushing him to follow his dream. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in nuclear engineering, he worked for a year before coming to the MCV Campus in 2013. He hopes to complete his Ph.D. in the next few years.

“I looked at a number of schools, but what struck me about VCU is they have people who are the best of the best in their field,” Riblett said.

He found the same scenario in Lindau, where he met many of the 29 Nobel Prize winners in attendance and sat in on lectures and panel discussions. He also made friends with dozens of other students from 80 countries.

“There was this spirit there that was amazing,” Riblett said. “It was incredibly motivating.”

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 and served as the United States Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013, stressed the importance of taking chances.

“He said he never would have gotten to where he was if he hadn’t pushed an adviser, asked a lot of questions, explored and challenged himself,” Riblett said.

As for his own future, Riblett is undecided whether he will work in a clinic, a research lab or in academia, but he knows his end goal – helping people.

“We’ve got all these opportunities throughout our lives to do something good,” he said. “If you listen to everyone else about what they think is possible, you won’t accomplish a thing. Let’s go out and explore and discover for ourselves what’s truly possible.”

By Janet Showalter


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