Jump to content
Placeholder image for header
School of Medicine discoveries


Student milestones and achievements archives


Marathon running helps M3 Sarah Elise Streit balance life, medical school

Sarah Elise Streit, M’19, will run her sixth Walt Disney World Marathon this January.

Sarah Elise Streit, M’19, says being a medical student is a lot like running a marathon. She should know. She’ll run her sixth Walt Disney World Marathon this January. It will be her 11th full marathon since 2012.

Called a loser by her classmates throughout middle and high school, Sarah Elise Streit was haunted by low self-esteem for much of her childhood.

She took control of her future when she discovered the therapeutic powers of running.

“I always felt like the ugly duckling,” she says. “I was full of self-doubt. I wanted to improve myself. Running gave me the confidence – the push – I needed to do that.”

Streit, who is completing her third year of medical school at the School of Medicine’s Inova Fairfax Campus, will run in her sixth Walt Disney World Marathon this January. It will mark the 11th time she’s competed in a full marathon since 2012. She has also run in about 30 half-marathons.

“I don’t know how some of our students balance being a student, taking care of themselves, let alone run a marathon,” says Chris Woleben, M’97, H’01, associate dean for student affairs. “Sarah has true tenacity. I think running provides her a sense of accomplishment that motivates her to tackle any challenge thrown her way in medical school.”

And in life. Growing up in San Francisco, Streit had a rocky relationship with her parents and faced issues with her weight. As high school ended, she needed reconstructive surgery on her jaw because of poor alignment issues that braces could not fix. She lost weight during her recovery, then gained too much back once the healing was complete. She felt depressed about herself as she headed to the University of Oregon.

“I felt terrible,” she says. “One day, I went to the gym with friends and just started running around the track.”

She was instantly hooked. The extra weight dropped off and her confidence grew. She graduated in 2009 with a degree in biology, and a year later ran in her first race – a half-marathon in Eugene, Oregon.

“Everyone who participated got a medal,” Streit says. “That had a profound effect on me. I cried. No one had ever given me a medal before.”

Sarah Elise Streit, M’19, at Walt Disney World in 2014 for her third Disney Marathon.

Sarah Elise Streit, M’19, at Walt Disney World in 2014 for her third Disney Marathon. She credits the therapeutic powers of running as helping her take control of her future and giving her the confidence to tackle medical school.

She slowly built up her endurance, and in 2012 ran in her first full marathon. She chose the Walt Disney World Marathon because she often traveled there as a child.

“My childhood wasn’t easy, but Disney was my favorite place to go,” she says. “It was therapeutic.”

A few months later, Streit reconnected with her father, who offered to help pay for medical school if she would commit to going.

“2012 was a turning point,” she says. “Medical school was something I always dreamed about, but never thought I was good enough.”

Streit now plans to specialize in emergency/internal medicine. She was drawn to that area during her second year while shadowing physicians in VCU Health’s Clinical Decision Unit, where patients who go through the emergency room are kept for 24 hours of observation.

“I was meeting people who came in on probably the worst day of their lives,” she says. “I loved talking with them and calming their fears. I loved being faced with a different challenge every day.”

In many ways, Streit says, being a medical student is a lot like running a marathon.

“With medicine, I had self-doubt,” she says. “Could I do it? Could I even get into medical school? It’s the same with a marathon. Can I complete the race? It takes so much training and discipline. I tell people, it doesn’t matter what your past was like. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you put in the hard work, you can accomplish anything.”

By Janet Showalter


Art class gives medical students new tools for wellness, empathy and fighting burnout

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey.

A component of the wellness workshops for third-year medical students includes a painting class led by local nonprofit Art for the Journey. The popular 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening. Scroll below for more pictures from the painting workshop.

A room of medical students sit nervously in front of their assignment. As they wait for instructions, they inspect the tools they will use, eyeing other students, seeing how they hold the instruments. For more than half the class, it’s the first time they’ve ever performed this kind of work.

It’s unlike any other class they have taken. “There is no quiz. There is no test,” says Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., a retired professor and former vice chair in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, as he welcomes students to the class. Then he adds with a knowing look:

“You don’t have to compete with each other.”

The students’ laughter fills the room. They’re not standing at the side of a cadaver waiting their turn to dissect or preparing for their first suture. They’re sitting at an easel contemplating a blank canvas. Their tools are brushes and a palette filled with the colors to paint the Richmond city skyline. For the next two hours, they’re artists.

The mood is light as the students get to work on their paintings, filling the canvas with skies of blue, purple and orange. They’re led by an instructor from Art for the Journey, a Richmond nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to groups as a way to inspire healing and peace. For M3 Ashley Craddock, it’s just the change of pace she needed.

“I’m loving it so far,” says Craddock as she paints the skyline and James River. “I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to not be thinking about medicine. Eighty percent of my day is medicine.”

That’s the beauty of art, says Melissa Bradner, M.D., M.S.H.A., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health who put together the series of third-year wellness workshops that include the Art for the Journey class. The wellness workshops are the result of a collaboration between Project HEART and the medical school’s Physician, Patient and Society course.

A holistic approach

Both Project HEART and the Physician, Patient and Society course span all four years of medical school and speak to the medical school’s commitment to education students on the importance of learning how to interact and empathize with patients, and how to take care of themselves, as they prepare to enter a profession known for its high burnout rate.

The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that “bringing the humanities and arts into medical education is one way to help students form deeper connections with patients, maintain joy in medicine, and develop empathy and resiliency.”

The PPS course encompasses the humanistic, ethical and legal responsibility of physicians to their patients and society. Topics covered include career and professional development, the physician-patient relationship, integrative/complementary medicine, palliative care, spirituality, health disparities, physician bias and cultural competency, and the practical application of ethics and law to the practice of medicine.

Through Project HEART, an initiative to remind students to health with empathy, acceptance, respect and integrity, incoming students are assigned to small groups that meet at least eight times during their first year, and then throughout their medical school career — all under the mentorship of faculty or staff members who provide guidance, assistance and support.

“Physicians and medical students spend their whole life getting A’s and it’s how you define yourself,” says Bradner, adding that the only criteria for the art workshop is that you participate. “You connect with yourself on a completely different level.”

The wellness workshops also include classes in mindfulness training, food and mood, and exercise in medicine.

“It helps to go someplace else for a little while,” says Mary Blumberg, M.D., an internist and pathologist who has painted for 20 years. Along with Sawyer, she spoke to the class about her experiences finding art as a place of well-being. “Painting is a forgiving place. In reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is what you want. Green sky and pink water? Go for it.”

Turns out, students were hungry for the right-brain experience. The 40-person art class filled within 30 minutes of registration opening.

A lasting impact
The Class of 2019’s Joanne Chiao, who is pursuing a dual M.D./M.H.A., completed the Art for the Journey class in 2016. An experiential learner, she says she appreciated the opportunity to learn by doing.

“It was a great experience to do something different and have the opportunity to recharge after a long string of months on the wards,” Chiao says. “You were able to experience well-being and self-care concepts and were more likely to realize the value of these things to our ability to continue caring for our patients.”

At the start of each class, Cynthia Paullin, Art for the Journey’s assistant executive director, details the organization’s work in the community with dementia patients and incarcerated women. Chiao was so inspired by the stories that she contacted Paullin to volunteer with the dementia patients. She has volunteered at two sessions where she was paired with an elder with early onset dementia.

“As a volunteer, I am an assistant to my elder partner’s creative space and provide support of her artistic efforts,” Chiao says. “We do not make any decisions for our partners. We just provide them the space, time and opportunity to be creative.”

Chiao says she has been a dancer most of her life and knows she is a happier person when she makes time for it, a lesson she learned as she studied for the national medical licensing exam. “To me, I cannot take care of my future patients the way they deserve to be taken care of if I do not make sure that I am healthy and happy in my own life. Provider resiliency is critical in our ability to provide high quality and safe care to the patients that we serve.”

That’s why Bradner’s goal is to expand the art initiative so every medical student can participate.

“Addressing physician burnout is important, especially for these students who were biochemistry majors,” she says. “They’ve had science their whole lives and not necessarily an education that includes art or music. Art is a tremendous outlet to use your brain differently and decompress. For me, art is a way to connect with a different part of myself that is really important to happiness.”

Story by Polly Roberts; photos by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.


M2 Dongjin Suh shares research findings at a pair of medical meetings, snags best presentation honors

Dongjin Suh, M’20

A summer research project opened the door for Dongjin Suh, M’20, to present his findings at a pair of medical meetings, including the Korean American Medical Association’s 43rd annual scientific convention. “There are no small findings in research,” he says. “You are always contributing to the creation of new knowledge. That’s very valuable to me.”

Standing in front of a large group of medical students, residents, fellows and surgeons at the Virginia Vascular Society Meeting, Dongjin Suh admits he was a tad nervous.

Nothing a first-place award couldn’t cure.

“It was a great learning experience for me because I had never given an oral presentation before,” says Suh, M’20. “To win best presentation was a bit of a surprise and very rewarding. It made me feel pretty great.”

During his presentation, Suh detailed his research project that examined how atherectomy, an endovascular procedure that uses a catheter to remove plaque from blood vessels, is presented in online video content. Specifically, he wanted to know if videos on YouTube reflect the increasing trend of atherectomy procedures being performed in outpatient settings.

From 2011-14, the number of Medicare beneficiaries undergoing an atherectomy procedure increased 60 percent. Most of that increase, Suh says, is due to the fact that more cases are being performed in an outpatient setting. The shift comes as physicians attempt to keep medical costs down.

“I wanted to see how this dramatic trend is captured online, since many patients will do research on their own before having the procedure,” Suh says. “What I found was despite the outpatient trend, that information is not being depicted on online videos.”

After presenting his findings at the Virginia Vascular Society meeting in September, Suh began looking for more ways to showcase his work. A month later, he made a poster presentation at the 43rd Annual Scientific Convention of the Korean American Medical Association in Washington, D.C.

“This was definitely a different experience,” he says. “My speech had to be more detailed because not many of those attending were familiar with atherectomy. Both experiences were invaluable to me because I got to focus my work and exchange ideas with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

He credits much of his success to a chance meeting with Michael Amendola, M’02, H’07, F’09, associate professor of surgery who advises the Vascular Surgery Interest Group at VCU.

“I attended one of his lunch lectures in 2016 and was immediately interested in vascular surgery,” Suh says. “That summer, I remained on campus and reached out to him about contributing to a research project.”

The two brainstormed together to formulate the atherectomy project, and Amendola continues to mentor him.

“He is well on his way to great things,” Amendola says. “He is dedicated and works incredibly hard. He is definitely a thinker and a doer.”

Suh, who was born in South Korea, has been interested in research since college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine in 2013 and worked at the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders studying Alzheimer’s disease. The longer he stayed, the more he realized he craved variety.

“In the lab, I was looking for different proteins and different genes, but I was doing the same procedures,” he says. “It got repetitive. I volunteered at a hospital and knew I wanted to interact more with people and help them with their different needs. That’s what drew me to medicine.”

He has not yet settled on a specialty, but plans to continue conducting research in

whatever field he chooses.

“There are no small findings in research,” he says. “You are always contributing to the creation of new knowledge. That’s very valuable to me.”

By Janet Showalter


VCU team heads to Puerto Rico

The medical school's Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy's Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The medical school’s Mark Ryan (right) and the School of Pharmacy’s Emily Peron stand with bags of luggage filled with donated supplies they will take to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. They’ll lead a VCU team to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja.

Students and faculty alike usually want to kick back and relax once the fall semester ends. But an interprofessional team from VCU instead will pack up donated supplies and use their skills in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The VCU team includes Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, assistant professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P., a clinical psychologist. They’ll fly to the island on Dec. 16 and spend a week at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan.

Hurricane Maria, the tenth-most intense hurricane recorded, made landfall on Sept. 20, causing a humanitarian crisis and devastating damage.

Ryan was introduced to the clinic in October when he participated in a medical service trip with colleagues from other universities. “I got to meet some organizations I feel will be good partners and that are providing community-oriented care. What we don’t want to do is go down there and set up our own thing disconnected from other efforts.”

He believes that the VCU team will be able to staff the clinic while some of its regular staff does community outreach, or the team will be able to do the outreach themselves to relieve weary workers. Puerto Rico has a reciprocal agreement so that licensed clinicians can practice there as long as they are registered with government officials.

Ryan believes that the group will serve a vital purpose. “Having been there and seeing the need in chronic disease, the need in managing ongoing health issues for patients who suffered such trauma, and supporting our colleagues who’ve been doing this double-shift for two months … it feels important to be there.”

Because Puerto Rico’s infrastructure – especially telecommunications – was destroyed, Ryan found that one of the biggest challenges this fall was basic communication: who would be where, when. Because the VCU team will stay in one location all week, Ryan expects things to be easier.

Two students on the team have family on the island. They’ll be interested to see firsthand how their loved ones are faring. Those local connections also provide benefits to the team. They’ll have the chance to get offsite, as they’ll be staying in the home of one team member and using a car loaned by the family of another. That allows them flexibility and eases the budget somewhat. It will also allow the team to evaluate other potential partners for future service trips.

By Lisa Crutchfield


Timely scholarship gives nontraditional student the help he needs to return to the classroom

Kenneth Guinn first experienced the fast-paced, high-stakes environment of the emergency room as a volunteer at a hospital near his undergraduate university.

This story first appeared in Impact, VCU’s award-winning publication that shows how philanthropy changes the lives of students and faculty on campus.This story first appeared in Impact, VCU’s award-winning publication that shows how philanthropy changes the lives of students and faculty on campus.

“I loved the energy,” he says, “and the sense of urgency knowing that patients needed immediate help.”

After those experiences, Guinn knew he wanted to go to medical school. What he didn’t know yet was that his journey to the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine would involve a few unexpected diversions.

“I just always assumed I would go right into medical school after earning my bachelor’s degree,” he says. “I never even considered another path to that goal.”

But as Guinn neared the end of his undergraduate education, something else occurred to him: a feeling that it was his duty to serve his country. Instead of applying to medical school, he joined the Navy.

“When you’re enlisted, you’re pretty low on the totem pole, so respect and humility go a long way,” says Guinn, who completed a four-year enlistment before being discharged honorably. “I learned a lot about character during my time in the military, which I believe will be useful in my future medical career.”

Guinn was finally ready to take everything he’d learned and get back to work pursuing his original dream of a medical degree. He was accepted into the VCU School of Medicine in 2015. But after years away from the classroom, he faced the challenges of not only returning to school as a nontraditional student but also affording an expensive medical degree.

Relief came via the Stephen C. and Marie F. Cenedella Endowed Scholarship, a renewable award that Guinn has received both of his years at VCU.

“When you think about the costs – tuition, books, even living expenses – it all adds up,” Guinn says. He also receives help through military benefits and says every bit helps. “The financial benefit of the scholarship has been great, but it’s also a confidence-booster. It means a lot when someone shows that they support you and believe in your success.”

Awarded annually to students in the VCU School of Medicine based on both merit and need, the Cenedella Scholarship was established with a gift of $125,000 from Stephen C. Cenedella, M’68, and his late wife, Marie, and 1967 alumna of the School of Allied Health, in December 2005.

Stephen Cenedella and his late wife, Marie, pictured in 2006.Stephen Cenedella and his late wife, Marie, pictured in 2006.

Cenedella still talks with gratitude about the scholarship he received during his time on the MCV Campus. By the end of his third year in medical school, he had accumulated 14 student loans. The scholarship he received covered the full tuition cost for his final year.

“I’ll never forget how relieved I felt to have that last year paid for,” Cenedella says. “I always knew I wanted to pay it forward.”

Cenedella hopes his support will help medical students pursue their passion without being discouraged by the financial burden.

“My advice for them is to follow their heart and never forget why they wanted to become doctors: to help others,” says Cenedella, who has seen more than 200,000 patients since his career in family medicine began in 1972.

In November 2016, Cenedella made arrangements to give an additional $100,000 to the scholarship fund through his individual retirement account. With this additional gift Cenedella is contributing to the School of Medicine’s 1838 Campaign, which aims to recruit and reward top students and to reduce student debt.

Planned giving via an IRA charitable rollover

The federal government made permanent a tax law that makes it more appealing for some donors to use IRA funds to support VCU.

IRA owners older than 70 1/2 are required to begin taking annual minimum distributions. Recent legislation allows these individuals to make a distribution of up to $100,000 from their IRA directly to an eligible charitable organization, tax-free. This can satisy the required minimum distribution amount from their income, resulting in lower taxable income regardless of whether they itemize deductions.

Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, says the campaign is a way to level the playing field for all students. When the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the accrediting body for medical schools in the U.S., visited VCU last year, they gave the School of Medicine high marks and a full eight-year re-accreditation. In their review, they paid special attention to the level of educational debt students carry, which is an issue nationwide.

“The accreditors were glad to see that we’ve launched the 1838 Scholarship Campaign to build an endowment that’s on par with our peer schools,” Buckley says. “Combined with tightly limiting tuition increases, it’s our approach to helping talented and compassionate students fulfill their dream of becoming physicians – regardless of their families’ financial resources. We’re enormously grateful to Dr. Cenedella for his partnership in that goal.”

Guinn is on track to graduate from the School of Medicine in 2019. He has maintained his passion for emergency care and still experiences the same rush of adrenaline that inspired him to pursue it as a career.

In a letter of thanks to Cenedella, Guinn explained that although his path to medicine was not as direct as he’d imagined, he believed his experience would help make him a better doctor.

“While I have not taken the traditional path to medicine, I have learned and grown so much more through my alternative route,” he wrote. “I plan to remain a creative, outside-the-box thinker who is not afraid to take the road less traveled.”

By Brelyn Powell


Alumni star M’99 Eduardo Rodriguez inspires the next generation

It was front-page news out of NYU Langone Health in August 2015. In a 26-hour operation, the face of a 26-year-old bike mechanic who was declared brain-dead after a cycling crash was transplanted onto a 41-year-old former firefighter who was severely burned in the line of duty.

Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M'99 (center) with the Class of 2019's Diana Otoya and the Class of 2020's Frank Soto at the 2017 Alumni Stars Ceremony.Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M’99 (center) with the Class of 2019’s Diana Otoya and the Class of 2020’s Frank Soto at the 2017 Alumni Stars Ceremony. Photo credit: Jay Paul.

Leading the team that performed the most extensive facial transplant ever was M’99 Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. The painstakingly delicate surgery was a resounding success.

Becoming a leader in facial transplantation, Rodriguez says, wasn’t an anticipated career goal.

“However, I’ve always had an interest in finding solutions to difficult problems, and this pursuit has led me to the position in which I currently reside,” he says.

Rodriguez recently returned to Richmond to be honored at the 2017 Alumni Stars ceremony, a biennial event that celebrates alumni from across the university’s academic units for their extraordinary personal and professional achievements. During the event, Rodriguez met the Class of 2019’s Diana Otoya, who says she was encouraged by Rodriguez’s non-traditional path to medical school.

“I confessed to him I didn’t really know what I wanted to do yet,” Otoya says. “He made me feel comforted by his own story about starting in dentistry before even thinking about medical school. He gave me reassurance that there is no path that is set in stone and that our careers are fluid.”

Rodriguez and his team at NYU Langone are planning for future reconstructive procedures while expanding the face transplant program’s clinical, research and education/training efforts.

“Clinical efforts will focus on patient selection and achieving the most optimal aesthetic and functional results,” he says. “Research efforts are focused on improving immune surveillance and designing patient-specific targeted immune therapies to lessen drug toxicity without increasing risk of transplant rejection.”

Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, praised Rodriguez’s work. “He brings hope to patients in the most difficult of circumstances and I have no doubt he will continue to transform countless lives,” Buckley says. “I’m proud to see him receive this alumni honor and grateful we can call him one of our own.”

Rodriguez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was born and raised in Miami. His road to VCU began with undergraduate education at the University of Florida followed by a dental degree from NYU College of Dentistry. He completed a residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine before enrolling at VCU, where he earned his medical degree in 1999.

“I was fortunate to have been part of a newly designed education curriculum there and certainly received the best medical education at VCU,” he says.

In addition to pioneering clinical achievements, Rodriguez has written more than 130 articles and 21 book chapters. He is a member of numerous national and international professional societies, and he was the Dawson Theogaraj visiting professor in plastic surgery on VCU’s MCV Campus in 2016.

Rodriguez is quick to share credit for his accomplishments and accolades.

“I am lucky to have been mentored by remarkable individuals, and along the way, I have worked hard but have enjoyed every moment,” he says. “I have learned from the most challenging moments, and that is why one must always look forward and never give up.

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
Contact us
Contact webmaster
Updated: 04/29/2016