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14
2017

Real Beauty, Real Science

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is the face of science.

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D.

Anatomy and neurobiology’s Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., was recently featured on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign, pointing out that beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

At least one of them. You might have seen her on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Neigh recently responded to an online survey, suggesting they feature a woman in science because beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

To her surprise, Dove asked her to share that message herself.

Neigh, who’s been at VCU’s School of Medicine about 18 months, aims to increase the visibility of women in science – and inspire the next generation to see it as a viable career path.

“When I was growing up [in rural Pennsylvania], the only scientist I had any idea existed was Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon,” she says. She studied biology as an undergraduate, intending to go to veterinary school. But she began to doubt that career choice, and talked to her professors about other possibilities. “I knew some did research, but I didn’t really know what that entailed. My professors suggested I do some small research investigations.”

That led to an independent field study, camping out on the side of a hill in all weather to watch the behavior of a herd of llamas. “After that, I decided against field research,” she says. But research itself was a fit, and she ended up in an internship at Ohio State University. “The first time I saw a real, functional NIH-funded lab, I loved it and knew that was what I wanted to do.”

In her psychoneuroendocrinology and psychoneuroimmunology lab at VCU, she is studying the effects of stress on the body, and the biological changes that result in mental health challenges such as depression. She also sees the lab as a chance to mentor aspiring scientists and welcomes undergraduates onto her team.

“The steps following undergrad are highly competitive and sometimes difficult to navigate,” she says. “I want to help students figure out what they want, what they need to get to that goal, and encourage them along their chosen path.”

Neigh’s participation in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was born of that spirit. As social media editor of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s journal, she admits that she spends more time on Twitter than the average scientist might. “I’m always looking for ways to make it more publicly known that there’s a broad range of scientists.”

So when she noticed Dove’s call for participants in the Real Beauty promotion and wrote in, she was ready to recommend some peers. But Dove ended up asking her to be a face of the campaign.

Her quote:
“Real Beauty is using what makes you special to make the world more beautiful. I use my scientific abilities to study the brain with the goal of improving mental health.”

“People come in all shapes and sizes and areas of interest, and you can be more than one thing – scientists are more than just scientists,” she says. The multifaceted diversity in backgrounds, experiences and interests that the university offers were why she chose to come to VCU.

“VCU offers amazing programs to increase diversity in science. To have so many programs in one place is quite impressive and a tremendous opportunity to advance science.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

28
2017

Eight years running: family medicine student group receives national honors

VCU’s Student Family Medicine Association is again among the nation’s top student groups for their activities to generate interest in family medicine. This is the eighth year in a row the group has been recognized by the American Academy of Family Physicians at its annual conference for residents and medical students in Kansas City.

SFMA

The Student Family Medicine Association received national honors for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine. Courtesy Tiffany Matson Photography

“The [Family Medicine Interest Groups] we honor this year have gone above and beyond allowing students to put into practice the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom,” said Clif Knight, M.D., senior vice president for education at the AAFP. “These programs help students develop leadership skills that will serve them in their future practices and communities, and better understand the vital role that family medicine plays in our health care system.”

Seventeen student groups were honored with Program of Excellence Awards on July 28. The SFMA was singled out for excellence in promoting the scope of family medicine, and SFMA student leaders were on hand in Kansas City to accept the award on behalf of the 383-member organization.

“The Student Family Medicine Association has been honored year after year for their exceptional programs,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “I am so proud to see the AAFP hold them up as role models for other student groups around the country.”

The group was recognized for its programs like Career Profiles in Family Medicine, a faculty panel that introduces first- and second-year medical students to family medicine’s broad scope of practice, as well as its popular sports medicine workshop. The fully subscribed three-hour workshop described the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and gave students time to practice their clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.

SFMA

The SFMA was recognized for its excellent programs that included a three-hour workshop introducing students to the types of sports medicine practiced in a family medicine setting and providing time to practice clinical skills in examining the shoulder, knee and ankle.

The AAFP has posted SFMA’s winning application online as an example of best practices and programming ideas for FMIGs nationwide.

Twenty-two MCV Campus students made the trip to Kansas City to participate in the AAFP conference.

“This is the largest group we’ve ever had attend,” says Judy Gary, M.Ed., faculty adviser to SFMA and assistant director of medical education for the VCU Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “We were also proud to see that six of the students were awarded AAFP scholarships to attend the conference.”

In addition, a pair of fourth-year students had the chance to serve as student delegates at the AAFP National Congress, weighing in on issues like improving health care access and addressing student and physician burnout. Kenneth Qiu voted on behalf of Virginia medical students, and Ryan Ortizo represented Guam, where he was born.

“It is critical we continue to garner interest and attract students to the specialty of family medicine,” said the AAFP’s Knight. “The physician shortage in primary care continues, and programs such as FMIGs are key to exposing students to real-world experiences that will help them dig deeper into — and ultimately choose — family medicine.”

Founded in 1947, the AAFP represents 129,000 physicians and medical students nationwide. It is the only medical society devoted solely to primary care. Family physicians conduct approximately one in five office visits. The organization notes that family physicians provide more care for America’s underserved and rural populations than any other medical specialty.

By Erin Lucero

27
2017

PhD alumnus Ross Arena reframes the discussion: life span becomes health span

“Healthy living should be viewed as medicine.”

That’s the message shared by Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), on a recent return to the MCV Campus. Instead of being reactive to the spate of chronic conditions now affecting the world, physicians should focus on preventing them in the first place, he says.

Ross Arena Ph.D.

Likely the most published physical therapist in the world, Ross Arena, PhD’01 (PHIS), says if everyone changed small things in terms of physical activity, there’d be a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes. Photo credit: Skip Rowland

While that seems obvious, he acknowledged that many people feel that diet and exercise are an all-or-nothing business. “We’re sending a message that if you’re not doing 150 minutes of exercise each week that it’s not worth it,” he said in his July 27 presentation, “Creating the Healthy Living Health Care System to Combat Chronic Diseases,” at a VCU Pauley Heart Center research conference.

“But something is better than nothing, and even some exercise can improve health.” Every 1,000 steps can reduce the risk of heart disease and other conditions, he says. “I’d like to see us reframe the discussion around physical activity.”

“If everyone changed small things, we’d have a huge impact on health care economics and outcomes.” Because, he noted, health span – the period of life where one is generally healthy and disease-free – can be more important than life span. A healthy lifestyle at age 50 can increase life expectancy by seven years and reduce disability by six.

Arena is currently head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is internationally renowned as an expert in exercise physiology and heart failure, and has participated in crafting the guidelines of the American Heart Association. He’s a prolific writer – likely the most published physical therapist in the world – with more than 700 peer review articles, abstracts and book chapters to his credit.

“We’ve been proud to see how Dr. Arena’s findings are influencing his field,” says Peter F. Buckley, dean of the School of Medicine. “And we’re delighted to have him return to campus to share his research and collaborate with our faculty. “

Arena is acclaimed for implementing healthy living initiatives in the academic, clinical and community settings. While not easy, it’s possible to get out of a siloed system at major academic medical centers, he says. He cites research being done at VCU by Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., Salvatore Carbone, M.S., and others in the Pauley Heart Center as a success story. “I’ve always liked the collaborative spirit here,” he says. He enjoys working with researchers at VCU’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “In fact, I might be working on more projects with VCU now than when I worked here.”

In addition to his Ph.D. in physiology, Arena also earned a master’s degree in physical therapy at VCU in 1997. He served on the faculty from 2002-10, and remains close to several former campus colleagues, including cardiology faculty member Mary Ann Peberdy, M.D. He fondly remembers other physiology faculty including Roland Pittman, Ph.D., Alexandre Fabiato, M.D., Ph.D., and George Ford, Ph.D. “Each had a significant impact on my career.”

“I was first drawn to VCU because I really liked the faculty and the programs. And then staying on, there were good opportunities. From a research perspective, continuing to do work with cardiology was important. Their collaborative, team science approach was important for me. The work done by Antonio’s group is very impactful and I am honored to be involved.”

Health professionals working together is key to reducing heart disease, cancer, dementia and other conditions, Arena noted. Promoting health literacy, designing clinical space to allow collaboration and spending a little money up front will help move from a treatment model to a preventative one.

“Immersion in a culture of health is so logical,” he says. “Healthy living is a polypill.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

19
2017

Piece of the Past

With its powerful-looking hand crank and shiny copper wiring, Davis and Kidder’s Magneto-Electric Machine gave the impression it could cure any malady and relieve every ache and pain.

This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the medical school’s alumni magazine, 12th & Marshall. You can flip through the whole issue online.Davis and Kidder’s Magneto-Electric Machine

But looks can be deceiving.

“This was 100 percent quackery,” says Andrew Bain, who manages the medical artifact collection of Tompkins-McCaw Library’s Special Collection and Archives. “We know this device had no clinical value.”

While it was not used or touted by physicians, the machine was incredibly popular around the home. People in cities and rural areas alike believed in its promise to relieve pain and cure mental and nervous conditions.

W.H. Burnap of New York City manufactured the machine from the 1850s through the 1880s, and the device did not change much over time. Simply turn a hand crank to spin a cogwheel and generate an electric current. How much current depends on how fast one turns the crank.

The electricity was then delivered to the patient through two metallic cords or wires. Patients usually held the cords, but they could be attached to any part of the body.

“It sounds bizarre,” Bain says. “At the time, harnessing electricity was a novel idea, so it was easy to convince people that it worked.” While the machine never lived up to its promises, it remains an important part of medical history. The item was donated to the Tompkins-McCaw Library in 1987 by the late Lucy Harvie, who served on the faculty of  the School of Pharmacy for more than 40 years. It is one of about 6,500 pieces in the school’s Medical Artifacts Collection. Of those, Bain said, more than 300 are home remedy products that are more aligned with pop medicine than real therapy.

“It’s important to understand our past,” he says. “It’s important to remember that science and popular understanding of that science don’t always move in sync with each other. It’s safe to say that some people then were desperate for a cure, especially for conditions  medicine didn’t yet have answers for.”

The device, featured in home goods catalogs, claimed to not only relieve everyday pain but cure deafness, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and spinal deformities. It also promised to treat mental conditions such as madness, hysteria, insanity and dumbness. Today, those symptoms might be diagnosed as autism, Down syndrome, schizophrenia or depression.

“Back then, this felt like a magic trick,” Bain says. “When people touched the device, they could feel something, so they theorized it must be working. Today, we all understand the limits of electricity, but then, it offered hope.”

By Janet Showalter

28
2016

Flying Physicians

There IS a Doctor on Board.

For many, the feeling of soaring among the clouds in an aircraft is an unrivaled experience. And if the views weren’t enough, some even find a way to use aviation to serve their fellow man.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Douglas Johnson, M’79, with the experimental Lancair IV-P that he built himself.

Flying can be a great opportunity for physicians to blend two passions, says Douglas Johnson, M’79. “Physicians go into medicine because they want to help people,” he says. “We want to do a good job at what we do, and want to provide a service that not just anybody can provide. Pilots are the same way.” Johnson is one of a number of medical school alumni who use their aviation skills and knowledge to extend the care they provide.

“Give both groups—pilots and physicians—a psychological profile,” Johnson says, “and you’ll see a lot of similarities, including a drive for success, attention to detail and high ethical standards.” Professionally, there are parallels, too. Cockpit resource management techniques have influenced the way physicians practice medicine today, successfully incorporating checklists, teamwork training, briefings and debriefings, incident reporting, simulator training and standardization.

Johnson, a radiation oncologist in Jacksonville, Fla., is immediate past president of the Flying Physicians Association, a nationwide organization whose members use their love of flying to continue learning and help others.

“We help directly,” says Johnson, who is also an assistant professor of oncology with Mayo Clinic. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.

“After the earthquake in Haiti [in 2010], we were contacted by a hospital there that was short on medical supplies. We got a list of the supplies they needed—and we doubled it. We filled 24 aircraft and flew down to the Dominican Republic, where we loaded them on one big UN helicopter. It flew across the mountain range and landed on the grounds of the hospital, so we knew our supplies got there and weren’t rotting somewhere or being pilfered.”

The Flying Physicians Association is just one of many organizations that encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. Some others include Angel Flight, Fly for Good, Air Charity, Flying Samaritans and even Pilots N Paws, which transports animals.

Some of these groups transport patients for medical treatments, but Johnson cannot. Though he’s been flying it for nearly two decades, his Lancair IV-P is classified as experimental, and most humanitarian organizations do not want an experimental aircraft transporting patients.

It’s a pressurized-cabin aircraft he built himself. It took four and a half years, but he’s thrilled with the result. Building and owning a plane was a dream for Johnson, who was a skydiver during his undergraduate studies because he couldn’t afford flight school. “I was the guy who’d sit next to the pilot and watch. But of course, I never got to see a landing.” After completing his internship, he rewarded himself with flying lessons.

Douglas Johnson, M’79

Many organizations encourage physicians to mix medical and aviation skills. “We can take supplies and help rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters.”

In addition to humanitarian flights, the Flying Physicians Association also holds CME events and raises funds for the Air Safety Foundation of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). Air safety is an important focus of the group, which acknowledges that sometimes physicians have a reputation as risk takers in the air.

Many at VCU remember the impact of the tragic death of Surgery Chair David Hume, M.D., in 1973. When his self-piloted plane crashed in California, its effects were felt for years on the MCV Campus and in the transplant community.

Keeping the nation’s skies safe is top priority every day for Keith Martin, M’80. Though he isn’t a pilot himself, his work as co-founder and chairman of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS) affects countless pilots, as he consults with and helps them obtain and maintain Federal Aviation Administration medical certification.

Like Johnson, Martin served in the military as a flight surgeon, tasked with ensuring the well-being of those who fly, control or jump from planes. Flight surgeons aren’t required to be licensed pilots, but do log numerous hours of flight time.

Martin contends with many of the same conditions that concern all physicians today, but in the air, the stakes can be higher. Pilots diagnosed with illnesses such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or depression, or those taking certain medications, until recently could be barred from commercial piloting—and thus lose their livelihood.

For example, he says, “Initially if you were diagnosed as HIV-positive, that was not a problem, but if you went on the treatments, that automatically disqualified you from flying. So what was a pilot to do? Not go on the medications?

“We were concerned that pilots would not seek the health care they needed,” he says. Fortunately, over more recent years, AMAS has worked with the FAA to develop protocols to allow pilots to return to flying in a safe, supervised way.

Several School of Medicine alumni work not only to ensure safety in the air, but also well above the earth’s atmosphere.

Richard Williams, M’79

Richard Williams, M’79, with his rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

NASA’s Chief Health and Medical Officer Richard Williams, M’79, is responsible for the oversight of all health and medical activities at the nation’s space agency. He works on policy and oversight issues, but also focuses on astronaut health. “It’s a chance to contribute to the destiny of our species,” he says.

“We’re taking a long-range view. The work being done in human space flight, leading to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, not only represents the ultimate frontier, but it will ultimately help assure our survival.”

On earth, Williams volunteers as a senior aviation medical examiner for the FAA, performing flight physicals for pilots near his home in Fredericksburg, Va. He’s also a private pilot who’s had about 18 different airplanes and logged over 4,000 hours flying single and multi-engine aircraft.

“I live on an airfield and currently own two airplanes,” he says. One is an experimental Lancair 360, the other a rare Nanchang CJ6 Chinese military training aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

 

WHO ELSE IS UP IN THE AIR? 

Here’s a sampling of some medical school alumni who have used flying as a means to do good.

lillypaulPAUL LILLY, M’64, is a former member of the Air Force who flew more than 50 missions as a flight surgeon in B-52s in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Later he trained and qualified as a WSO (weapon systems officer) in the F-15E. He’s committed to caring for pilots and veterans, both as a medical examiner for aviators and a flight instructor. He and several others perform the missing man formation, an aerial maneuver used at funerals or memorials for veterans. Lilly also provides a special experience for veterans who have stopped to visit the D-Day Memorial near his home in Bedford, Va. “We’ll get together at a nearby airport,” he explained. “While the veterans are having lunch, we’ll fly over the memorial and do the missing man formation to salute them. It’s a privilege for us to honor the veterans.” Lilly often is spotted practicing aerobatic maneuvers in his single-engine two-seater RV-8 plane.

JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55JOHN A. GOODNO, JR., M’55, served in the Air Force and has enjoyed volunteering with several organizations after retiring from his OB-GYN practice in California. “I had time to devote to some of these medical missions. I was invited by several groups to join them and go to Mexico.” With the Flying Samaritans and the Flying Doctors of Mercy (also known as LIGA), Goodno and other physicians fly their personal airplanes (his is a Cessna 210) to Mexico once a month to care for the underserved at two active clinics. “It’s been very rewarding. It’s been great experience to get involved with volunteer medicine.”

HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61HARRY A. “BERT” WELLONS, M’61, has incorporated flying into his retirement activities. “I was looking for ways to use aviation – I still wanted to fly,” says the cardiothoracic surgeon who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and currently flies a Piper Mirage. “I have, in the past, done Angel Flights transporting patients from remote locations for appointments at medical centers and a few missions with Veterans Airlift Command which provides transportation for wounded veterans.” He also volunteered to fly soldiers to and from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

OWEN BRODIE, M’62OWEN BRODIE, M’62, Brodie is a retired Richmond-area psychiatrist who served as president of the Flying Physicians Association in the late 1980s. Though he recently had to stop flying because of vision issues, he flew volunteer missions with Angel Flight in his Cessna 177RG. It also was a great way to get to meetings, he says.

RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47RALPH RIFFENBURGH, M’47, was an ophthalmologist, recreational pilot and FAA medical examiner for years. In addition, he volunteered with the San Bernardino Sherriff’s Department, scouring canyons near his California home for lost hikers and campers. Now 93, Riffenburgh fondly remembers getting a night job as an orderly on the psych ward to afford flight lessons while in medical school. It was the start of nearly 70 years of flying, which culminated with his receiving the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA for more than 50 years of safe flying.

LEON "SKIP” BEELER III, M’79LEON “SKIP” BEELER III, M’79, isn’t piloting, but like his classmate Richard Williams, is making sure NASA astronauts and employees stay healthy. He’s medical services manager at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the site of space shuttle launches until 2011. The massive complex is still active, with the Commercial Crew Program working toward launching Americans from Kennedy in 2017. Regular expendable launches of satellites and Space Station resupply missions are among the many programs and projects ongoing at America’s Spaceport. Working there has unique challenges, he says, like ensuring safety around rocket fuels and caring for the thousands of visitors who tour the site each year. “We ensure that astronauts and supporting staff are healthy enough to keep the program running.”
By Lisa Crutchfield
28
2016

New milestones for Pharmacology and Toxicology Department

Long-running training grant that propelled department to 310 graduates is renewed

When William Dewey, Ph.D., and Louis Harris, Ph.D., first stepped foot on the MCV Campus more than 40 years ago, they had high aspirations for a department struggling to make a name for itself.

They were not only excited by a vision for transforming the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology into one of the best in the country, but confident they could.

William Dewey

A part of the department for over 40 years, William Dewey, Ph.D.,now serves as its chair. He takes great pride in the department’s success, but refuses to take any credit.

“We both had this goal of turning students into exceptional scientists, to put active scholars out there in the community,” Dewey said. “We were partners in this idea.”

The department traces its roots to the school’s 1838 founding, when pharmacology was an element of the curriculum. When Harris and Dewey arrived in 1972, from the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they would be an active part of the
department’s leadership for the next 44 years.

“We knew we had our work cut out for us,” Harris said. “We knew we had to put together a strong team and build a strong foundation.”

Within the first two years of their arrival, the number of students grew to 20 and has been climbing ever since. In May, the department hit an important milestone, marking the 310th scientist to earn a Ph.D. degree. The faculty has also grown, from about a dozen to nearly 40.

“We are very proud of what we have accomplished as a team,” said Dewey, who points to a strong faculty whose high profile research attracts students with great potential.

About two-thirds of the faculty are devoted to drug abuse research. Others are focused on cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology. None of their work would be possible without federal grant money, something that also has grown steadily over the years.

For fiscal year 2016, the department’s 64 federal grants totaled $14.2 million. One of the most important is the long-running training grant, renewed over the summer by the National Institutes of Health. The grant, specifically for training pharmacologists in drug abuse research, amounts to about $3 million over five years. It will pay the stipends for nine pre-doctoral students and six post-doctoral scholars.

“I would not be here if it weren’t for the training grant,” said Jacy Jacob, a third-year Ph.D. student. “A lot of us would not be able to pursue our dream without it.”

Jacob is working in Dewey’s lab with two other graduate students researching the effects of ethanol on reversing opiate tolerance. She accumulated student debt while earning her master’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology, also at VCU. She had no desire to add to it.

“This means everything to me,” she said.

Dr. Louis Harris

Department chair for 20 years, the influence of Louis Harris, Ph.D., continues to this day.

The department has held the training grant since 1976, making it one of the longest-running in the country. Over its 40-year history, the grant has supported the education of 174 scientists. And when it was reviewed for five more years, the committee gave the application a perfect score.

“Clearly this is a very prestigious thing for us. It puts us on the map as one of the largest departments in the country,” said Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., co-director with Dewey on the training grant and vice chair and director, graduate education and postdoctoral training. “It helps us attract top-notch faculty. Scientists and scientists-in-training want to be here.”
Joel Schlosburg, PhD’10 (PHTX), still feels the pull. After spending the last six years in San Diego as senior research associate at the Scripps Research Institute, he headed back to the MCV Campus this fall as an assistant professor.

His time spent in Richmond as a graduate student convinced him there’s no place
like home.

“When it comes to things like drug abuse research, there are few places you can point to that have the same resources and the same collaboration as here,” he said.

“You have the most diverse group of people who bring their own backgrounds, ideas and expertise to the table. It’s incredible. I think that healthy environment is all thanks to the strong leadership of people like Dr. Dewey and Dr. Harris.”

Dewey first met Harris in 1959, when he worked under him as a lab tech in New York. They both served on the faculty at Chapel Hill, where Harris was tasked with creating a graduate program in pharmacology in the 1960s. When Harris accepted the challenge of building up the VCU program, he asked Dewey to come with him.

“We immediately started recruiting faculty and students,” Harris said. “We began applying for more grants to support our research. As the grants came in, we were able to recruit even more. It fed on itself. It’s been a real team effort.”

Harris stepped down as chair in 1992. George Kunos, M.D., Ph.D., currently the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, assumed the post at that point, and Billy Martin, Ph.D., took over eight years later as the department entered the new millennium. Martin played a crucial role in building the department’s reputation for landmark research in drugs of abuse.

His primary focus was researching the effects of marijuana’s principal psychoactive ingredient, THC. Martin, who passed away in 2008, also made significant contributions to nicotine research.

With two-thirds of the faculty devoted to drug abuse research, others are focused in fields like cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology.

With two-thirds of the faculty devoted to drug abuse research, others are focused in fields like cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and cancer pharmacology.

“We’ve enjoyed strong, passionate leadership throughout the history of this department,” Akbarali said. “They have steered us in the direction we are now in. It really is like a little family here. I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else.”

Dewey has served as chair since Martin’s passing. Now 81, he continues to take great pride in the success of the department. But he refuses to take any credit.

“The chairman doesn’t do it,” he said. “The faculty does it. The people in this department are highly recognized across the country for their expertise.”

Over the years, faculty members have won numerous awards and published thousands of papers in international journals. They serve on national boards and as consultants for the courts. They are invited to lecture across the globe and work with the NIH to evaluate grants.

The students they mentor go on to pursue successful careers in research. Some work in private industry, on college campuses or for the federal government. Others have landed prominent positions with the Food and Drug Administration.

“During my graduate days, I remember my faculty advisor telling me it didn’t get any better than VCU,” said Frank Vocci, Ph.D., who completed his post-doctorate work at VCU in 1978. “He was right. I learned from the best and had the opportunity to conduct research in some fascinating areas of drug abuse.”

Vocci worked in drug abuse liability determination at the FDA and directed the NIDA medications development program before landing his current role as president/senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute in Baltimore.

“VCU was extremely important to my career,” he said. “It was a great choice for me. They continue to have a reputation for turning out quality people.”

The training grant is tangible evidence of the culture of collaboration that alumni repeatedly reference. “I had heard great things about VCU before I came, but it was even better than I thought,” said Kathleen Brady, M.D., PhD’81 (PHTX), who today serves as vice president for research at the Medical University of South Carolina. “I had great mentors who were very involved in my work. Even the leadership of the department took a very personal interest in the graduate students. I wasn’t used to that.”

Since leaving Richmond, Brady continues to stay in touch with faculty and returns to the area regularly for drug abuse seminars and meetings. They have been pioneers in the field of pharmacology for a long time,” she said. “I am not surprised at all about their continued success.”

But Akbarali says, “There’s always room for improvement. As advances in techniques and technology continue, we are always looking forward.”

For years, Akbarali’s interest centered on Crohn’s Disease and colitis. Since coming to VCU 10 years ago, he has been working with Dewey on opiate-induced constipation research.

“That’s the strength of the faculty – we all were recruited because we brought an area of expertise that wasn’t here before,” he said. “We keep building. It’s all because of the passion and the commitment people have for the betterment of the department.”

For Dewey, that passion is stronger than ever, even after 40 years.

“I have had a ball,” he said. “It’s been so rewarding. I take a lot of pride in what this department has done. We don’t do this work for our egos. It’s always been about creating an atmosphere where we can conduct research that will one day improve the health of our
communities.”

Dewey knows all too well the importance of good health. He and his wife have a mentally disabled daughter and a son who lives with insulin-dependent diabetes. Dewey’s wife also suffers from diabetes and is battling breast cancer. “It really comes down to helping people,” he said. “Life is so wonderful. If we can improve it, what better thing can we do?”

  • The Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology’s first Ph.D. was awarded in 1952, making it the first awarded by MCV.
  • The department ranks 16th in the country in grant money received from the National Institutes of Health.
  • The training grant has supported 101 pre-doctoral students and 73 post-doctoral students since 1976.
  • With more than 300 Ph.D. graduates, the department’s alumni body is the largest of any of the medical school’s basic science departments.
  • The department was called the Department of Pharmacology from its creation until 1982, when Toxicology was added to the name.

By Janet Showalter