VCU students to participate in Arctic summer research cruise

Ship breaking ice in arctic waters.
The Swedish icebreaker Oden will traverse 2,000-nautical miles across the Northwestern Passage over an 18-day journey. (Photo: Lars Lehnert)

Three Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate students will set sail this week as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research expedition studying the Arctic Ocean’s impact toward life on Earth.

Ericka Schulze, Mirella Shaban and Tristan Rivera, joined by VCU associate professor Linda Fernandez, Ph.D., will take part in the Northwest Passage Project voyage set to depart from the Thule Air Base in Thule, Greenland, on Thursday onboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden returning Aug. 4 after a 2,000-nautical-mile journey.

Led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography’s Inner Space Center, researchers and students from various universities and research centers will collect water, ice and air samples to gain a clearer picture of how climate change is affecting the Canadian Arctic Archipelago’s ecosystem and how that informs understanding of changes worldwide. VCU is one of eight U.S. universities participating on the trip.

Fernandez, who studies environmental economics at VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies and is serving as a faculty coordinator for the trip, said VCU’s participation is “the ideal type of NSF research for fundamental understanding of dynamic changes in a lesser-known region of the world.” Schulze, Shaban and Rivera — all Center for Environmental Studies students — will participate in an independent study during the fall semester under Fernandez’s guidance to synthesize their findings for presentation.

Shaban, who will be participating in the physical oceanography group, said taking part in this unique adventure and representing VCU is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I am most looking forward to seeing the beautiful Arctic and conducting research in one of the most remote and variable environments in the world with a plethora of research and data to be collected in,” she said.

Shaban credits her previous research experience at VCU, including an independent study of low-density polyethylene substitutes such as yucca and bamboo fibers, as preparing her for the unpredictability of field research.

One important aspect of the expedition is the planned interactive elements geared toward informing the public, Fernandez said. Facebook Live broadcasts on July 20, 25 and 30 will be streamed from the Oden, the first ever attempted from the Northwest Passage. Viewers will be able to get real-time status updates and analysis of research activities directly from scientists and students. Throughout the trip, additional live broadcasts will be screened at participating science centers and museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Students, including those from VCU, will be blogging their experience with posts on the Northwest Passage Project website.

Beyond the live broadcasts, Emmy Award-winning director David Clark will film the trip for a two-hour television documentary, “Frozen Obsession,” to be broadcast in 2020. Fernandez said the film would be screened at VCU next spring.

For more information on the Northwestern Passage Project expedition, visit https://northwestpassageproject.org/.

Student’s rise as a researcher takes her from law school in Brazil to an NIH lab

Sarah Izabel discovers a life-changing passion for neuroscience at VCU.

Sarah Izabel, standing outside on the VCU Monroe Park Campus
Sarah Izabel’s academic path has taken some surprising twists and turns, but the path has traveled steadily upward. Last year she was selected for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Sarah Izabel discovered Virginia Commonwealth University one frigid day when she just wanted to come in from the cold. Bundled up and shivering, she and a friend were walking near VCU in the winter of 2010 when they stumbled upon the University Student Commons and stepped inside to warm up. Izabel and her friend were both from Brazil, and were in the United States to improve their English and explore opportunities in the country. Unfamiliar with the area, they had never heard of VCU and didn’t understand what it was, but Izabel found herself immediately drawn to it.

“There were groups of people in there laughing and having a good time, and I thought, ‘Who are these people and what is this place?’” Izabel said.

Four years later, Izabel would remember the day when she was living in Richmond and pining to return to college. Izabel had gone home to Brazil for a spell but later decided to return to the U.S. By then a mother of a young son named Noah, Izabel had studied law at a college in Brazil, but ultimately decided the legal profession was not for her. She wanted to try college in the U.S. and find a better fit — she wanted to discover what her interests were. She enrolled at VCU with plans of pursuing a degree in criminal justice, figuring that best aligned with her previous studies and would be a natural place to restart her academic career.

In the years since, Izabel’s academic path has taken some surprising twists and turns, but the path has traveled steadily upward. She is now majoring in biology and psychology and minoring in chemistry with a concentration in life sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Also a member of the Honors College, Izabel has unearthed a talent for scientific research that works in tandem with her natural doggedness to make her a formidable researcher. Although she doesn’t graduate until May 2020, Izabel has already earned a raft of prestigious research opportunities and won a variety of awards, grants and scholarships.

Perhaps most impressively, Izabel last year was selected for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program. The scholarship pays for Izabel’s final two years at VCU in return for her commitment to attend a 10-week training session at the NIH this summer and to work for the federal research center for two years following graduation.

Sarah Izabel in a lab in Sanger Hall
Sarah Izabel in a lab in Sanger Hall. (File Photo/Pat Kane, University Public Affairs)

Izabel hopes to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. after her scheduled time at the NIH. The Ph.D. will be in neuroscience. She always has loved research — she published three law papers as a student in Brazil — but she never dreamed scientific research was a field that would bring her such a sense of satisfaction. When she started at VCU, she wasn’t even sure what neuroscience was.

“I can’t think of not doing scientific research now,” she said. “It can be so frustrating because you’ll run an experiment and it won’t work and you won’t know how to fix it and you’ll want to just cry about it. When that happens, I’ll find myself asking, ‘Am I even cut out for this?’ But then there will be these moments of pure, total bliss when there’s nothing better in the world. Even when you’re struggling, there’s a feeling that you’re moving forward and working toward something bigger than the experiment itself — something that will make people’s lives better.”

Those moments of bliss can come without a stunning breakthrough or even a small hint of success. They can come in the process itself. Izabel recalls one Sunday this fall when she was scraping cell plates to collect protein for research into multiple sclerosis as part of her regular work in the lab of Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. She was alone. The lab was empty. In fact, the entire building was largely empty. Her task that day was essential but repetitive, the kind of work that is necessary but hardly wondrous on the surface. And yet Izabel found herself thinking as she labored away, “God, this is perfect.”

“I had this realization being there, doing that work, that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing than that,” she said. “I knew that this is what I want to do over and over again for the rest of my life.”

I can’t think of not doing scientific research now. … Even when you’re struggling, there’s a feeling that you’re moving forward and working toward something bigger than the experiment itself — something that will make people’s lives better.

Izabel’s rise as a researcher came with surprising speed. In one of her first classes, she wrote a paper on transgender suicide, and her teacher, Awendala Grantham, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, encouraged her to contribute a poster to the upcoming Undergraduate Student Research Symposium and then helped her fashion it. At the symposium, Izabel met Sarah Golding, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, who told her about the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program, which provides research training in the biomedical sciences for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. Izabel applied for the scholarship and ultimately was selected to join Dupree’s lab.

Among Izabel’s subsequent research opportunities have been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellowship, which provided her with the chance to serve for two months in a lab at the University of California at San Francisco, and an undergraduate research assistant position with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She published two biomedical research articles as a result of those experiences.

Golding said Izabel has developed into an accomplished researcher through sheer force of will. She not only excels in the lab, Golding said, but also is a stellar presenter, writer and instructor.

“There are studies showing that the best indication of your ability to succeed in a scientific career is what they call ‘grit,’ which is a mix of resilience and a belief in yourself and your ability to get back up. Sarah has got that,” Golding said. “She’s not fazed by how hard the sciences may be. She’s always pushing forward and looking for answers. She’s just very determined and no matter what she never stops trying. She’s always going to get back up.”

Savannah Benusa, a Ph.D. candidate in Dupree’s lab, is one of several mentors Izabel credits for her growth at VCU — a list that also includes Golding, Grantham and Dupree, among others. Benusa said Izabel is rare among undergraduates in her skill and ability to work on her own in a lab. Benusa said Izabel has become so expert in tissue preparation and sectioning that she is enlisted to train postdoctoral fellows and Ph.D. candidates in the technique. She also is forever driven to find solutions.

“She will always go to try and find the answer for herself when there’s a problem or challenge,” Benusa said. “She never waits for someone else to give her the answer.”

Sarah Izabel receives the VCU Board of Visitors Award at the university's spring commencement ceremony.
Sarah Izabel, center, receiving the Board of Visitors Award at VCU’s spring commencement ceremony in May. The award is given to an undergraduate student for outstanding academic achievement, leadership and service. (University Relations)

Izabel’s successes have come despite a variety of challenges away from campus. She had to withdraw from her classes during her first semester at VCU because she and her son became homeless. In fact, they have repeatedly experienced homelessness during her years at VCU, living at times at friends’ houses and in a camper with no running water.

Izabel said the news of the NIH award in the fall came at an opportune time and gave her the kind of peace of mind she has been dreaming of.

“I was so excited because I knew I’d be able to pay my rent and I had come to a point again where I had no idea how I was going to pay for anything,” she said. “It was really scary, so being selected for that was a huge blessing.”

Izabel and her son have lived with Benusa occasionally. Benusa said she’s particularly amazed at her friend’s reliably even keel in the face of hardships and she expresses admiration for Izabel’s steadfast commitment to her son.

“She has had to deal with a lot of challenges that the majority of college students haven’t,” Benusa said. “But she puts an amazing amount of work in, and she never freaks out about any of it. She’s an incredible parent and is teaching her son a really valuable lesson — that you’ve got to work hard for the things that you want.”

She’s not fazed by how hard the sciences may be. She’s always pushing forward and looking for answers. She’s just very determined and no matter what she never stops trying. She’s always going to get back up.

Izabel has been an active participant in VCU life beyond the lab and the classroom. She is a student representative to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, has been a member of a student advisory group to the VCU Board of Visitors, developed and implemented an undergraduate research ambassador program, visited VCU School of the Arts in Qatar as part of a leadership exchange, and founded the Honor Society at VCU, among many other initiatives. Her work also has included mentoring and tutoring fellow undergraduates.

She considers it all part of the college experience. Her many honors at VCU include a Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship and the Board of Visitors Award, which she received at the university’s 2019 spring commencement ceremony. The BOV Award is given to an undergraduate student for outstanding academic achievement, leadership and service.

“VCU has given me everything — it has given me a direction in life that I never would have found on my own,” Izabel said. “I want to pay that back in some way. It’s also so much fun.”

When Izabel now recalls that first, accidental visit to VCU, she finds herself amazed at what has transpired since.

“It felt like somewhere I should be,” she said. “And it was.”

Multiple Undergraduate Research Positions with VIPBG: Deployment Experiences and Health Study

Overview of study:

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly co-occur. This clinical laboratory study aims to examine factors common to both disorders, including molecular genetic risk, potential learning-based mechanisms, and other psychosocial and psychological factors.  Participants will consist of combat-exposed male Veterans in 4 groups: trauma-exposed controls, PTSD positive, AUD positive, and comorbid PTSD and AUD and participate in a half-day study session which includes structured clinical interviews, self-report assessments, a saliva sample, and a fear-conditioning task measuring psychophysiological responses.

Examples of duties/responsibilities:

RAs will join an active clinical research study and lab team, which will include bi-weekly RA meetings as part of their hours for study updates and trainings. RAs will first be involved in recruitment efforts and data management, responsible for mailing brochures, posting fliers, and entering and processing data. Once RAs have learned data entry and processing, they will be trained on active data collection which will involve: consenting participants, prepping participants for physiological data collection, and running the laboratory task and may also involve phone screens for potential eligibility and collection and storing of saliva samples. This project will afford the opportunity to learn a number of different facets of research including the ethical conduct of research, data collection, data processing, and basic statistical analyses as well as learning physiological data assessment and processing which includes heart rate, hear rate variability, galvanic skin response, and fear-potentiated startle.

Required hours per week:

We are seeking undergraduate RAs interested in taking PSYC 494 credit, and/or able to volunteer a minimum of 9 hours a week, and of those 9 hours, there must be a continuous 4 hours that they can dedicate to the laboratory (given the structure of lab sessions).

Eligibility requirements:

Satisfactory completion of core psychology courses (101, 214, 317); completion of 407 (Abnormal Psych) is also recommended.

Contact information for interested students: Christina Sheerin (PI) Christina.sheerin@vcuhealth.org

Announcing the 2019-2020 VCU Undergraduate Research Fellows!

The following undergraduates and faculty mentors will be awarded with funding support to partner on collaborative research projects during the summer and upcoming academic year.  Funding support comes from the VCU Undergraduate Research Program, the Division of Community Engagement, the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, the Institute for Inquiry Inclusion and Innovation, the Rice Rivers Center, the Dept. of Biology, and the VCU School of Social Work.

Many thanks to our funding partners for their support of undergraduate research and creative scholarship at VCU.  And congratulations to our 2019-2020 VCU Undergraduate Research Fellows, with utmost gratitude to our faculty mentors!

Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship – Awardees

Carolyne Biondi, with Drs Lisa Brown and Nancy Jallo, School of Nursing: An Inside Look in the Transition from the NICU to Home

Kyla Bosh, with Dr. David Cohen, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering: Examination of Additively Manufactured 3-D Constructs Possessing Complex Geometry

Alan Branigan, with Dr. MaryAnne Collinson, Dept. of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences: Fabrication of Nanoporous Gold Electrodes

Heidi Brightman, College of Health Professions, Clinical Laboratory Sciences, with Dr. Carl Wolf, Dept. of Pathology, School of Medicine: Evaluating Matrix Effects of Beverages on Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol Measurement Using Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry

Annemarie Carver, Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Rita Shiang, Dept. of Human and Molecular Genetics, VCU Health: Effects of Alterations of the PNPT-1 Gene in C. elegans

Brigid Donahue, Dept. of Communication Arts, VCUArts, with Dr. Cristina Stanciu, Dept. of English, College of Humanities and Sciences: Immigration in American Political Cartoons

Mark Edmunds, with Dr. Derek Prosser, Dept. of Biology, College of Humanities and Sciences: Analysis of a Clathrin-independent Endocytic Pathway using Yeast as a model organism*  additional funding from the Dept. of Biology: Undergraduate Research Award.

Saskia Engle, with Dr. Christopher Kelly, Dept. of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences: Photoredox Catalysis Enables Access to an Amide Isostere

Benjamin Feliciano, with Dr. Sonali Gulati, Dept of Film, VCUArts: Hotline Dating; a Queer Short Film

Francys Fortes, with Dr. Cristina Stanciu, Dept. of English, College of Humanities and Sciences: Medicalized Nativism: Immigrant Health and Literature

Jhanys Gardner, with Dr. Christopher Saladino, Dept. of Political Science, College of Humanities and Sciences: Expanding on Current Early Warning Systems in Genocide Studies: Pairing Prevention with Mitigation and Policy

Laura Griffith, Dept. of Psychology, with Dr. Jason Chow, Dept. of Counseling and Special Education, School of Education: Language Skills of Children and Youth with Schizophrenia: A Meta-Analysis

Gabrielle Gurdin, with Dr. Bridget McInnes, Dept. of Computer Science, College of Engineering: Sentiment Analysis of Drug Reviews

Amulya Kotha, with Dr. Amanda Dickinson, Dept. of Biology, College of Humanities and Sciences: How does ECIG exposure affect jaw development?*            additional funding from the Dept. of Biology: Undergraduate Research Award.

Xavier Moore, Dept. of Chemistry, with Dr. Zheng Fu, Dept. of Human and Molecular Genetics, VCU Health: Polo-Like Kinase 1 Mediated Regulation of Androgen Receptor: Potential Role in the Development of Castration Resistant Prostate Cancer

Dane Nielson, with Dr. Joshua Cohen, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering: Using MircoRNAs 122 and 451 to Prevent Osteoarthritis

Ryan Pobiak, Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Lesley Bulluck, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: The effects of female plumage quality, age, and clutch size on incubation effort in a monogamous songbird

Russell Simmers, Dept. of Physics, with Dr. Qingguo Xu, School of Pharmacy: Single Injection of Fenofibrate-loaded Nanoparticles for Treatment of Diabetic Retinopathy

Christopher-Zoe Symeonides, Dept. of Sculpture, with Dr. Wesley Taylor, Depts of Graphic Design and Art Foundation VCUArts: “Home is Where the Art is”

Tristen Taggart, with Dr. Bethany Coston, Dept. of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences: “Bodies of Trespass: Ableist Migration Discourse, Respectable Violence, and Queer(ed) Survival at the U.S.-Mexico Border.”

Gina Tuzzolo, with Dr. Ryan Garten, Dept. of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, College of Humanities and Sciences: Investigating the Impact of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder on Peripheral Vascular Function

Jorge Vargas, with Dr. Bridget McInnes, Dept. of Computer Science, College of Engineering: A Nightmare for Reinforcement Learning: Training Agents to Assist Humans

Gabriella Vazquez, with Dr. Rosalie Corona, Dept. of Psychology, College of Humanities and Sciences: Parent-Child Attachment as a Predictor of Depression Symptoms and Prosocial Behavior in African American Families

Parker Webster, with Dr. Patricia Kinser, Dept. of Family & Community Health Nursing, School of Nursing: Identifying Themes among the Way Women with Substance Use Disorder Describe the Most Traumatic Event in their Lives

Cara Weidinger, with Dr. Shelly Orr, Dept. of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, School of Nursing: An Analysis of Biomarkers of Pain and their Implications for Effective Management of Dying Patients in the ICU

 

Undergraduate Fellowship for Clinical and Translational Research – Awardees

Sam Cole, with Dr. Joao Soares, Dept of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, College of Engineering: Bioreactors for Mechanical Training of Engineered Tissues

Yasmina Zeineddine, with Dr. Carrie Peterson, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering: Effect of onset age of spinal cord injury on shoulder contact forces during wheelchair propulsion

 

Undergraduate Fellowship for Community Engaged Research – Awardees

Kaitlyn Novalski, with Dr. Andrea Simonelli, Dept. of Political Science, College of Humanities and Sciences: Perceptions and understandings of climate change, migration, and human security in the Pacific

Alisha Robinson, School of Social Work, with Dr. Erin Brown, VCU ASPiRE: Strengthening Student Engagement in Alternative Schools through Research* additional funding from the School of Social Work: BSW Research Award.

Ris Rodina, with Dr. Bethany Coston, Dept. of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences: LGBTQ+ Mental Health and Nature-Based Healing

 

Undergraduate Research Fellowship for Inquiry, Inclusion and Innovation – Awardees

Keosha Haskins, Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Shelby McDonald, School of Social Work: An Inter-sectional analysis of stress, social support, and mental health among LGBTQIA+ young people

Desiree Longmire, with Dr. Christine Booker, Dept. of Kinesiology and Health Science, College of Humanities and Sciences: The Use of Physician Assistants for Health and Wellness in Aging Populations

Damian Massie, with Dr. Sonali Gulati, Dept. of Photography and Film, VCUArts: Classical-inspired Trans Male Paintings

Castiel Moore, Dept. of Sociology, with Dr. Claire Kimberly, VCU Health: Sexual Discomfort In The Transgender Community

Ruthann Tesfaye, School of World Studies, with Dr. Susan Bodnar-Deren, Dept. of Sociology, College of Humanities and Sciences: Us too – Narrowing the Maternal Mortality Rates of Black Women in the United States 

 

Rice Rivers Center Undergraduate Research Scholarship – Awardees

Brendan Finnie, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, College of Engineering, with Dr. Rodney Dyer, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: Physiology as a Mechanism Driving Early Fitness Response in Cornus florida

Chelsey Johnson, with Dr. Arif Sikder, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: An Assessment of the Active and Legacy Pollution of the Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia.

 

 

 

 

Call for Positions: VCU Work Study Research Assistant Program

Dear Colleagues,

We are happy to again call for position descriptions for work study research assistants for the upcoming academic year . The Federal Work-Study Research Assistantship Program (WSRA) was designed to give undergraduates the opportunity to gain insight into the research process while providing assistance to faculty mentors and research groups. UROP collaborates with the Office of Financial Aid to utilize federal work-study funds to support undergraduate research assistants for VCU mentors. There are a number of new changes to consider before submitting a position description:

  1. Students will be permitted to work 20 hours per week during AY 2019-2020. Work study awards for AY 2019-2020 will be $2500 per student. Working hours are 9a-5p, M-F. Students are permitted to work off-site if their work consists of data analysis, literature searches, etc. Students are able to work after-hours on off-site work, but no later than midnight M-F. Students should not be scheduled to work during class times.
  2. At this time, faculty mentors of UROP WSRAs will not be asked to make any financial contribution to hire a research assistant as part of our program.
  3. Work study is not permissible for any credit-bearing experiences.
  4. Mentors or a designated departmental staff member must be trained in VCU Realtime in order to approve hours worked by each work study research assistant.

We are asking mentors to submit a brief position description that outlines your expectations of a UROP RA to urop@vcu.edu. Students will be able to apply for positions on June 1st and will accept offers quickly, so it is best to submit a position and respond to applicants as soon as you are able to do so. Please see the attached Faculty Guidance document for more information and feel to direct any questions or concerns to me.

UROP WSRA Faculty Guidance 2019-2020

Thanks as always for your support of undergraduate research at VCU!

 

Double major Caroline Meyers makes art from art history

School of the Arts student Caroline Meyers is using her research on art historian Marilyn Stoksta...
School of the Arts student Caroline Meyers is using her research on art historian Marilyn Stokstad to create a multimedia exhibition. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

As a double major in sculpture and art history in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, junior Caroline Meyers has acquired a certain set of skills that informs a unique research project.

“The Biography of Marilyn Stokstad: Generating Radical Future Art Histories” chronicles the feminist contributions that Stokstad — an art historian and author of art history textbooks who died in 2016 — made to the survey of historic art inventory through a multimedia exhibition comprising art historical writing, sculpture and performance. Meyers is developing radical, feminist methods of conveying art histories to provide justice to groups historically marginalized in the creation of the dominant narrative of art history.

“From the get-go, I didn’t want the final product of this to be a paper,” Meyers, a VCU Honors Collegestudent, said of her Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program fellowship project. “I want to have it be an object or a performance or something that can exist in the real world. And that’s where exhibition-making came in because I thought that was a perfect place between a perfect meeting of art, historical research and object-making and that it is an awesome academic organization of objects.”

Objects from Caroline Meyers' “The Biography of Marilyn Stokstad: Generating Radical Future Art Histories,” a UROP project chronicling the prominent author’s feminist contributions to the art history survey through a multimedia biographical exhibition comprising art historical writing, sculpture and performance. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Meyers)
Objects from Caroline Meyers’ “The Biography of Marilyn Stokstad: Generating Radical Future Art Histories,” a UROP project chronicling the prominent author’s feminist contributions to the art history survey through a multimedia biographical exhibition comprising art historical writing, sculpture and performance. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Meyers)

While the project is ongoing, Meyers has already created objects for her piece. Because Stokstad was a medievalist, Meyers wanted to study that kind of art. A separate grant last summer sent her to Italy, where she studied and worked on Byzantine mosaics. The trip gave her the idea to make art in that style, as a lens to look at Stokstad’s work.

“I made up this compilation, with her archival images, about a group of office workers who doubled as mosaic artisans where it was just part of their everyday life,” Meyers said. “It was one of their office jobs, [but] they would also be producing this craft. I work at the library, so a lot of it was based off of my own experience in that office space. The objects I made, I had a table that was completely covered in the mosaic craft based in cement. Like that was the material that these characters I created were laying the mosaic into.”

Stokstad, who wrote one of the most-read textbooks on art history, Meyers said, was a mainstay in her early art history survey classes at VCU. Meyers was interested in feminist pedagogy and publishing practices and wanted to bring art, historical practice and studio practice into conversation for her research project.

“And her name was familiar to me already,” Meyers said, “So I think I delved into her based on remembering her name from my art history book. And it turns out she is significant because her 1995 art history survey, which has been published in many editions ever since, was the first one to include a significant number of images by women artists and racial minority artists.”

A close-up of objects from Meyers' exhibition. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Meyers)
A close-up of objects from Meyers’ exhibition. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Meyers)

“The Biography of Marilyn Stokstad” asks big questions regarding the inclusion of underrepresented stories in art history, the nature of biographical portraiture and contemporary forms of storytelling through art, said Matt King, chair of the VCU Department of Sculpture + Extended Media and Meyers’ UROP mentor. “She is doing this by using a 21st-century intersectional feminist lens to examine Marilyn Stokstad, a little-known 20th-century art historian whose work itself was pioneering in how it broke from traditional (Eurocentric and male-dominated) narratives.”

With the $1,500 UROP grant, Meyers spent a week last summer at the University of Kansas, where Stokstad had worked, interviewing friends and faculty who had worked with her and studying her art extensively. Meyers plans to return at the end of the spring semester to continue her research.

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

Want to predict real estate market activity? Chris Morris has an approach for that

Morris, a financial technology student, has developed a pluralistic method to apply math to real estate industry predictors.

Chris Morris' research addresses the lack of decision support in real estate to predict property ...
Chris Morris’ research addresses the lack of decision support in real estate to predict property title exchange. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

It’s unusual for a college junior to easily review and understand research articles in industry journals, said Manoj Thomas, Ph.D., associate professor of information systems at Virginia Commonwealth University. But Chris Morris isn’t your typical undergraduate student.

Before Morris applied for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship last year, he took the initiative to review relevant literature and approached Thomas with questions that stemmed from reading the professor’s journal articles on related topics.

“Even though Chris was a [financial technology] major in the VCU School of Business, he had an interest in applying new and emergent data science technologies to advance decision support capabilities in the real estate domain,” said Thomas, who became Morris’ UROP mentor. “It is not the case that a junior undergraduate student would easily understand these research articles. I found him to have the scientific aptitude required to synthesize research questions, the technological competence to develop solutions and the academic focus to effectively complete the research project.”

Morris’ project, “A Pluralistic Approach for Knowledge Discovery in Real Estate,” addresses the lack of decision support in real estate to predict property title exchange. His proposed pluralistic methodology uses various machine learning approaches to construct a predictive model that characterizes real estate market activity. The project utilizes many big data technologies and applies them to data analytics and multicriteria decision analysis, two not-so-easy topics to digest, Thomas said. Morris will then use real estate and municipality data to validate the methodology by predicting when property title exchange is likely to occur.

“It’s just applying math to industry,” Morris explained. “You can apply it to really anything. You can apply it to, of course, financial services and investments. You can apply it to insurance, you can apply it to credit risk modeling. Basically, what we’re trying to do is use data mining techniques or data analytic techniques to find probabilities that certain market activity will occur. So within the research, there are sales prices that you can predict. And there’s also homeowner exchange and the likelihood of a home transferring ownership.

“Within industry or in the research community, there are not [many] data mining techniques that have been used for real estate besides pricing. So if you can apply it to exchanges of home ownership, that’s another aspect of research that the world can use and benefit off of.”

Morris said he chose to concentrate on real estate for this project because it’s a key indicator of the general health of an area’s economy. It is also a sector that can benefit from a pluralistic approach, analyzing data in a variety of ways.

Plus, Morris already had real estate experience. As a freshman, he started his own real estate investment business — Castle Core — with his brother Kenneth. When the brothers parted ways professionally in 2018, Morris wanted to focus on technology-based applications such as those used by financial engineers on Wall Street. “That’s what they do,” he said. “Apply mathematics and computer technology to the stock market.

“Mostly I chose [to apply his model to real estate] because I wanted to align myself in a position that I thought would be the most beneficial,” he said. “If you’re into modeling data, it’s very important to have a domain knowledge of whatever you’re doing. So me having experience in domain knowledge in real estate with my prior experience allowed me to have a better advantage of using the data. … And before I wanted to go into another industry, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave real estate behind without trying to apply technology to it.”

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

‘She’s really come into her own’: How Glynis Boyd Hughes disrupted her story, and found her voice

Glynis Boyd Hughes on an artistic background of word art
Glynis Boyd Hughes’s research compares representations of religion in the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

When Glynis Boyd Hughes was a child, she was a voracious reader. Among her favorite books were Nancy Drew novels. She identified with the young heroine’s tenacious commitment to each case. When the character wanted to know something, she did everything possible to get her answer. Hughes felt she was the same way. She also was a diligent student who got straight A’s, participated in extracurricular activities and reveled in every day she spent at school. She was insatiably curious. Sometimes, she conducted impromptu experiments, such as dropping a flip-flop in a rain-swollen ditch to see how fast the water was running.

“I was highly motivated and a high performer,” Hughes said. “I really just loved being a student. However, I didn’t have background support that was conducive to excelling.”

In a first-person piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, written in 2012, Hughes recalled, “My home life was more akin to Oliver Twist than Richie Rich, complete with domestic violence and poverty. My only friends were books, for two reasons: In books I could go anywhere and be anyone I wanted, and books accepted me, no qualifying needed.”

Hughes gave birth to a daughter in ninth grade. A year later, she made the difficult decision to leave school to work so that she could support her child. Eventually, she secured her GED, earned an associate degree at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she majored in psychology while working several part-time jobs. She viewed her presence in college as transactional — the love of learning replaced by a focus on how a degree could help improve her earning power.

“I was pursuing education for different reasons,” Hughes said. “I had all of these responsibilities. When you’re not making enough money to live on, it’s difficult to really be at your best and get everything you can out of the college experience.”

When a full-time career opportunity as a social worker arose, offering a steep increase in her income, Hughes knew she needed to take it. So she accepted the position and left VCU. She worked in various capacities in social work for 20 years. Then she was unexpectedly laid off from her job as a training coordinator at a health care company. She was surprised to feel something like relief. Her career had once been rewarding but it no longer felt like a fulfilling personal pursuit — “the joy was just gone” — and she felt as though she was missing something critical.

“A person wants to have a meaningful and engaged life,” Hughes said. “Money is obviously important, but it doesn’t give you purpose. To have a meaningful life, you’ve got to find something that really matters to you.”

Hughes knew that meant making a change.

“You’ve got to be willing to disrupt your narrative if you want a different outcome,” she said.

In 2017, two decades after she left VCU, Hughes returned in search of that missing something. Her love of literature had never gone away, and she decided to embrace that, switching her major to English and later adding a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

From the outset, college was different this time. She was immersed in her classes and the college culture. She felt more a part of the VCU community, even as an older student. Christine Cynn, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, taught Hughes during her first semester back at VCU in a class on Asian-American sexualities. Cynn said Hughes stood out for her intellect, curiosity and sensitive, emphatic nature.

“Glynis was a star in the class,” Cynn said. “She’s a really gifted student with a flair for writing and a talent for close reading. She’s also an incredibly nurturing presence in the class. She worked closely with the other students, really looked out for them, helped them and checked in with them. I’ve never had a student quite like her before.”

Glynis Boyd Hughes
“A person wants to have a meaningful and engaged life,” Hughes said. “Money is obviously important, but it doesn’t give you purpose. To have a meaningful life, you’ve got to find something that really matters to you.” (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

In Cynn’s class, Hughes was surprised how much she enjoyed the research process, even though she felt intimidated by it at first. Cynn told Hughes she learned by seeking connections among topics and that immediately clicked for Hughes, who felt freed to chase those connections as though they were solutions to puzzles. Cynn said Hughes’ potential as a researcher was clear.

“She’s one of the most committed students I’ve ever had,” Cynn said. “She’s also got a lot of skill and talent. She was initially tentative about research, but she’s really come into her own.”

Hughes presented research on James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” at a poster symposium that first year back. Then, last year, Hughes applied and was accepted to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Her UROP project is an intricate comparison of the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O’Connor, two of her favorite authors. In particular, Hughes examines their views on religion and personal responsibility, noting differences and similarities that she has never seen addressed before.

The originality of Hughes’ thesis has made thinking and writing about the topic both challenging and rewarding.

“It’s exciting because this isn’t something someone else has done,” Hughes said. “I am creating scholarship.”

Hughes said her research pursuits have given her a new confidence, making her feel validated and ready “to hold my own at any table.”

“I’m sitting up a little straighter now,” she said.

Hughes said she has learned to read literature more closely during her second stint at VCU, creating a richer and deeper experience. She sees layers to stories now that she never saw before and finds herself critiquing authors’ choices and seeking to learn more about the context in which they were made.

“It’s like I’m Neo in the ‘Matrix’ choosing between the red pill and the blue pill,” Hughes said. “I took that red pill and I’ll never see things the same way again.”

Hughes believes she is only beginning to reach her academic potential. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. after she finishes at VCU (her target graduation date is May 2020) and is considering a career in student affairs, with aspirations to become a dean. She started a new student organization called Retro Rams for nontraditional students, and she’s worked through the organization to help students have the best VCU experience possible, from providing academic support to forming connections with other nontraditional students.

Hughes said she will continue to look for new opportunities to grow as a student and a person. Every class is fun and engaging, she said, and every faculty member and student are compelling characters with viewpoints and knowledge worth knowing. When it’s time to go home at the end of the day, Hughes feels energized and grateful for “every minute of it.” Hughes feels as though she has in some ways picked up where she left off decades ago, completing the journey she was meant to travel.

“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Hughes said. “I’ve become the student I always knew that I could be. Now it’s my turn to help other students find their way.”

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

Vanessa Oppong studies the importance of ethnic identity in promoting sexual health

The senior in VCU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences is passionate about reducing health disparities, particularly those affecting African Americans.

Woman wearing yellow pants and denim jacket standing with arms crossed. The following words circl...
Vanessa Oppong’s research highlights the importance of ethnic identity in promoting sexual health. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

When it comes to practicing safe sex, African Americans with increased commitment to their ethnic identity are more likely to negotiate condom use with sexual partners and had greater condom self-efficacy — or confidence in one’s ability to use them consistently and correctly — according to research by Virginia Commonwealth University student Vanessa Oppong.

Oppong, a senior in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, conducted the research as part of a fellowship last summer from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and then continued this academic year under VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed).

“I am very passionate about the reduction of health disparities, particularly those affecting African American communities,” Oppong said.

Black Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Although they represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, black people accounted for 43 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 among black adults and adolescents was eight times that of whites and more than twice that of Latinos.

“Sex is a taboo topic for a lot of people, but the risks are often not really understood until it’s too late and you have a positive result from their STD test,” Oppong said. “As an African American, and a female, I feel like [sexual risk] and how to protect yourself is not really addressed very well.”

Since fall 2016, Oppong has worked as a research assistant in the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, which was founded in 2001 as part of the Department of Psychology to provide a place, forum and means to promote and conduct culturally congruent and community relevant prevention and intervention work primarily with African Americans and other culturally different groups.

As part of her UROP fellowship last summer, Oppong and another intern at the center, Olivia Allison, a student at the College of William and Mary, developed and implemented a program at three community faith-based venues to raise awareness of the importance of HIV testing in the African American community.

Oppong’s research paper grew out of survey data collected from community participants in HIV prevention programs.

“She has performed superbly in both HIV prevention programmatic and research-related activities,” said Faye Z. Belgrave, Ph.D., University Professor in the Department of Psychology, director of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention and co-director of the iCubed Core on Culture, Race and Health. “She has been a tremendous asset. Her commitment to the Richmond and campus communities has been unwavering from the beginning.”

For her research, Oppong set out to discover the connection between ethnic identity — the degree to which one feels a sense of belonging to one’s ethnic group — and sexual risk, as measured by condom use, condom negotiation and condom efficacy.

Previous research had found that ethnic identity could serve as a protective factor in preventing risky sexual behaviors, such as sex with multiple partners or sex without a condom.

In finding that a stronger ethnic identity correlates with lower sexual risk behavior, Oppong’s research has implications for how public health information is communicated, particularly among the African American community.

“Intervention programs, such as in schools for example, [would be more effective] by being more culturally competent in discussing sexual health,” she said. “We can have programs that students can relate to better. That could apply to African Americans, but [also other groups] such as LGBT [people].”

Oppong said she is grateful for the opportunity to conduct research while an undergraduate at VCU, but hopes to work on this issue and related topics from the advocacy or health policy side in the future.

“I feel like [the health disparities affecting African Americans] are unfair,” she said. “Us being affected in such a large amount affects me because I could be at risk too. So if I can do things to prevent it and prevent peers who look like me, I feel like I’m doing something important.”

 

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

An aspiring dentist discovers a passion for ecology

Drashty Mody is examining saltwater intrusion in wetlands — and the James River’s water quality — as an undergraduate researcher.

Through her research, Drashty Mody has learned to see the connection between dentistry and ecolog...
Through her research, Drashty Mody has learned to see the connection between dentistry and ecology. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

Drashty Mody has wanted to be a dentist since she underwent a root canal as a seventh-grader in her native India. During the procedure, the dentist’s work inside Mody’s mouth appeared on a screen visible to those present. Mody’s mother and sister took one look and fled to the waiting room. Mody, on the other hand, thought, “I’m here. I can’t leave. I might as well enjoy the show.”

She was entranced. The dentist explained every step of the process — why he was doing what he was doing, why he was using one tool as compared to a different one — and Mody was startled to hear lessons resurface from her science class.

“Those four to five hours were a perfect mélange of various biological concepts that I was learning in my class that year. Almost like magic, they were all coming together right there in real life,” Mody said. “Since that day, I’ve wanted to be a dentist.”

The experience also helped instill in Mody an interest in drawing connections from the texts and lectures of the classroom to real-world practice. That has followed her to Virginia Commonwealth University and her budding research career. Mody, a biology major set to graduate in May, is on the pre-dentistry track at VCU. When she was placed last year in the research lab of Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of microbial ecology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Mody was nervous about her involvement and not sure she was in the best place for her. Franklin’s ecological research seemed like no more than a distant cousin to Mody’s passion for dentistry.

However, through the guidance of Franklin and Joseph Morina, a Ph.D. student in Franklin’s lab, Mody learned to see the connection between the two fields. Morina has repeatedly reminded her, “Where there is life, there is ecology.”

“Whether it is studying microbes in the freshwater wetlands or the oral cavity, both communities are affected by significant changes in their environment,” Mody said. “To be able to study the community succession and adaptation to new settings is very similar in the two seemingly distant fields of study. To be able to draw those parallels between two subjects has been the most fascinating and adventurous aspect of my research.”

It also has made for compelling conversations during dental school admissions interviews. Professors inevitably are curious to hear why Mody has spent so much time on ecological research, and she has enjoyed speaking about both the connections she has learned and how important it has been for her to do research outside of her academic concentration. Most importantly, she said, this opportunity continues to help her develop the mindset of a lifelong learner.

“Seeing how the same biological concepts connect health care with ecology has opened up a new appreciation and curiosity in me for what research can do,” Mody said.

In the lab, Mody has studied nitrogen cycling in wetlands and the alterations in the microbial communities (structure and functional genes) due to saltwater intrusion. In addition, she has helped with testing the James River for water quality. From the outset, Franklin said, Mody has demonstrated the patience and diligence to excel in research.

“She always has to understand every detail of every step, and that means she’s usually in a place where she can make suggestions and figure out how to bounce back when things don’t quite go as you expect,” Franklin said. “That’s something you usually see with someone who has been in graduate school for a while, not someone who is an undergraduate.”

Mody’s family moved to the United States when she was in ninth grade, and she graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia. At VCU, she initially devoted her attention to her classes, and she was a member of LEAD, a four-semester living-learning program for undergraduate students who are dedicated to developing their leadership skills. Eventually, however, she applied for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and was admitted to Franklin’s lab.

Woman in blue shirt holding lab sampling equipment.
“I want to be somebody who practices dentistry clinically and someone who is also on the forefront of looking at how we come up with these treatments and materials we use and how can we make them better,” Mody said. “That’s research.” (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Her work with Franklin and Morina has inspired her to shift her career plans. Mody, who has traveled to Peru and Ecuador to work in mobile health clinics as part of the organization MEDLIFE at VCU, now wants to incorporate a research element into her dental education and career. She was recently admitted to one dentistry school with a dual degree program that would allow her to pursue that goal.

“I want to be somebody who practices dentistry clinically and someone who is also on the forefront of looking at how we come up with these treatments and materials we use and how can we make them better,” Mody said. “That’s research. I wouldn’t have ever recognized this curiosity in me, which has become a very important element of my future career, if I had not had the UROP experience here.”

Mody also is interested in becoming an educator and has already played the role of teacher at VCU. She serves as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the microbiology lecture and teaching labs, and Franklin said Mody demonstrates rare skill explaining concepts to students, driven in part by her research experience and the connections she can now draw.

“She doesn’t just see medical versus environmental or biology versus chemistry — she doesn’t necessarily see those things as distinct anymore,” Franklin said. “That allows her to connect things when she’s teaching, and that’s really fun to watch. The students aren’t expecting that from an undergraduate, and I think it inspires them.”

As part of her TA duties, Mody is overseeing a research project in which students swab microorganisms from random surfaces and then throughout the semester participants run various tests to identify their “unknown” microbe. Mody has worked through the list with the students, trying different diagnostic tools as they both fail and succeed in their quest to identify bacteria from 60 different swabs, and she has found the process thrilling.

“It makes me feel alive in a way that I don’t think anything else ever has before,” Mody said.

Mody said her work as a researcher has helped strengthen her overall cultural competence. She hopes to continue to develop both her people skills and her technical skills so that when she is a health care provider she can provide service similar to the Indian dentist who calmly talked her through the root canal, transforming a daunting experience into a life-changing one.

“I want to be able to talk to people who don’t really understand modern treatments or the complex science behind them. I want to be able to communicate the science connections in a creative way to my patients and help them learn to trust them,” Mody said. “What fascinates me the most about dentistry and ecology is that there’s always something new and unexpected going on in the microbiomes in your oral cavity and the wetlands. To be able to see and understand these processes on a microscopic level in your mouth, your smile and the soils is mind-blowing to me. Why wouldn’t I want to know everything I could about that?”

 

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.