Troubled waters: VCU researchers are studying the impact of saltwater intrusion on tidal wetlands

Monday, July 27, 2015

Along the muddy banks of the Pamunkey River in Virginia’s New Kent County, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have built an irrigation system that is allowing them to simulate the potential effects of climate change on tidal wetlands.

The system, designed and built by Dong-Yoon Lee, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology, pumps saltwater into several plots of land in Cumberland Marsh, mimicking what will happen as the sea level rises due to climate change and intrudes increasingly into freshwater ecosystems.

“We decided to run a real-time simulation in which we built a saltwater pumping system in a natural wetland further upstream, where saltwater rarely flowed before,” Lee said.

Lee’s experiment, which is underway this summer, is part of a multiyear National Science Foundation grant that is enabling VCU biologists to study the impact of climate change on tidal wetlands.

While previous research has examined the effects of saltwater on freshwater marshes in the lab, this project is among the first studies of its kind to take place in the natural environment.

As part of the project, researchers are measuring the effects of saltwater on the soil’s microbial community, marsh plants and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as attempting to discover how these changes in tidal wetlands might affect the larger ecosystem.

Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is principal investigator of the $780,000 grant, titled “Climate Change Effects on Coastal Wetlands — Linking Microbial Community Composition and Ecosystem Responses.” She said tidal freshwater wetlands are serving as the researchers’ model system.

“One of the main ways that saltwater intrusion is expected to affect the microbial community is by shifting the pathways involved in carbon cycling,” she said. “With our field manipulation, we will be able to track how this change in microbial activity scales up to affect the overall carbon cycling of the wetland. In particular, we will learn whether these microbial community changes affect the carbon storage capacity of the wetland and determine rates of greenhouse gases emissions — carbon dioxide and methane.”

A natural resource at risk

Wetlands provide a variety of important services to the environment. They filter nutrients and improve water quality for the rest of the estuary. They serve as the habitat of bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons and egrets. They provide migratory and wintering habitats for waterfowl. They support a diverse array of plant species. And they play an important role in carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which helps slow global warming by keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Yet as the sea level rises, the researchers say, all of those services are at risk.

With sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, we may end up losing these wetlands.

“With sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, we may end up losing these wetlands,” said Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and co-investigator on the study.

The sea level is rising at a rate of 3 or 4 millimeters per year, Neubauer said, though that rate is accelerating and expected to reach 6 millimeters or more by the end of the century.

“There’s kind of a hotspot here in the mid-Atlantic in terms of sea level rise,” he said. “It’s increasing over time.”

Neubauer is interested in studying what happens to the carbon stored in the soil once saltwater intrudes.

“If we’re doing something that disturbs the carbon cycle — like bringing in saltwater and [consequently] reducing carbon sequestration — that could mean the wetland is growing vertically more slowly, which means as the sea level rises, the marsh is going to fall behind,” he said. “And once the marsh gets flooded too much, the plants can’t survive and you lose all the important functions of the wetlands.

“If you convert your tidal wetland to a mudflat, you’ve lost a lot of those services provided by the wetland.”

Read the rest of this article at the VCU News site:

Into the woods: Researchers study birds in effort to curb the spread of West Nile virus


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The sun won’t be up for a couple hours, but Dan Finnell and Ryan Levering are driving slowly through the darkness of Joseph Bryan Park, scanning the shrubs and trees with a thermal imaging camera attached to the passenger side window.

The two Virginia Commonwealth University senior environmental studies majors are hunting for infrared hotspots that might indicate the presence of nests of American robins or other birds.

“When we find a nest, we mark the spot with flagging tape,” Finnell said. “And as the sun rises, we get back out there to check it out, see how many eggs or nestlings there are, and collect nestling temperatures, incubating female temperature, and ambient temperature, and observe the female’s activity — she might be incubating eggs or brooding nestlings.”

The bird nesting data collected in Bryan Park is part of a major interdisciplinary study at VCU —involving ornithologists, mathematicians, entomologists and others — that aims to gain a better understanding of how West Nile virus spreads and how authorities can more effectively prevent outbreaks.

“Our goal is to be able to develop a model of West Nile virus transmission,” said Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences and the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and an affiliate researcher for the VCU Rice Rivers Center. “We know that American robins and some other birds are good hosts for West Nile virus, and so we want to understand the dynamics between the timing of their nesting, the time of mosquito abundance and then toward the end of the season [the time when] mosquitoes shift to feeding on mammals, including humans.”

Bulluck, an expert on avian ecology who is overseeing the field work in Bryan Park, said the information being collected will serve as empirical data that will feed into the model of West Nile virus transmission.

“The basic question is, How does the timing of bird nesting activity influence West Nile virus transmission dynamics?” she said.

Mosquitoes, baby birds and math

A nest of American robins in Bryan Park that was identified by the researchers.

West Nile virus is a pathogen spread primarily between mosquitoes and birds, and can spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Most humans infected with the virus do not develop symptoms. However, about one in five people who are infected develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash, and less than 1 percent will develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis.

The project — “The impact of temporal variation in host life-stage abundance on the regional transmission and control of West Nile virus” — is supported by a $100,000 grant from the Jeffress Trust Awards Program in Interdisciplinary Research, which supports interdisciplinary research in Virginia.

Suzanne Robertson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, is leading the project and developing a differential equations model for avian and human hosts.

Read the rest of this story on the VCU News site:


Congratulations to our Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awardees for 2015

Each year, the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program accepts nominations from students for our “Outstanding Faculty Mentor” Awards. Undergraduate researchers are asked to identify a professor or faculty mentor who regularly goes above and beyond to create and engage students in research opportunities.

Students provide a written statement that describes why the chosen nominee deserves an outstanding mentorship award, including specific examples that detail their nominee’s contribution to undergraduate research at VCU.  The main criteria for these nominations include; how the faculty member has enhanced the skills related to undergraduate research in their discipline, how the nominee has expanded the knowledge base of student researchers, the ways in which the mentor has assisted undergraduates in their engagement with research, the lasting impression the mentor has made on students’ future academic and professional plans.

Please join us in recognizing our 2015 Outstanding Faculty Mentors!


Dr. Daniel Conway is Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Conway was nominated by undergraduate researcher and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Natalie Noll, who had this to say about her mentor’s guidance: “During my time working in Dr. Conway’s lab, he has constantly assisted me in my acquisition of knowledge in my field of research. By providing me with personal hands on learning, he made sure from day one that I was following procedure correctly, and performing every technique flawlessly.  After participating in the UROP program, and having such a positive experience in Dr. Conway’s lab, I have changed my career path to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering so that I can do research for a living. Through Dr. Conway’s passion for his research and his willingness to employ students to do their own research projects in his lab I have come to love research.”


Dr. Andrew K. Ottens is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine, with affiliate positions in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Psychology.  Dr. Ottens was nominated by undergraduate researcher and Biology major, Pallavi Pilaka.  Pallavi included the following statement regarding Dr. Ottens’ mentorship in his nomination: “This semester Dr. Ottens has me leading a grant on the effect of childhood secondhand smoke on the relapse to alcoholism in adulthood. The knowledge I have acquired from Dr. Ottens has given me the opportunity to train another undergraduate student and a graduate student in conducting and analyzing behavioral assays and biofluid processing for mass spectrometric analysis on this grant. As an undergraduate, leading a grant is an incredible opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and acquire real world knowledge and experience of what it would take to become a research graduate student.  During my year in Dr. Ottens’s lab, my experience inspired me to pursue a career in Neuroscience; I will be applying to graduate programs this fall.”


Dr. Manoj Thomas is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Systems with the VCU School of Business.  Dr. Thomas was nominated by undergraduate researcher and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Siobhan Gray, who detailed the unique global service component of her mentor’s area of research: “The work I have done with Dr. Thomas as part of my Fellowship is why I am in the field I am. Helping others obtain access to technology is a great step forward for Haiti. Being able to be a part of the research solutions for those students was a great honor. My hope for my future is that I will be able to help others in the same way that I have helped the Haitian youth through my project. Working with Dr. Thomas truly opened my eyes to the challenges faced by many in the world. I hope to help others the wayhe has and to devise solutions for all those in need.”

School of Nursing_Angela Starkweather

Dr. Angela Starkweather is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems in the VCU School of Nursing.  Dr. Starkweather was nominated by undergraduate research and previous UROP Summer Research Fellow, Jeff Petraco, who had this to say about his research mentor: “Dr. Starkweather’s engaging and supportive approach makes working through even the most challenging issues an intellectually enjoyable experience.  By skillfully assessing students upon their expression of interest in research, Dr. Starkweather’s approach builds on their strengths to enable them to develop research skills commensurate with their abilities and background. Her joy for research and her dedication to and compassion for her students encourage them to give serious consideration to pursing a graduate degree in nursing research.”

If you are interested in recognizing your faculty mentor for the outstanding guidance they provide to you and other undergraduate engaged in research and scholarship at VCU, please recognize them by nominating the for future Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards here:

Questions or concerns?  Contact your UROP Director, Herb Hill at

VCU Research Weeks 2015 Wrap-Up!

Research Weeks 2015

From art to science and everything in between, VCU students dig deeper on research projects in every discipline

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Virginia Commonwealth University provost Gail Hackett, Ph.D., knows that research isn’t just for faculty members and doctoral candidates.

Addressing students April 22 at the VCU Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity, Hackett recalled how early forays into research helped determine her career path.

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate,” she said. “That independent research did have a huge impact on me. It enriched my academic program as a psychology major and influenced my career choice as a researcher and faculty member.”

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the symposium allowed undergraduates to share their investigations into everything from 3-D printing to how chemically profiling mixtures with pool chlorine and brake fluid can help authorities solve crimes of arson.

What I see here is not just a room full of posters. What I see is the tangible evidence of what we mean when we talk about student success and academic rigor at VCU.

“What I see here is not just a room full of posters,” Hackett said. “What I see is the tangible evidence of what we mean when we talk about student success and academic rigor at VCU.”

The symposium was one of several events taking place at VCU’s two campuses during Student Research Weeks in April. The annual celebration is a chance for students to present their research, creative and scholarly projects to their peers and the community.

While students have always been active in the university’s research endeavors, Research Weeks has brought to the forefront the sheer amount and diversity of projects being carried out, said Frank Macrina, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation.

Initially just a week of events, the celebration now stretches across an entire month.

“What we have done is awakened a sleeping giant,” Macrina said.

What follows is a snapshot of some of the projects presented by students this year.

Psychology: Body by avatar

Freshman Usha Raman presents her research at the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. Raman studied the impact of video game avatars on body image in adolescent boys. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing.

For decades, researchers have studied the impact that magazines and television have on female body image. Usha Raman, a freshmen majoring in biology and psychology, flipped that scenario around by looking at the effect of video game avatars on adolescent boys.

The characters in games today move and look like real humans. They can even be personalized to more closely resemble the tastes and desires of the player.

Raman looked at various avatars. Some were so unnaturally muscular they didn’t seem to have much of an impact. Others, such as Nathan Drake from the Unchartered video game series, did.

“The ones that are a little more realistic, the boys start comparing their own bodies to them,” said Raman, who presented her findings at the Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. “Their realistic and athletic movements caused boys to mimic them. All of this can lead to negative body image and depression and anxiety.”

Raman compared the influence of video games on boys to the effect of other mass media images on adult males. She found that the images of avatars could make boys change their eating and exercise habits, similar to the way other mass media images cause changes in the habits of adult males.

Raman wants to continue her research by looking at how boys react to earlier video games, in which characters were not as muscular and the movements not as realistic.

Read the rest of this story at the VCU News site:

You are invited!! VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity

Greetings, we are very excited to invite you all to visit our undergraduates as they present their research and scholarly endeavors at our 7th(!) Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity taking place on Wed. April 22nd from 11am-2pm in the Commonwealth Ballrooms and Richmond Salons of the Student Commons.  Our students have put together some fantastic posters profiling their work from the past academic year, and nothing would mean more to them than to be able to share it with our community!  We have nearly 300 students eager to answer your questions and tell you about their research.  You can view our 2015 abstract book at:

At 12:30pm we will host remarks from our new Provost, Dr. Gail Hackett, and Vice President for Research and Innovation, Dr. Frank Macrina, and will be awarding our outstanding faculty members for their mentorship of our undergraduates.  We will also announce our annual VCU Launch awards for first-year and second-year students who have produced research posters that exhibit remarkable rigor and vision.  Many of these students are eager to serve as research assistants if you are looking to recruit for summer and fall!

We thank you for your continuing support of undergraduate research at VCU and hope that you will join us at this special event, part of VCU Student Research Weeks!

abstract cover

Inquiring minds: in honor of Research Weeks, we highlight six student projects that show the wide (and perhaps unexpected) range undergraduate research at VCU.

This story was originally written by VCU University Public Affairs and University Relations and posted here:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

One of the world’s top research institutions, Virginia Commonwealth University boasted $262 million in sponsored research last year, and students play a crucial role in every breakthrough or discovery along the way.

VCU undergraduates are conducting research everywhere — they aren’t just in labs and classrooms. They work closely with faculty mentors in all schools and departments and have the entire city of Richmond at their disposal, allowing them to test their theories out in the real world.

This month, during the fifth annual Student Research Weeks, students will showcase their investigations into everything from basic science and medical research to politics, culture and the arts.

“You can sum up the importance of research in undergraduate education in three words: learning by doing,” said Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research opportunities at VCU. “This is active learning in a hands-on environment which, in many ways, reinforces the fundamental knowledge that students are absorbing in the classroom.”

In honor of this month’s celebration, we are featuring a handful of student-faculty pairs who have made an impact in their respective fields. From the cultural implications of adolescent fear to noninvasive treatments for chronic pain, here are some recent examples of successful student-faculty research collaborations.


A prehistoric sense of community

(left) Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., and (right) Samantha Meacham. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

The project: “Fossil Bovidae from Cooper’s Cave and Their Significance to Paranthropus robustus” — Examining fossils from the Cooper’s Cave region of South Africa to better understand the world of P. robustus, a species of hominid that lived between 1 and 2 million years ago

The student researcher: Samantha Meacham, junior, biology major, pre-med

The faculty mentor: Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, School of World Studies


Samantha Meacham: This project was so awesome. I’ve wanted to go to South Africa for a really long time. I took Dr. Rector Verrelli’s Intro to Anthropology course and was exposed to ideas about evolution that I had never thought about before and saw the opportunity to learn even more. In South Africa, I examined a lot of fossils from microfauna, which are like little rodents, and bovids, which are large antelope-like animals. A lot of people don’t know that there were different species of human ancestors around at the same time. By looking at these animal fossils, we can know more about what the environment was like back then, what P. robustus may have eaten and why our direct ancestors developed a certain way and others, like P. robustus, went another way.

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D.: We went to Cooper’s Cave, a site in the main area for studying evidence of our human ancestors in South Africa. It is one of many sites in the Cradle of Humankind, which is a World Heritage Site. We’re studying a super-weird looking ancestor that seemed to evolve differently than those from our direct lineage and trying to get a better sense of his community. It was a fantastic opportunity for Sam, who doesn’t really have any background in anthropology. She got a lot of practice taking fossils out of boxes, classifying sizes and matching them up to corresponding parts of skeletons. It was incredible that this fellowship allowed her to travel to the source, instead of trying to study this from a distance.

The results: There were massive amounts of specimens to go through. We are still analyzing all of our data and preparing a poster for the undergraduate research symposium on April 22. But from what we’ve seen so far, it does appear that the community of P. robustus is different. There is something unique about it, but we still have to learn more about the habitat before we can draw any definitive conclusions.


Peace, love and branding

(left) Kelsey Cowan and (right) Marcel Jennings. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

The project: “Branding and Marketing for Peace & Fluidity Designs” — A self-designed independent study syllabus for credit that simultaneously created an integrated marketing campaign for an actual client in eight weeks

The student researcher: Kelsey Cowan, senior, advertising major

The faculty mentor: Marcel Jennings, associate professor, Robertson School of Media and Culture


Kelsey Cowan: Needing one more credit to graduate coincided with my sister’s yoga company needing a complete branding and marketing strategy. I combined both needs to design my own independent study program that took me from zero to finished project in eight weeks. Everything from the initial brand audit to logo development, competitive research, market and lifestyle analysis, photo shoots, e-commerce web design and implementation, and retail networking was included in my step-by-step curriculum. I did a lot of learning as I went, but being in the advertising program at VCU really prepared me to do the work, and I think do it well.

Marcel Jennings: Having had Kelsey in two classes, I knew she had the work ethic, drive, level of finish and passion for the business required to crush this project. I wasn’t surprised when she told me what she wanted to do. I only provided creative direction, feedback and guidance — she set up the entire syllabus from start to finish on her own and completed it while also having a full class schedule. Kelsey always over-delivers, and this project is no different. I think doing a real project for a real client is critical for my students. In the classroom it’s all blue-sky theory and anything’s possible. But real assignments with budgets and deadlines give students a vital experience that, for the most part, you can’t teach. Kelsey already had a high bar, now it’s even higher.

The results: It was an amazing experience to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it to a real-world client situation, where questions of differing style, taste and perspective have to be addressed and resolved with the client — on budget, within deadlines. I developed the brand voice and made sure that there is consistency across all media, from print to web, in-store, events and social media. It definitely upped my professionalism, and I’ve ended up with a much more solid portfolio that can take me to the Brandcenter and beyond. Perhaps my client (and sister) said it best: “Kelsey will be taking Peace & Fluidity Designs to new heights, so get excited!”


Taking a bite out of bacteria

(left) Dylan Vu and (right) Ping Xu, Ph.D.

The project: “The Effect of Ion Concentration on Biofilm Formation of Streptococcus sanguinis” — Experimenting with different ion concentrations to control the growth of S. sanguinis, a bacteria that is common in the mouth and can lead to biofilm, infective endocarditis and other problems

The student researcher: Dylan Vu, junior, biology major

The faculty mentor: Ping Xu, Ph.D., professor, Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, School of Dentistry


Dylan Vu: Oral bacteria form naturally on the teeth in sheets called biofilm. S. sanguinis is one of the first oral bacteria attached on teeth, and other more harmful bacteria or species can grow on top of it. Biofilm can cause problems like cavities or periodontal infections. My project sought to control S. sanguinis biofilm growth by changing different ion concentrations. Ideally, a decrease in biofilm would mean a decrease in graver oral problems. Without Dr. Xu graciously allowing me to work in his lab, I could never have had the opportunity to work on this project. He entrusted me with a lot of independence while being supportive whenever I had questions or needed assistance. In the lab, I was able to clearly see biofilm, the speed at which it grows and the effect of small environmental changes on its growth.

Ping Xu, Ph.D.: Dylan works very hard and spent a lot of his free time in the lab trying to figure out how biofilm forms and develops. More than 80 percent of infectious disease is related to biofilm, so understanding more about what ions can reduce oral biofilm, such as dental plaque, could allow us to find more treatments, like fluoride, to help slow dental decay. Our lab works to find out how biofilm forms using state-of-the-art technology including genomics, bioinformatics and systems biology. Biofilm is tough to get rid of, but Dylan’s research is helping to understand how we can control it.

The results: Certain concentrations of silver nitrate, copper sulfate and zinc sulfate reduced biofilm formation completely, while other ions like iron sulfate weakened biofilms. It was also found that a decrease in bacterial growth was accompanied by a decrease in biofilm. Therefore, the majority of ions likely did not only affect biofilm formation, but were toxic and killed the bacteria. These results indicate which ions could be used for future research on how to control S. sanguinis biofilm formation.


Out of the comfort zone and into the community

(left) Neha Jadhav and (right) Rosalie Corona, Ph.D. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

The project: “Possible Selves and Health Behaviors of Latino Adolescents” — A study identifying whether Latino adolescents’ future goals are related to their educational and health behaviors, and how their hopes and fears motivate those behaviors.

The student researcher: Neha Jadhav, junior, psychology major with a concentration in life sciences, pre-med; minoring in chemistry and creative writing

The faculty mentor: Rosalie Corona, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology; director, Clinical Psychology Program and Health Psychology Program; director, Latino Mental Health Clinic


Neha Jadhav: I got involved in this project as part of the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program through the Honors College. Our goal was, and is, to find a correlation between what Latino adolescents hope to become and what they’re afraid of becoming in the future, and how those outcomes can be improved. Having to step outside my own culture and comfort zone, I learned as much about myself as I did about the research topic.

Rosalie Corona, Ph.D.: It’s a great thing for undergraduates to go beyond the classroom into a real-world setting — to get out of the textbook and make it real, and see how research can contribute to the community. Neha sought us out when she was still a sophomore. She had an interest in psychology research and chose the Possible Selves project. For someone as young as she was when she started in research, I was really impressed with her natural ability in terms of the scientific process. She picked up on and was able to write and make manuscript contributions right away. Very quickly we realized that was a strength of hers, so she got to participate in tasks that I haven’t had undergrads working on that intensely.

The results: While the Possible Selves project is still ongoing, data analysis so far has identified several key findings. Few adolescents reported balance in their possible and feared selves, with nearly a quarter reporting an achievement possible self and a risky behavior feared self. This highlights the relevance of risky behaviors to Latino adolescents’ educational goals. Results suggest that prevention programs may want to focus on educational goals/outcomes and risk behaviors.


No pain, major gain

(left) Angela Starkweather, Ph.D., and (right) Jeff Petraco. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

The project: “Neuroelectrocutaneous Therapy for Persistent Low Back Pain” — Data analysis of results from a study of the effectiveness of a noninvasive electrocutaneous (ScramblerTM) therapy for persistent low back pain in people who received the therapy versus those who received a sham treatment

The student researcher: Jeff Petraco, senior, nursing major, accelerated program

The faculty mentor: Angela Starkweather, Ph.D., ACNP-BC, CNRN, FAAN, associate professor and chair, Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems


Jeff Petraco: The possibility of learning about pain research as well as a nonpharmacologic approach to pain management is very exciting. The concept of evidence-based practice is fundamental to contemporary nursing — to be able to further develop my research skills was a wonderful complement to my studies. I now have firsthand experience with the role of nurses in designing, implementing and publishing research, as well as a better understanding of the relationship between basic science research, medical research and nursing research.

Angela Starkweather, Ph.D.: Students are the future of our profession, so providing them with opportunities to be involved and see whether a career in nursing research is a good fit is extremely important. Jeff has been able to spend some time learning the behind-the-scenes operations of what it takes to make a research project successful. He is highly driven and motivated — I’ve been able to sit down with him and focus on data analyses, interpretation and dissemination. This project was a great way to involve him with some of the research we are doing at the School of Nursing and gave him an opportunity to network with other members of my research team so he could learn the different roles.

The results: Our research provides another valuable piece in the puzzle of understanding what genes expressed during pain might be worth further investigation. Analyzing this data comparing the differences between the two groups may help to identify possible genetic components of pathways for neuropathic pain, which could lead to developing a model of the neuropathic pain pathway. This may result in more effective interventions for both the remediation of acute pain and the prevention of chronic pain.


Font of wisdom: Letters from the Basque country

(left) Anna Shcherbakova and (right) Jamie Mahoney. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Marketing.

The project: “Capturing the Graphic Character of Cities” — A trip to the Basque country in southwestern France to study and document the unique letterforms of the region and how those inform and reflect broader influences in the culture, as well as link and translate the past to today

The student researcher: Anna Shcherbakova, junior, graphic design major; minor in media studies

The faculty mentor: Jamie Mahoney, assistant professor, Department of Graphic Design


Anna Shcherbakova: The practice of recording the graphic character of our cities and studying letterforms to get a sense of a place from the visual cues has always interested me. Curious as to how those cues evolve and take on the identity of a city or region, I traveled to France expecting ornate scripts and was instead introduced to traditional Basque letters. Putting together the proposal for the Dean’s International Travel Grant alone was a hard task that made me realistically think how I could accomplish what I wanted to do and made me a better communicator in expressing my ideas and coming up with precedents.

Jamie Mahoney: Anna found a topic that fascinated her and one that had not been studied extensively. The latter proved to be a challenge to her investigation, but as a result, Anna’s project is now a valuable source of knowledge in the history of typography and graphic design. Her passion for the topic fueled her curiosity, which in turn led to a wealth of research material through focused inquiry, interviews with primary sources and extensive visual documentation.

The results: From the very beginning, my project helped me identify what I was interested in outside the classroom. As a student, I am now more open to drawing inspiration for projects in unconventional ways and justifying the decisions I make with research. After coming back, I put together a presentation to the graphic design department that gave me a unique chance to present to my faculty and peers. Conducting a semester-long independent project made me stronger in establishing deadlines, curating an exhibition and visually communicating my experience in a unique way. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but one that I hope I can duplicate in some way.


Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter. To learn more about research taking place at VCU, subscribe to its research blog, Across the Spectrum at

Announcing VCU Student Research Weeks 2015!

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Dear Students, Colleagues, and members of the VCU community,

Starting this month, VCU hosts its fifth annual Student Research Weeks, a series of events that brings together undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from across disciplines to celebrate research and creative scholarly projects.

A schedule of events and locations can be found at the website below. Projects span many academic disciplines, including work from Community Engagement, the College of Humanities and Sciences and the schools of Allied Health Professions, Arts, Business, Political Studies, World Studies, Engineering, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work and Interdisciplinary Studies. Students will be available to demonstrate and discuss their projects in a variety of presentations.  I hope you will join us for this exciting series of events!

For more information, contact me at or visit:


Abstract DEADLINE EXTENDED TO 3/27 – VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and part of VCU Student Research Week, the annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium is a wonderful opportunity for students to present their research endeavors to their academic peers, members of the VCU faculty, community members, and friends and family.  All undergrads from every discipline are encouraged to present and attend.  Presentations may be for completed research projects, completed papers, or research in progress.

Projects involving creative work such as prose or poetry, performances, and artwork will be considered for acceptance if they are part of a scholarly project undertaken by the student.  We are currently accepting poster abstracts up until the new deadline of March 27th, 2015.  All abstracts should be submitted to

After students are notified of their acceptance, we will accept early electronic file submission of posters for any student who wishes to have their poster printed free of charge.   Note: For a schedule of upcoming poster creation workshops visit:

Abstracts should include: Name/Major of student, Name/Dept. of Faculty Mentor, Title of research Project, Brief description of research project.  All inquiries to


Nominate your Faculty Mentor for an Undergraduate Research Mentorship Award!

UROP (1)

Are you a VCU undergraduate student who is currently conducting research under an awesome faculty member at VCU?  Do you know a professor or faculty member who goes above and beyond to create research opportunities for undergraduate students?  If so, nominate them for a UROP Faculty Mentorship Award so we can acknowledge their contributions!

Go to: to submit a statement of no more than 500 words explaining why the chosen nominee deserves an outstanding mentorship award. Please use specific examples that detail your nominee’s contribution to undergraduate research at VCU.  The deadline for submissions is April 4th.

Consider the following criteria in your nomination:

• How has the nominee enhanced the skills related to undergraduate research in their discipline?

• How has the nominee expanded the knowledge base of student researchers?

• How has the nominee assisted undergraduates in their engagement with research?

• How has the nominee guided students in the acquisition of research presentation skills?

• What lasting impression has the nominee made on students’ future academic and professional plans?

Email Herb Hill at with any questions.

Upcoming Fulbright Student Scholarship Information Sessions


The National Scholarship Office has scheduled several Fulbright Information Sessions this spring for those who are interested in learning more about the Fulbright Student Scholarship ( These sessions are hosted by units across both campuses, and each session is open to anyone who wants to attend. Unless otherwise noted, each session will include information on both the English Teaching Assistant and Independent Research/Study opportunities.

Serious candidates for the Fulbright Student Scholarship should have strong academic credentials (3.0 GPA or higher), international interests, and appropriate language skills for the host country and proposed project (if planning to conduct independent research or a creative project). If potential candidates do not presently have the appropriate language level, they should have a plan to acquire the appropriate level before they would commence their project. Current undergraduates who will complete their bachelor’s degree by August 2016 are eligible to apply, as are graduate students and recent alumni. Candidates for the US Student Fulbright program must be US citizens.

Additional information sessions are being scheduled, so check back here to see when and where they will be offered.

Tuesday, March 17, 11a, Academic Learning Commons (ALC) 3100

Wednesday, March 18, noon, Pollak 421 (this session will focus on applications in the Fine Arts)

Friday, March 20, 4p, VCU GLOBE Room 1030G

Wednesday, March 25, 3p, School of Business, Snead Hall, Room B2147

Friday, March 27, 2p, Scherer Hall, Room 401 (923 W. Franklin)

Wednesday, April 1, 1p, History Department Conference Room, 811 Cathedral Place

Wednesday, April 1, 3p, Oliver Hall, Room 4084b

Friday, April 3, 10a, Buford House, Room 202 (922 W. Franklin)

Tuesday, April 14, noon, School of Nursing, Room TBA

Thursday, April 23, noon, Student Commons, Forum Room

Tuesday, April 28, 3p, School of Engineering, West Hall 103

To schedule an individual appointment to discuss your Fulbright interests with someone in the National Scholarship Office, please email