VCU student Nico Andrade earns Goldwater Scholarship

Goldwater-Andrade-featureBy Mike Porter

University Public Affairs
(804) 828-7037

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Virginia Commonwealth University student has been awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, the premier national scholarship for undergraduate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students.

Nicolas “Nico” Andrade, a sophomore, will receive scholarship funding to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. Andrade, a member of the VCU Honors College, is majoring in electrical engineering through the School of Engineering and physics through the College of Humanities and Sciences. He is the 10th VCU student to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship since 2007.

“We are excited for Nico on his well-deserved selection as a 2014 Goldwater Scholar. He joins a distinguished group of outstanding VCU undergraduate research students who have received this honor,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU. “We also want to acknowledge the important role of Nico’s research mentor, Dr. Ümit Özgür, in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. VCU’s emphasis on the undergraduate research experience ensures that future students will continue to be competitive for Goldwater Scholarships and admission to the top graduate programs in their field of study. It is another benefit of the university’s status as a top research university.”

Andrade, who is from Mechanicsville, is a 2012 graduate of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. In graduate school, he intends to conduct research in optoelectronics to improve the efficiency of light emitters. After his graduate studies, he plans to continue to pursue translational research in optoelectronics devices while teaching at a university level.

The Goldwater Scholarship Program, which honors the late Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, was designed to foster and encourage outstanding undergraduate students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

Andrade applied for the Goldwater Scholarship through the National Scholarship Office, which assists VCU students and alumni who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships.

Read the full article by Mike Porter:

True detective: Vanessa Fuentes


Undergraduate explores importance of familismo for Latino college students

University Public Affairs

Monday, April 14, 2014

In the beginning stages of her research career, Vanessa Fuentes has already found her passion. In a topic area that hits close to home, Fuentes is exploring cultural factors that play into mental health problems among college students.

“There has been a rise in mental health issues in college-aged Latinos in recent years,” said Fuentes, a senior psychology student in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I wanted to explore whether cultural factors, such as ethnic identity and familismo, buffer the relationship between stress, discrimination and mental health outcomes in Latino college students. Familismo is the close bond between immediate and extended family members in the Latino community.”

Fuentes applied for and received a VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship that allowed her to create her own research experience and project.

“UROP provided a great steppingstone for me and gave me amazing exposure to learning the process of research,” Fuentes said. “Through the UROP fellowship, I worked with my mentor, Dr. Rosalie Corona, and developed the research project on my own. It was very nice to have that flexibility. I was able to create my own research experience.”

For her research project, “How Does Culture Affect Latino College Students’ Mental Health?” Fuentes analyzed data collected from 198 Latino young adults who were recruited from two universities. These participants completed several questionnaires.

Seventy percent of participants reported minimal to mild symptoms of depression and 15 percent reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms. The results showed cultural factors were related to mental health outcomes and that close ties to family, or familismo, moderates the relationship between acculturative stress and mental health problems.

“I found that higher levels of familismo served as a protective factor against depression, anxiety and acculturative stress symptoms,” Fuentes said.

Read the full article by Frances Dumenci:

True detective: Nathalie Spita


Student learns how research can move from the lab to the patient bedside

University Public Affairs, VCU Across the Spectrum (

Monday, April 14, 2014

When Nathalie Spita decided to take her learning beyond the classroom and into the laboratory, she didn’t fully grasp how basic scientific findings could one day translate to help and hope for patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Spita, a senior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, spent her summer as part of a research team in the laboratory of Andrew K. Ottens, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiologyin the VCU School of Medicine. The focus there is to develop improved diagnostics and prognostics for TBI patient care.

Under Ottens’ guidance, Spita got a taste of the discovery process and began to understand the trials and tribulations of biomedical research.

“Being able to be a major part of a hands-on project allowed me to learn firsthand the amount of time, dedication, hard work and knowledge it takes to complete only a small part of a bigger project,” Spita said.

Spita has always had an interest in neuroscience. She was hooked on the TBI project from the beginning. She said what compelled her most was its direct clinical relevance.

“It was very important to gain exposure to research as an undergraduate at this stage of my education to actually understand this side of science and medicine,” Spita said. “It allowed me to finally use knowledge I have gained in my undergraduate classes and apply it to a real life experience, which has really been the best possible opportunity of my undergraduate career.”

Spita has plans to apply to medical school at the end of the year. She hopes to one day incorporate research into her career.

Spita was matched with Ottens through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at VCU.

In Ottens’ lab, Spita evaluated how the TBI molecular signature evolves during the course of acute inpatient brain injury rehabilitation. The researchers have newly identified several neuroplastic molecular factors present within the urine of TBI patients. Their focus was to determine how this signature changed following two weeks of inpatient rehabilitation and to evaluate correlation with functional measures at discharge.

“UROP provided me with the means to be completely submerged into research,” Spita said. “Seeing and learning what it means to be a part of cutting-edge biomedical research has truly been an eye-opening experience that has changed my academic experience entirely.”

Read the full article by Sathya Achia Abraham:

True detective: Tess Simms


English and African-American studies double major investigates the tobacco industry’s ties to slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs

Monday, April 14, 2014

Over the past few months, Tess Simms, a senior Virginia Commonwealth University student, has been digging through historical documents and texts, finding stories that show how Richmond’s tobacco industry was intertwined with slave labor in the 18th and 19th centuries. The stories, she said, demonstrate the ways that “the tobacco industries were carried to success by enslaved people … in Richmond.”

Simms, a double major in English and African-American studies from Bumpass, Va., is a research intern for Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and chair of VCU’s Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

As part of her internship, Simms is writing a series of research-based articles highlighting the role rural and urban slaves played in the growing and manufacturing of tobacco products in Richmond and the surrounding region.

“Her research on Richmond’s tobacco industry provides an important historical context or marker for slave rebellions in this area; and seminal events such as Henry ‘Box’ Brown’s escape to freedom that few would know to link to a well-known tobacconist in Richmond during this era,” Nasim said. “Tess’ research narrative is transdisciplinary in that it has important implications for better understanding Richmond’s culture, history and political economy.”

Her first article, “Henry ‘Box’ Brown: At the Intersection of Two Peculiar Institutions,” was posted in late February and tells the story of Henry Brown, a Richmond slave who escaped by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia. In the article, Simms describes how Brown was one of 120 slaves who worked in a Richmond tobacco factory.

“Few may know the conditions under which Brown worked and lived that finally forced him to escape the slavery-based tobacco industry,” Simms writes. “Like other enslaved men in the factory, Brown worked six days per week, ten hours per day. He was specialized in twisting tobacco, a skill that was very valuable in the 1830s tobacco market.”

According to the article, Brown’s story has ties to the modern-day tobacco industry.

“Life in the factory became especially difficult with the hiring of the overseer John F. Allen,” she writes. “Allen is best known today for his partnership with Lewis Ginter to create Allen & Ginter Tobacco Co., which eventually evolved into what’s now the Fortune 500 company Philip Morris International.”

Read the full article by Brian McNeill:

True detective: Michelle Florence


Art student learns how to apply armatures in large-scale figurative ceramics

University Public Affairs, VCU Across the Spectrum (

Monday, April 14, 2014

Imagine a large clay sculpture of a giant iguana smoking a cigarette on roller skates on a lit disco floor platform.

Once complete, it will be the latest creation from Michelle Florence, an undergraduate student in the Department of Craft/Material Studies in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

“My work is reactionary and metaphorical,” said Florence, who has a concentration in ceramics. “More often than not, I’ll try to describe a thought or idea in conversation and an image pops to mind. I make the image real.”

Florence has been working with clay as a medium in the creation of large-scale ceramic sculpture with a focus on gaining a practical understanding of large armatures and the structure and stability of a sculpture.

An armature is a rigid structure used to support a softer, more supple material, such as clay, for sculptural purposes.

“In contemporary ceramics, artists utilize armatures to create large figurative ceramic sculptures through the process of sculpting a solid form which is dried to leather hardness for structural strength and then removed in sections from the armature, hollowed out and reassembled,” Florence said.

Early last year, she decided she wanted to spend her summer months in the studio with her hands immersed in clay, rather than working for an hourly wage elsewhere.

So when she heard of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, she went for it.

“All learning is good learning,” she said.

“Any opportunity to gain greater technical expertise with the material is important at this stage. It also gave me the opportunity to learn the responsibilities and logistics of working independently through ordering my own supplies and managing a budget.”

Through the UROP fellowship, Florence is being mentored by Andréa Connell, assistant professor of ceramics in the Department of Craft/Materials Studies. From Connell, Florence has gained technical expertise, such as knowledge about what type of clay body to use, how to figure out how much material is needed for a project, the type of epoxies to use and how to use them, how to treat a surface, and much more.

“Working at this scale provided Michelle with the knowledge, technical skill and confidence needed to build anything,” Connell said.

“One of the most important things that UROP does is provide an undergraduate student with the understanding that their ideas are valuable and worthy of exploration. This tells me that VCU believes in the potential of their students, and their faculty,” she said.

Read the full article by Sathya Achia Abraham:

True detective: Danielle Armstrong


Student seeks answers to why some individuals shy away from HIV testing

By Jordan Hairr
University Public Affairs

Monday, April 14, 2014

For Danielle Armstrong, conducting data collection and crunching the numbers is not the fun part of research. Instead, studying why people behave the way they do is what she enjoys. Her research could help save lives by showing how to encourage people to utilize resources already widely — and sometimes freely — available.

Armstrong, a senior majoring in psychology in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, has been working with the Raise 5 Project and the Fan Free Clinic to engage with African-American college students about their attitudes toward HIV testing. Attributes studied included gender, religiosity and sexual orientation and were correlated to that person’s attitude and behavior toward testing. Through data collection and studying behaviors, Armstrong hopes to understand why some people do — or don’t — get tested for HIV.

“I’ve learned what it takes to do research, from start to finish,” Armstrong said.

Organizations such as Raise 5 and the Fan Free Clinic offer resources such as information sessions, intervention recruitment and free oral HIV screening to students and members of the Richmond community. These organizations aid efforts to reach out to those affected and lead them to the information or assistance they need. However, many at-risk or infected individuals choose to ignore or simply turn away from testing or assistance.

Armstrong hopes her research will identify reasons behind this phenomenon in order to improve prevention and increase education about HIV.

While retrieving data for a project like this may be a grinding task, the statistics and correlations she develops could display which attitudes play a role in HIV testing and what can be done to fix them. And Armstrong’s desire to help people fuels her research and data collection.

Read the full article by Jordan Hairr:

VCU COHD Undergraduate Research Training Programs Accepting Applications NOW!

cohd 1

HealthDisparitiesBanner1The VCU Center on Health Disparities is now accepting applications for two undergraduate research training programs!

The VCU IMSD Program  – Initiative to Maximize Student Diversity


The VCU MARC Program – Minority Access to Research careers

Both programs are funded by the National Institute of Health to promote diversity in the Biomedical Sciences Workforce. Both offer a year-round mentored research experiences with VCU faculty with additional enrichment and career development activities. Both offer some summer and semester stipend support and travel money to attend a national research conference

VCU-IMSD is seeking applicants with 3 or more remaining semesters at VCU and a GPA >2.5

VCU-MARC is a 2 year program for the junior and senior years applicants should have a GPA 3.2 higher

Successful applicants should have a deep interest in research and a desire to pursue a career or further graduate study in biomedical science research. Applicants must be VCU students and hold US citizenship, permanent resident or non-citizen national status

For further information on both programs or to apply online go to:

Or email

PRIORITY DEADLINE: April 15th 2014

Announcing VCU Student Research Weeks!

It is our pleasure to announce VCU Student Research Weeks 2014!  Beginning this Thursday, VCU hosts a series of events that bring together undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from across disciplines to celebrate research and creative scholarly projects. Events will take place April 10th-25th. 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, Education, 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 view the online schedule with full details and clickable links here:

RW 2014s

Lab uses 3-D printing to make historical artifact chess sets

photo 1-featureBy Brian McNeill

University Public Affairs

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Over the past month, a Virginia Commonwealth University lab has been using 3-D scanning and printing technology to create chess sets, with each piece a 3-D-printed replica of historical artifacts found at archeological digs at Jamestown, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and elsewhere.

“Sometimes when you’re scanning, it’s kind of boring. It takes about 20 minutes to scan an artifact,” said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory. “So we thought, you know, it’d be kind of fun to make chess pieces out of items from archeological sites.”

The lab was launched in 2011 as part of the Department of Defense’s Legacy Resource Management Program, which aims to preserve the United States’ natural and culture heritage, including through archeological investigations. The lab’s mission is to use its NextEngine 3-D scanner to digitally scan artifacts and animal bones, creating a virtual catalog of historical objects and allowing them to be replicated via a 3-D printer. The lab is part of the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The chess sets, Means said, are proving to be an excellent way of engaging the public, students and others interested in archaeology and the lab’s 3-D scanning technology.

“We’re finding that it’s a really great way to interact with the public because they can watch you play chess and then you can describe each individual piece,” he said.


In one of the chess sets, each piece is a 3-D plastic replica of artifacts from 1607 to 1610 found at a dig at the Jamestown Settlement.

The pawn of the Jamestown set is a scaled-down model of a bust based on the skull of a 14- or 15-year-old boy killed by an arrow in 1607. The bust was recently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

“He was killed by an arrow from an American Indian, so they call him ‘Arrow Point Boy,’” Means said. “We scanned him and made him our pawn.”

The Jamestown set’s king is a “Bartmann” jug fragment, or German stoneware depicting a “Bartmann,” which means “wild man.” “They’re bearded figurines,” Means said. “Some of them are really stern. They have a lot of them at Jamestown.”

The queen is a jeweler’s mold of an embossed pelican standing on a pedestal.

“[The Jamestown settlement] brought a jeweler over very early on, but then he disappears from the historical record,” Means said

The Jamestown set’s knight is a 3-D model of a butchered dog mandible. The jawbone has cut marks indicating that settlers likely ate the dog, and the bone dates to the Jamestown settlement’s “starving time” in the winter of 1609-10.

Read the rest of Brian McNeill’s article on the VCU News site.

Call for Applications: Molecular Biology Lab Skills Bootcamp!

IMG_0130On behalf of the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities program and the Center on Health Disparities Research Training Programs we welcome you to submit an application to participate in the 2014 “Molecular Biology Lab Skills Bootcamp” to be held May 12-16, 2014.  This bootcamp is supported by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), the VCU Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, the VCU MARC and IMSD programs, and the VCU Office of Research.  This opportunity is offered free of cost to you.

We have designed a week-long immersion course to prepare students, to enter a molecular research lab for the first time.  The purpose of the course is to provide a snapshot of lab skills to help overcome challenges faced by student researchers who are new to a laboratory setting.  Our goal is to help you assimilate to the lab environment faster, which will not only contribute to your fundamental research skills, but will also make you more attractive as a candidate for student research experiences as you continue your undergraduate career.

This is not a credit course, but successful students will be awarded a certificate upon completion of the program.  Please note that you must make arrangements for your own housing during the ‘Bootcamp’, and 9 month dorms will be closed during this period.

We will give preference to the following students to whom some of the following apply: Four or more remaining semesters at VCU, no previous lab experience (outside of classes), desire to pursue a graduate degree. Students who transferred to VCU from community colleges in the Fall 2013 are strongly encouraged to apply. We will show preference to those who have secured or are seeking a summer research experience.

There are no prerequisites for this experience.

Applications review will be on a rolling basis priority will go to applications received by April 1st.  Apply online:

If you already have significant experience in a research laboratory, or you think that this course may not be for you.  Please contact Dr. Sarah Golding ( directly, so that we can discuss your experience and make an appropriate decision.