Biology researchers connect elementary school students with climate change, wetlands

Featured photo

You don’t expect to hear the crisp sounds of the wetlands in the basement of a school – even at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, Virginia’s first and only charter elementary school, situated near Reedy Creek and the James River Park System. But one afternoon in March, students were crafting models of food webs and examining slides under microscopes as a video of marshland animals looped nearby.

A group of professors, post-docs and students from the Department of Biology, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, led a four-day workshop for elementary schoolers on the basics of how climate change is impacting wetlands.

“We’re funded by the National Science Foundation to look at how wetlands will respond to climate change,” said Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of biology. “Today we are working in different groups with the kids in the key aspects that go into that research.”

The school’s location, nestled next to Forest Hill Park on Richmond’s Southside, was conducive to breaking down the complexities of climate change.

“Patrick Henry is sitting right here on James River Park, and on Reedy Creek. We’ve taken them outside and taken them to the creek,” said Bonnie Brown, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of biology. Franklin, Brown and Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, are principal investigators on the grant, “Climate Change Effects on Coastal Wetlands – Linking Microbial Community Composition and Ecosystem Responses.”

The grant includes a community education component on environmental science. In each small group at Patrick Henry, VCU teams began with basic concepts that students already understood and tied them into the larger research goals.

“We started out with the idea of germs. All the kids know what germs are. But the world is also full of all these microbes that do good stuff for us,” Franklin said. “The first day they actually went on a microbe hunt. We gave them some petri dishes, and we sent them outside and in different areas of the school to get samples and grow them.”

Afterwards, students inspected their petri dishes and talked about the hypotheses they had about samples from different parts of the school.

We’re trying to break down the complicated phenomena into little parcels that they can then understand.

In another room, students watch a digital readout as different items are placed into a big plastic box. A device measures how much carbon dioxide is being produced, so students can visualize the difference between a cup full of worms and a cup full of dirt, for instance.

“We’re trying to break down the complicated phenomena into little parcels that they can then understand. They’ll be hopefully excited about measuring something, and drawing that thing that we’re measuring,” Brown said.

A group of students followed Brown through the school’s large garden and lawn, collecting flowers, buds, gumballs and other objects to draw. The students then took the items inside for an up-close look under a microscope.

“Every time we do one of these small activities, relate it to the fact that they are lucky to be here in the city, but have a park and a wetland and a creek and water,” Brown said, “and how then they can think about all this to take care of those resources.”

Assisting with the workshop were:
Joseph Battistelli, Ph.D. – instructor, Department of Biology
George Giannopoulos, Ph.D., Daniel (Dong) Lee, Ph.D. and Katherine Hartop, Ph.D. – postdoctoral researchers, Department of Biology
Gabriella Balasa and Olivia De Meo – technicians, Department of Biology

Joseph Morina, Chansotheary Dang, and Enjolie Levengood – graduate students, Department of Biology

Ben Stone, Diana Carey and Shira Lanyi – undergraduate students, Department of Biology
Biology graduate student Enjolie Levengood examines petri dishes with workshop participants.
Biology graduate student Enjolie Levengood examines petri dishes with workshop participants.

Cutting-edge, ambitious work marks sixth annual Student Research Weeks!


Freshman Usha Raman presents her research last year at the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Research Weeks, an annual event celebrating student research and creative and scholarly projects across a range of disciplines, will be held from April 13 to 28 on VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV campuses.Over two weeks, undergraduate and graduate students will present their projects, theses and dissertations, demonstrating and discussing their work through a series of events and activities, which are free and open to the public.

Some of the highlights from Research Weeks include:

Wednesday, April 13

VCU Venture Creation Competition
8:30 a.m.–6 p.m.
Snead Hall, 301 W. Main St., Room B3189
Students learn about entrepreneurship through the development of a concept or business venture and present to a panel of judges. Finalists will compete for cash prizes that can be used to further the commercialization of their venture. (Reception at 4:30 p.m. in the School of Business Atrium; awards ceremony at 5 p.m.)

For more information, visit the da Vinci Center website.

Thursday, April 14

School of Dentistry Research and Clinic Day
8:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Perkinson Building, 1101 E. Leigh St. (talks)  Jonah L. Larrick Student Center, 900 Turpin St., Court End Ballroom (posters)
Dental and dental-hygiene students, research students and residents will present their research findings and contributions to advance oral health. Judges will award prizes for the best poster presentation in four categories.

For more information, contact Oonagh Loughran at

Friday, April 15

VCU Political Science 10th Annual Student Research Conference
8:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave.

Undergraduate and junior graduates from VCU and other universities will present research projects and facilitate roundtable discussions. Topics include public policy, international relations, and political theory and research methods. For more information, contact Christopher Saladino at

Tuesday, April 19

19th Annual Graduate Research Symposium and Exhibit
11 a.m.–1 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. (Commonwealth Ballroom)
VCU graduate students from all disciplines and departments will present their work to faculty, staff, students and community members.

For more information, visit the Graduate Research Symposium website.

Wednesday, April 20

10th Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity
11 a.m.–2 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. (Commonwealth Ballroom, James River Terrace, Richmond Salons)
Undergraduate students will present their research projects from a wide variety of academic disciplines. The event is organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

For more information, contact Herb Hill at

Graduate Recruitment Fair
11 a.m.–2 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. (Virginia Rooms)
Undergraduates from all disciplines are invited to attend to get information about opportunities in graduate education at VCU and beyond. Recruiters from a number of universities will attend. Hosted by VCU Office of Admissions.

For more information, contact Joy Rush at

Thursday, April 21

School of World Studies Senior Research Poster Exposition
11 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. (Richmond Salons)
Seniors showcase their best work, including research from Senior Seminar, internship experience, service-learning work and other academic research.

For more information, contact Kelsey Steenburgh at

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Information Session 12:30-2pm. MPC Student Commons, Forum Room. As part of Research Week, the VCU National Scholarship Office will be hosting an information session for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Mr. Jeff Wing, Director of the National Scholarship Office, will share information about the NSF GRF application process at 12:30pm on Thursday April 21st, in the VCU Commons Forum Room. Juniors and seniors who are planning to pursue graduate degrees in STEM fields are encouraged to attend, as are first-year graduate students. The deadlines for the 2017 NSF GRF are expected to be in late October/early November. Interested candidates are encouraged to start talking with the NSO and their research mentors this spring and developing their research proposals during the summer. For further information please

Fulbright Scholarship Information Session 2pm-3pm MPC Student Commons, Forum Room. The VCU National Scholarship Office is hosting an information session for students interested in the Fulbright Student Scholarship program, which provides funding to study, conduct research or teach English in more than 140 nations around the globe. Fulbright grantees come from a range of diverse fields and undertake projects that prepare them to play an influential role in today’s global society. They also contribute to mutual understanding among cultures and nations. The Fulbright Student Scholarship offers invaluable leadership development experiences along with opportunities for intellectual, professional and artistic growth. For further information please contact

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Information Session 3:30pm National Scholarship Office, VCU Honors College, 701 West Grace Street. The VCU National Scholarship Office is hosting an information session for students interested in the Goldwater Scholarship. The purpose of this scholarship is to provide a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers in these STEM fields. For this scholarship, eligible sophomores and juniors are expected to write a research proposal in the discipline of their choice. Four nominees from each participating university are then chosen to compete nationally for a chance to become a Goldwater Scholar. This scholarship pays full tuition, as well as fees, up to $7,500. For further information please contact

Tuesday, April 22

School of Social Work Research Symposium
10 a.m.–1 p.m.
University Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. (Commonwealth Ballroom)
Graduate and undergraduate students will present their research and scholarly projects through a poster exhibition and oral presentations.

For more information, contact Leanne Marshall at

Wednesday, April 27

12th Annual Women’s Health Research Day
1 p.m.–4:30 p.m.
Jonah L. Larrick Student Center, 900 Turpin St.
Faculty and students will present their research at a plenary symposium and poster exhibition. There will be several awards, including best overall poster by a junior investigator and best poster demonstrating an interdisciplinary investigator collaboration.

For more information, visit or contact Benoit Meyrieux at

Thursday, April 28

School of Engineering Senior Design Expo
9 a.m.–3 p.m.
Siegel Center, 1200 W. Broad St.
Senior design teams share their capstone projects, including providing demonstrations of their prototypes. The event is meant to increase awareness of the engineering profession among middle and high school students. For more information, visit the Capstone Design Expo website.

Research Weeks are sponsored by the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the VCU Graduate Student Association, the VCU Office of Research and the VCU Office of the Provost.  For more information and a complete schedule of events and activities, including information sessions for national scholarships, contact Herb Hill at or 804-828-4450, or visit

people looking at research posters

Join the VCU Bug Lab as a Research Intern this Summer!


 “VCU Bug Lab” (Insect Behavior & Ecology Laboratory), Department of Biology

Responsibilities: Variable, based on student interest and ability, and time of year. All students will participate in insect rearing, including diet preparation and handling caterpillars. Some students will assist graduate students by performing dissections, entering data, and collecting caterpillars in the field.

In other words, you will be physically handling caterpillars!

Requirements: 1) A minimum grade of C” in BIOL 151, 152, and BIOZ 151, 152, and 2) A strong work ethic. Majors other than Biology are encouraged to apply.

Why you should consider this position: The “VCU Bug Lab” provides a warm and supportive environment for undergraduate students interested in exploring research and careers in Biology. Prior undergraduate research interns are now employed in Biology-related positions, enrolled or have completed graduate degrees in biology or teaching, and a few are enrolled or have completed degrees in professional health fields.

For more information: Please contact Dr. Karen Kester,  Interested students should provide a brief statement describing their interest in research.


Undergraduate Research Positions with the School of Pharmacy!



Applications are requested from students with computer programming experience for interesting and challenging research opportunities in the Laboratory of Pharmacometabolomics and Companion Diagnostics. We are a laboratory that utilizes large scale data acquisition strategies to understand the variability of human response to medication.

In this regard, we have urgent need for someone with experience in programming languages such as Java, C++ and/or python to help write software components to streamline the data analysis and data visualization processes. Additional training will be provided to the right candidate to complement their existing expertise. The candidate will have the opportunity to learn the concepts of personalized medicine and analytical strategies such as mass spectrometry and NMR in clinical and translational research settings and gain invaluable experience in applying computer programming techniques to streamline these processes.

Furthermore, during the course of this clinical and translational research training, the candidate will also get an opportunity to interact very closely with the physicians, surgeons and pharmacists of VCU. This position is ideal for someone who wishes to pursue careers in medicine and health IT.

Interested students should contact the project PI, Dr. Dayanjan Wijesinghe – Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Sciences at

Before you contact someone about a research opportunity you may want to put together the following information to provide to them:

  • Your year of study (Freshman, sophomore, etc.)
  • Your major
  • Your current GPA
  • A brief summary of your background, which indicates any research-related courses you have taken, and any research experience you have already had.
  • A statement that talks about your career goals, why you want to participate in research with this specific faculty member, and what you would bring to the experience.


Nominate your Faculty Mentor for an Undergraduate Research Mentorship Award!


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.

Call for Abstracts: VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity!

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and part of VCU Student Research Weeks, 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 deadline of March 22nd, 2016.  All abstracts should be submitted to

After students are notified of their acceptance, we will accept electronic file submission of their posters.   Note: We hold poster workshops Jan. – Mar. and we are now able to print research posters free of cost to our students!

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

symp 2016

Two VCU students awarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships

Featured photoSarah Izabel, left, and Lizette Carrasco, right, pictured in their labs at Sanger Hall.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University students will spend the summer immersed in research after earning prestigious undergraduate research fellowships.

Lizette Carrasco, a junior biology major, and Sarah Izabel, a sophomore psychology major and Honors College student, have been accepted to the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

VCU student researchers also earned EXROP fellowships in both 2014 and 2015.

This is the first time VCU students have received two slots in the program, which aims to support underrepresented groups in the next generation of scientists. The students will attend a conference with other researchers before spending 10 weeks this summer in a full-time, mentored research experience in the laboratory of a Howard Hughes investigator at research institutions.

“HHMI is synonymous with research excellence. To have VCU put besides those letters is a big deal,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology. “They get to see what that institution looks like, meet other students and work with first-class scientists.”

Sarah Izabel and her IMSD mentor, Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine.
Sarah Izabel and her IMSD mentor, Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine.

The students are no strangers to labs and research. At VCU, Carrasco and Izabel are taking part in the Initiative to Maximize Student Diversity, which matches underrepresented students with campus researchers.

Izabel studies how degeneration of neurons relates to diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, with Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine. During the summer, Izabel will work in a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, focused on another part of the neuron.

“I’ll still be studying the neuron, but instead of the axon I’m studying the dendrites,” Izabel said. “I’m excited to work with different systems, different approaches. As a nontraditional student it’s sometimes hard to fit in, but being able to spend time in the laboratory with not only like-minded people, but also older students, is a benefit of doing research.”

Lizette Carrasco in the lab of mentor Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D.
Lizette Carrasco in the lab of mentor Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D.

At VCU, Carrasco conducts research on a bacteria’s ties to vaginosis and preterm birth with Kimberly Jefferson, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine. This summer she will travel to conduct immunology research at Yale University.

Everybody thinks of an older person in a lab coat, pipetting away, but the faces of scientists are changing now.

“We share the similarity that we’re all underrepresented in the sciences, which is one of those things that brings us together. I find that very important to have that community of like-minded people,” Carrasco said of VCU’s IMSD program. “Everybody thinks of an older person in a lab coat, pipetting away, but the faces of scientists are changing now. Hopefully I can be reflective of the changing face of science, and scientists.”

The students were nominated by Allison A. Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. Johnson is able to nominate students for the EXROP competition as a member of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program.

VCU’s research training programs give underrepresented students and faculty a platform for discovery

Featured photo

Last November, Virginia Commonwealth University senior Delisa Clay was one of the 96 students out of 2,035 picked to give an oral presentation of her research at the 15th Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle. That alone was huge.

And then she won “Best Oral Presentation” for her talk, “Defining Cellular Dynamics and Biomechanical Forces During Wound Healing in Xenopus laevis Embryos.” Only one other VCU student has won an oral presentation award at the event in the past five years. It was a big deal for Clay — and for VCU.

The competition level is high for this award. Students are judged based on their research, presentation skills and how well they answer questions about their work. “The quality of the presentations students are giving is way above what we expect normal undergrads to do,” said Sarah Golding, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of Biology at the College for Humanities and Sciences and director of the undergraduate component of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program.

Clay’s research is a result of her work as a scholar with IMSD. It’s one of several research training programs within VCU’s Center on Health Disparities aimed at increasing the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds obtaining a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

“We want the best and brightest people to be doing scientific research and solving biomedical problems,” said Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of education for the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. She’s also co-director of CoHD’s postdoctoral program, Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award, with Paul Fisher, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “If you’re only capturing part of the population, then you’re not going to get all the best and the brightest.”

Delisa Clay

Discovery through diversity

There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense.

Just as diversity is said to foster a more creative workforce highly adept at problem-solving, diversity in science is critical for discovery and innovation. “There is a belief that when you have diversity, science itself is enriched in the broad sense,” said Louis De Felice, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and IMSD program director. “Diversity itself is something worth pursuing in its own right. It has scientific benefits.”

However, science still suffers from a predominantly homogenous pool of researchers. Based on a 2013 National Science Foundation study, underrepresented minorities make up less than 10 percent of those pursuing doctorates in science and engineering disciplines — a percentage that has flattened since 2000.

To help balance the disproportion, the National Institutes of Health funds a portfolio of grant programs to get underrepresented students into the pipeline for a biomedical research career. Universities across the country have instituted one or more of these grant programs, and VCU is one of only a handful of universities that currently holds funding from five of these grants.

“Underrepresented” is the word best used to describe the students who would qualify for the grants, according to De Felice. Racial ethnicity can play a role, though “underrepresented” expands the parameters to include people who are economically and educationally deprived, and even those with a disability, all of which can express itself as a disadvantage. “When a person applies to the program, they can identify their own definition of being underrepresented,” De Felice said.

First-generation scientist

In the lab, Clay works with African clawed frog embryos. There is a delicate nature to her work. She anesthetizes the embryos, makes a deliberate superficial wound and uses a biosensor to measure the forces across the cells — or how the cells move and behave — during wound healing. “So far my findings suggest that a manipulation of cellular forces may serve as a potential treatment for chronic or slow-healing wounds in patients with a compromised immune system,” she said.

She loves her work. However, when Clay came to VCU, she didn’t understand the basics of research, and she had never even used a microscope. That was OK. Her passion was medicine and she wanted to be a doctor.

As a kid, she watched surgery shows and she thrived at science. There was also family pressure. “In my culture and family, if you’re good at biology and you’re smart, they automatically put you in this box of being a doctor. There are no other options,” said Clay, who grew up in an unstable household and moved around a lot before settling with her grandmother in Virginia. She is the first in her family to go to a four-year university.

It’s common for underrepresented students to not have exposure to research careers, and they often don’t see people who look like them in these careers, according to De Felice. “They head straight to medicine because that is what they know or have been told is the best way to make it,” he said. “But if you scratch a little bit, you realize a lot of them are scientists and what they like is science.”

That’s what happened to Clay in her sophomore year. She was in a cell biology class, and her professor started asking questions about the future. What are you going to do when you graduate? What are your options if you don’t get into medical school?

Read the rest of this article at VCU News!