When we challenge the norm, extraordinary things happen.

10 things VCU did to challenge the norm to make a real difference this year.


We believe in creating good ideas that really help people.

Ideas that make a real difference. Ideas that challenge the norm. From our very beginning, we were compelled to focus on the communities we serve and to help bring about positive social change. This is how we enhance our students’ education and spur innovation and creativity. This is how our unyielding focus on improving society turns into extraordinary accomplishments. Our stories show it. Our numbers prove it.

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Michael Rao
President, VCU and VCU Health System



In it for the long term

Residency program turns teacher turnover rate upside down in urban public schools

Portrait of Antonette Craig-Harris, a Teacher Residency Program participant, is smiling and standing in front of a whiteboard and colorful decor found in her first first-grade class
Antonette Craig-Harris is co-teaching a first-grade class as part of the Richmond Teacher Residency program’s new elementary track. 

There’s a constant turnover of teachers in urban schools. And a huge price tag because of it — approximately $6 million each year for Richmond Public Schools, according to the 2014 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future Teacher Turnover Cost Calculator. Students bear an even heavier cost in terms of the lack of stability in schools and its negative impact on student achievement.

The Richmond Teacher Residency program, a partnership between Richmond Public Schools and the VCU School of Education, is designed to end these educational inequalities. A selective urban graduate teacher residency program, it aims to create a sustainable pipeline of highly effective and committed teachers. Already, 78 percent of all Richmond Teacher Residency graduates have been rated as extraordinary or above average on teacher effectiveness as compared with other teachers who did not graduate from the residency program but had comparable years of experience.

Similar to a medical residency, the teachers co-teach alongside a Richmond Public Schools master teacher for a year, receive extensive mentoring and support, earn a master’s degree in education and commit to teach at least an additional three years in Richmond Public Schools.


Prescribing opioids

Blue pills spilling out of medicine bottle.Click for video: VCU Health: Opiate and Addiction Education

Divergence from the trend

The National Institutes of Health estimates about 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription pain medication. Adam Abubaker fit the narrative. In high school, Adam had surgery for a minor shoulder injury sustained during football practice. The surgeon prescribed 90 Vicodin pills after the procedure. Adam was the son of Omar Abubaker, D.M.D., Ph.D., a professor and department chair in the VCU School of Dentistry.

Dr. Abubaker believes that physician-enabled exposure to narcotics led to his son’s heroin addiction.

Dr. Abubaker has dedicated himself to learning about the disease that took his son’s life. He has studied the biological basis of addiction and the dangers associated with overprescribing opioids. At VCU, he instructs dentistry students on safe opioid prescribing and nursing students on how to work with patients who struggle with addiction.

Dr. Abubaker is not alone in his mission to educate students about opioids. Last fall, VCU’s School of Medicine became the first allopathic medical school in Virginia to adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new opioid prescription guidelines into its curriculum. And, physicians and educators from VCU’s schools of Medicine and Dentistry collaborated on a web-based, continuing medical education course that instructs practicing physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants on safe opioid prescribing practices.


Green walls

An unconventional method to combat urban heat and improve air quality

There’s a natural beauty when science and art come together.

Engineering associate professor Stephen Fong, Ph.D., and VCUarts assistant professor Jon-Phillip Sheridan teamed up with Christopher Gough, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology and carbon cycle expert, to tackle poor air quality in Richmond.

Together, they launched the Green Walls course for undergraduates — thanks in part to the Institute for Contemporary Art, the Office of Sustainability and a $5,000 undergraduate research grant from the VCU UROP Research Exposure Program. The students developed detailed designs for green walls — vertical structures with living plants — to add aesthetics and carbon sequestration to urban settings. They used repurposed, recycled and donated materials to create planters and structures in which the plants could grow and climb.

Their efforts inspired another group of VCU engineering, biology and arts students, also led by Fong and Sheridan, to partner with the Science Museum of Virginia, local nonprofits and a team from Portland State University to use a comprehensive mapping tool to identify urban heat islands. The tool overlays location-specific heat data with information about demographics, air pollution and features such as roads, buildings and trees. The results allowed the group to identify and analyze the city’s hot spots, providing officials with the critical information to implement initiatives — such as green walls — in the city’s most vulnerable areas first.

A metal frame with rows of planters and greenery hangs along the side of a brick building.
A repurposed tire holds plants.
VCU students install green wall infrastructure. 
Two students work on installing green walls made out of repurposed wood pallets and tires.
VCU students install green wall infrastructure. 
Students install a wooden board onto a brick wall using a drill.
VCU students install green wall infrastructure. 


Creative powerhouse

Business school becomes home to first artist-in-residence

Large-scale portrait of Maggie Walker made out of colorful clothes arranged on the floor of the business school’s atrium.
Artist Noah Scalin worked with business students to create a portrait of pioneering businesswoman Maggie Walker entirely out of clothing. 

In a pool of more than 300 submissions spanning 33 countries, VCU’s School of Business stood out for its forward-looking approach to education. It was named one of the 35 AACSB International Innovations That Inspire for 2017.

The school wanted to challenge its students and faculty to think differently. They wanted to leverage VCUarts, the nation’s No.1-ranked graduate public art school. They wanted to inspire more creativity, one of the most sought-after skills for 21st-century business leaders. And they did so by instituting the country’s first artist-in-residence at a business school.

Celebrated artist and innovation consultant Noah Scalin helped the school kick off its EPIC strategic plan, which aims to drive the future of business through the power of creativity. Scalin conducted several creative-thinking seminars, served as guest lecturer in courses, created large-scale artwork installations with students and spearheaded two Creative Sprint challenges. All of this connected VCU business students, faculty, staff and the business community with the school’s EPIC pillars: experiential learning, problem-solving curricula, impactful research and creative culture. The artist-in-residence program continues in 2017-18 with photographer Alyssa Salomon in the role.


Could vitamin C be a solution?

Alpha A. (Berry) Fowler III, M.D. poses for portrait in his lab
Alpha A. (Berry) Fowler III, M.D. 

VCU researchers are investigating vitamin C as a lifesaving sepsis treatment

Kelsey Martin only recalls waking up in VCU’s ICU restrained and confused about where she was.

Martin had near-fatal sepsis, and VCU Health physicians put her on cardiopulmonary bypass and gave her intravenous vitamin C. The treatment is part of an ongoing, multicenter clinical trial to treat septic lung injury, examining intravenous vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin present in citrus fruit. Within seven days of receiving treatment, Martin was on the road to recovery

Sepsis results from the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to infection. More than 350,000 Americans die annually from sepsis.

Alpha A. (Berry) Fowler III, M.D., a professor in the pulmonary/critical care division in the VCU School of Medicine, began work in 2013 as principal investigator to determine the extent to which high doses of intravenous vitamin C could effectively treat septic lung injury. Fowler’s research is supported by a $3.2 million National Institutes of Health grant and built on 10 years of work by research colleague Ramesh Natarajan, Ph.D., a professor in the Pulmonary/Critical Care Division.

Fowler noted these research results could have worldwide implications for sepsis treatment. Currently, 161 patients are enrolled in the trial. Previous work by Fowler and his colleagues showed high doses of vitamin C prevented sepsis-induced inflammatory responses. Placebo patients not receiving vitamin C had a mortality of 62 percent. Four days of vitamin C treatment reduced patient mortality to 38 percent.


Don’t chuck that shuck

A unique partnership among the seafood industry, nonprofits and academia is turning old oyster shells into a state treasure

State officials have added Ellery Kellum Rock, an oyster reef in Irvington, Virginia, to the Virginia Treasures list, thanks to a partnership among the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program of the VCU Rice Rivers Center, W.E. Kellum Seafood and the Friends of the Rappahannock.

The one-acre reef created from oyster shells is part of a long-term effort to improve water quality in Carter’s Creek and in the wider ecosystem of the creek’s river, the Rappahannock. It also represents how one idea that began in 2013 with program director Todd Janeski and a few participants could spawn into a regional commitment from more than 100 supporters, businesses and restaurants — creating a profound and positive environmental and economic impact.

Today, VOSRP collects nearly 100,000 pounds of waste oyster shells from restaurants across the state in order to return the shell — with the help of nearly 150 student and community volunteers annually — to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. In the case of Ellery Kellum Rock, the reef creates a habitat for wild oysters, which actively filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. This sanctuary allows these animals to restore their population and, at the same time, improve the water quality and ecosystem. And while these particular oysters will not be harvested, their reproduction will enhance neighboring oyster populations — a benefit to local harvesters. It’s a win-win.

Basket of oyster shells being dumped onto oyster reef from side of boat.
Oyster shell
Male student shoveling oysters onto mound of shells
Students and volunteers bag and redistribute oyster shells. 
Two female students emptying baskets of oyster shells.
Students and volunteers bag and redistribute oyster shells. 


Free to be themselves

VCU recognized as a catalyst for Virginia’s LGBTQ+ youth

Two students getting information about Equity VCU at a student organization fair.
Equality VCU is a collaborative, advisory and advocacy group, representing the LGBTQIA+ community at VCU. 

VCU received the 2017 Catalyst Award by Side by Side, an organization dedicated to creating supportive communities where Virginia’s LGBTQ+ youth can define themselves, belong and flourish.

Side by Side specifically cited efforts such as VCU’s Lavender House, an inclusive living-learning community for first-year LGBTQ+ students, and the Lavender Empowerment Summit, a weekend forum aimed at empowering LGBTQ+ students to pursue individual and community leadership roles. Side by Side also noted efforts spanning student affairs and athletics, courses offered in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and Safe Zone workshops.

The universitywide commitment to build and nourish an environment where everyone is free to be themselves spanned from academic offerings, student development, activities and student clubs to policy shifts and changes to support from the counseling center, the Title IX office and the Inclusive Excellence office.


Connecting humanity

Student Tatenda Ndambakuwa stands amidst a corn field holding a computer tablet
Tatenda Ndambakuwa, student entrepreneur 

App addresses food insecurity through big data

Tatenda Ndambakuwa grew up in Zimbabwe and remembers the country’s food crisis in 2008 that left her and millions of others facing starvation. Now, Ndambakuwa, a junior pursuing math and physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is seeking to prevent famines in Africa with the power of big data.

Ndambakuwa is co-founder of a startup that is developing a mobile application to allow African farmers to upload data about their farm’s livestock and crop management, seed and feed access, milk production analysis, cattle pricing and other data points. The app will allow for real-time analyses of Africa’s food production system, allowing policymakers and others to make the system far more efficient.

The startup, called “Dbuntu” — a combination of “data” with the Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity,” or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” — is aiming to pilot its mobile application to 1 percent of the approximately 18,000 farmers in Zimbabwe.

Ndambakuwa, who previously worked on global nutrition issues as an intern at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has, along with her Dbuntu teammates, recently enjoyed success at several national entrepreneurship competitions. The da Vinci Center provided Ndambakuwa with mentorship and financial support to compete. She will also take part in the 10th Annual Clinton Global Initiative University, which supports students’ projects focused on education, the environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation or public health.


Age in place

Transforming health care for older adults

The Richmond Health and Wellness Program, led by Pam Parsons, director of practice and community engagement in the School of Nursing, is a community-based care coordination initiative to improve the health of older adults in the city of Richmond and help them remain independent in their home settings. The program has also become an interprofessional training ground for teams of future nurses, physicians, pharmacists, occupational therapists, counselors and social workers.

Students get to see residents — more than 448 adults are now enrolled — within their home settings, while also having the opportunity to collaborate with licensed clinical faculty. Through a weekly on-site clinic, these teams work with residents to address their chronic health conditions, as well as offer health promotion, medication management and care coordination needs.

Over the past three years, RHWP enrollees have been more medically complex than their peers who live in the same buildings and did not enroll. Adjusted for this complexity, enrollees have had lower rates of emergency department visits and hospital admissions. Both of these benefits are indeed statistically significant for the program — and the residents.

RHWP began in 2012 with Dominion Place as its flagship site in Richmond. The program is continuously evolving as community needs are identified, adding a healthy meal program in 2016 to address food insecurity. RHWP now holds clinics in four other senior apartment buildings around the city, thanks to a growing number of partnerships, including support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and several community organizations. The program is making plans to expand to another site in Richmond’s East End.

Nursing student checks heartbeat of older, male patient
Student conducts a health assessment with an older female resident.
The Richmond Health and Wellness Program delivers on-site care to residents of Dominion Place. 
Four students sitting around small table, discussing patient outcomes
Nurse practitioner and Dominion Place resident sit together and talk
The Richmond Health and Wellness Program delivers on-site care to residents of Dominion Place. 


Real-world application

Smartphone app will create a new training method for future nurse anesthetists

Coffee Bourne points to sketches of the app interface while discussing plans with three individuals
Vitals Anesthesia originator, Coffee Bourne, discusses plan for app. 

An interdisciplinary team is creating a virtual training tool for future nurse anesthetists.

The idea for the Vitals Anesthesia app originated with Coffee Bourne, M.S.N.A., D.N.A.P., while a nurse anesthesia doctoral student at VCU. The team, which won best pitch at the Henry Ford Entrepreneurship Academy, is solving for an ongoing training issue — there is currently no way to troubleshoot, role-play or experiment with various scenarios nurse anesthetists experience on the job. In a real-world setting, students can’t exactly give a patient a drug and see what happens.

But by playing a simulation game, students can get a feel for what it would be like to handle emergency situations and solve problems while racing the clock.

In addition to students from the Department of Nurse Anesthesia in the School of Allied Health Professions, the team includes undergraduate and graduate students in the schools of Engineering, the Arts and Business, and is part of VCU’s Vertically Integrated Projects program.

Carol Fung, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science, said her students are introduced to the field of anesthesia as they study app development. Nurse anesthesia students, meanwhile, have been watching digital arts students redesign the interface to give it a professional polish. And business students are delving into the potential market for the app. Since graduation, three team members have created an entrepreneurial venture.