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Grad students put medical school on hold to bring their startup to life

“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has,” said Kashyap Venuthurupalli, who graduated in May. “It could change premature babies’ lives.”

RVAHub Staff

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By Leila Ugincius

It had been on her mind for decades.

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, Debra Hearington had seen her share of infants in isolettes — a special incubator for preemies that measures and regulates certain vitals, such as oxygen, temperature, and humidity. And she had seen the frustratingly anachronistic covers used on these modern incubators.

Nurses cover the machines with cloth, such as blankets, to reduce light and stimulation inside. There’s no uniformity to the fabric as far as material or size. Some families even make their own. In addition to being a poor light regulator, they present infection risks.

With the isolette covered, babies can’t see out, but nurses also can’t see in.

“A baby in a [neonatal intensive care unit] can become unstable at any time,” said Hearington, who specializes in neurology at VCU Health. “And I used to hate it when I was working there … when an alarm would go off and you’d have to go and move the cover [to see what was happening]. The whole thing is, you can’t visualize the baby if there’s a cover on the isolette.”

So when Hearington received an email last year from the VCU College of Engineering requesting clinical problems or ideas that its students could use as their yearlong Capstone Design projects, she immediately knew what to submit: the problem of the poorly devised isolette covers.

Four biomedical engineering students chose her project.

“As soon as I heard it, I saw the potential it has,” said Kashyap Venuthurupalli, who graduated in May. “It could change premature babies’ lives.”

Venuthurupalli has wanted to work in the medical field since middle school when he spent more than 400 hours volunteering at a New Hampshire hospital.

“I would mainly transfer patients back and forth from the ICU, stuff like that,” he said. “But I knew that the environment was something I definitely wanted to be part of. … My end goal is to make people’s lives better. And I thought I could help people by doing medicine.”

While an undergraduate student, Venuthurupalli always planned to attend medical school. However, after spending his senior year working on the capstone project — ultimately named the Brise-solette — he changed his mind, as did his teammates Aniket Kulkarni, Chandana Muktipaty and Joshnamaithili Seelam.

The Brise-solette uses special film to limit light stimuli efficiently from opaque to transparent and is easily programmable to serve a vast array of functions. The name is derived from the words brise-soleil — the architectural term for a device that provides shade — and isolette.

The four classmates agreed to continue the project after graduating in May. They currently are enrolled in the Master of Product Innovation program at the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of the Schools of the Arts and Business, and Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.

“At the beginning of the capstone project, I didn’t think we would be taking this any further than trying to get an A in the class,” Muktipaty said. “To me, it wasn’t even an option at the time.”

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HCPS will phase in an in-person learning option, new safety protocols, to accompany fully virtual option

Henrico County Public Schools will offer expanded in-person learning options and enhanced safety protocols, to be phased in beginning with younger elementary students starting Nov. 30 and concluding with high school students in February.

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Henrico County Public Schools will offer expanded in-person learning options and enhanced safety protocols, to be phased in beginning with younger elementary students starting Nov. 30 and concluding with high school students in February. HCPS families will also have the option to continue using a fully virtual approach for students. Students choosing the in-person option will be in school buildings four days a week and learn virtually from home on Wednesdays.

The expansion of in-person learning will be accompanied by enhanced safety protocols in school facilities and buses. The School Board voted 4-1 to adopt the plan after hearing recommendations from the HCPS Health Committee and Superintendent Amy Cashwell, as well as staff and public comments, at its Thursday work session.

Implementation of the phased-in approach will be dependent on continued analysis of health and safety data and the recommendation of public health experts.

To see videos from the work session and meeting, and to see answers to frequently asked questions about the in-person option, go to https://henricoschools.us/returntoschoolplan/.

Town hall meetings scheduled

The school division will hold two informational “town hall” meetings next week for HCPS staff members and HCPS student households in order to discuss the plan and answer questions submitted in advance. The meetings will be conducted virtually to accommodate potentially thousands of participants while prioritizing safety.

  • HCPS Virtual Staff Town Hall Meeting on In-Person Option (details being communicated internally to HCPS employees)
    • Tuesday, Oct. 27

Phased-in approach for in-person learning

The in-person schedule will be phased in over several months starting with elementary school students, who often face the most challenges with virtual learning:

  • Monday, Nov. 30: Grades pre-K, K, 1 and 2 would have the option to return to in-person learning.
  • Monday, Dec. 7: Grades 3, 4 and 5 would have the option to return to in-person learning.
  • Jan. 4-8: Learning would be virtual for all students during the week after Winter Break.
  • Monday, Feb. 1 (start of second semester): Grades 6 and 9 would have the option to return to in-person learning.
  • Thursday, Feb. 4: Grades 7, 8; 10, 11 and 12 would have the option to return to in-person learning.

School day

The five-day schedule for fully virtual students will continue (with an abbreviated schedule on Wednesdays.) Students choosing the in-person option would attend school four days a week, and would learn virtually on Wednesdays to allow for additional deep cleaning of schools as well as teacher planning:

  • In-person students will be in school buildings four days per week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Virtual “Wellness Wednesdays” will be characterized by:
  • Additional deep cleaning of schools.
  • Two hours of teacher-led virtual learning.
  • Additional independent student learning time.
  • Academic and social/emotional support.
  • Teacher planning and professional learning time.

Risk-mitigation measures

HCPS will adopt a number of risk-mitigation protocols recommended by the HCPS Health Committee:

  • Using 6-foot distancing for classroom seating.
  • Maintaining “cohort” groupings of students as much as possible.
  • Creating one-way traffic patterns in school hallways.
  • Adjusting the secondary master schedule to stagger and extend transition times.
  • Continue a host of specific safety improvements underway, including staff training, cleaning, use of masks, three-sided protective guards for all desks, HVAC air flushing and other measures.

School visitors will be by appointment only and will be limited to main offices. Large-group gatherings and field trips will not be held. Random temperature checks of students and staff will be conducted in schools. Secondary students will be assigned to “lunch pods” of other students for meals. To see safety measures the school division continues to implement, go to https://henricoschools.us/healthupdate/preparing-for-a-return.

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New book by former VCU president, history professor tells four-decade history of the university

“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” by Eugene Trani and John Kneebone illuminates the past and future of American public higher education.

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In “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” VCU President Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of History Emeritus John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., tell the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.

The book, published by the University of Virginia Press and released in September, shows how VCU — created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute to serve a city emerging from an era of desegregation, white flight, political conflict and economic decline — reflects a larger, national story of urban universities and the past and future of American higher education.

Sen. Tim Kaine wrote the foreword of the book, and dust jacket blurbs were provided by former UVA President John Casteen III; former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart; Susan Gooden, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; bestselling novelist and VCU alumnus David Baldacci; and Roger Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former rector of the VCU Board of Visitors.

The authors’ royalties from sales of the book will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

Trani and Kneebone recently spoke with VCU News about “Fulfilling the Promise,” which they say shows how VCU has been, and continues to be, a force for positive change in Richmond and Virginia.

What inspired you to work together to tell the story of VCU?

Kneebone: We were coming up on the 40th anniversary and, at that time, people felt like we had something to celebrate. The city had come back and VCU of course was quite successful — it had a large enrollment, enrolling more Virginia students than any other city university.

The book cover of “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009."
“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009″ published in September. The authors’ royalties will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

In the summer of 2009, I got a call from the president’s office. Dr. Trani, who was just stepping down, proposed that he and I work together on a history of VCU. My first instinct was to think, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Let me propose to him that I’ll do oral history interviews and we can put together a biography of Dr. Trani, a transformative leader.

He immediately said, “No, that’s too narrow. VCU’s story is much bigger than just one person and more complicated.” He said, “You know, VCU’s last history was Virginius Dabney’s 1988 book on the 20th anniversary. And he gave more attention in that book to the history of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute than to VCU itself. So VCU really needs a proper history.”

We talked a bit and I said I know a lot about Virginia and Richmond. I’m not sure about higher education. And he said, “Well, I know something about higher education, so we can collaborate.” We set out with me doing research on the earlier years and interviewing him, sort of preliminary interviews.

Of course I could come to him and say, here’s something that was going on in Virginia higher education back then, do you have any thoughts? And he’d go, “Yeah. You know, this is what I was seeing in Nebraska. This is what seemed to be happening in Missouri.” So we had a sense of that larger context as well. We talk about the process in the book’s introduction. I think our different strengths actually worked together.

What is it about VCU’s story that makes it serve as a good microcosm for higher education in the U.S.?

Trani: Sen. Tim Kaine, in the foreword to this book, states there have been three trends that have led to a “powerful transformation in Richmond.” They are the emergence of VCU, the desire of its citizens to change long patterns of discrimination, and a concerted effort to emphasize the city’s natural beauty, especially the James River. This book explains the first of the three, how two institutions — MCV and RPI — came together to create a university that has worked with its community and that by doing so, showed that a large public institution with a significant medical center can not only survive but thrive and play a role in what is known as the “eds and meds” phenomenon that is typically played in urban America by elite private institutions with large medical centers. In that way, VCU can be a role model for higher education in the U.S.

Kneebone: We say that VCU is sort of exemplary of the fall and rise of urban universities. And we tell the story. Urban universities, of course, have always existed but today’s universities in urban areas are more than half of the total number of institutions. City education has become the norm, and that wasn’t always the case. Higher education, the idea was that putting students out in the countryside in a bucolic location where they weren’t distracted gave them a chance to engage in the high jinks of fraternity and sorority life and college life in general.

Urban universities, which catered to working-class immigrant minority students, students who were occupation oriented rather than liberal arts types you might find at traditional schools, seemed to be lower status. The higher status was for more selective schools and schools engaged in research. Urban universities, coming from a low point where they were in the midst of cities that were falling apart, suffering from suburbanization and white flight and conflicts, and with a mission to help solve some of these city issues as well, ended up becoming sort of the exemplars of higher education.

Students today at just about every school are career oriented, are thinking ahead to what they’re going to do in the future, less connected and less worried about fraternities and sororities. And urban universities, particularly, I think, for students who grew up in the suburbs, are a place that is actually lively and exciting instead of scary and dangerous as it was 40, 50 years ago. So it’s a success story that we’re telling.

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U of R School of Law awarded grant to support community work, technology needs for low-income seniors

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

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The University of Richmond School of Law’s Medical-Legal Partnership provides medical and legal services to approximately 300 residents at Dominion Place Apartments, an affordable housing facility for seniors or individuals with disabilities living on or below the poverty line.

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

“During COVID-19, Dominion Place, like all elderly resident facilities, has placed strict bans on visitors thereby exacerbating the loneliness crisis among older adults,” said Leigh Melton, Richmond’s elder law faculty member who leads the program.

The grant will directly support COVID-19 related items for Dominion Place residents, including masks, soap, cleaning supplies, and gloves. The funding will also support technological devices with video screens equipped to work with Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant.

“This technology will not only allow the residents much-needed connection with family and friends but also allow the Richmond legal team and the VCU medical group to continue to meet with the residents,” Melton said.

Melton also noted that the pandemic has motivated many residents of Dominion Place to expand their use of technology for the first time, and these devices, which have a camera to help those with visual impairment, help them connect to the outside world.

This program was previously awarded a grant from the Regirer Foundation.

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