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New program pairs high school students with graduate researchers at VCU

“It’s an opportunity for the high school students to collaborate with master’s and doctoral students and it gives them an idea of what higher education is all about.”

RVAHub Staff

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By James Irwin

Kaya Smith wants to attend medical school, so when an opportunity arose for the Henrico High School student to spend two weeks this summer working in a laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, she did not hesitate to take it.

“My counselor told me about it and I thought it would be a nice opportunity,” said Smith, a rising senior and aspiring surgeon. “My school focuses a lot on research, especially with the [International Baccalaureate] program. In my high school biology class, we worked with lipids and bacteria growth. I felt this research opportunity would be nice for me to get a broader experience working in a lab.”

Smith is conducting research related to heart disease alongside Anna Kovilakath, a third-year Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine. They were paired through a new program called RAM Opportunity that matches high school students in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools with graduate researchers at VCU. The program, piloted last year through the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, is run by VCU’s Graduate School, and provides research and mentoring opportunities for participants, said Melissa Tyler, assistant dean of the Graduate School.

“It’s an opportunity for the high school students to collaborate with master’s and doctoral students and it gives them an idea of what higher education is all about,” Tyler said. “And it’s an opportunity — if they have a special interest — to work hands on and get experience that can help them learn more about where they want to take their academic careers.”

Smith and Kovilakath are two of four participants this summer. Portia Newman, a doctoral student in the School of Education, is the RAM Opportunity program coordinator. Newman said the length of the program — 40 hours over two weeks from July 15-26 — provides a way for high school students to experience a research project already underway.

“It feels like a test run, to help them explore what they can do with their interests,” Newman said. “And this is work the graduate students are already doing. It’s a way for the students to see what’s happening in real time.”

Kaya Smith and Anna Kovilakath standing in the student lounge on the MCV Campus.

Kovilakath and Smith are working with sphingolipids (a type of lipid). They are growing heart cells and measuring the effect of either removing or adding a specific sphingolipid called SPTLC-3, Kovilakath said.

“We’re going to analyze the results and see how that affects the heart cells,” she said. “Does getting rid of that [sphingolipid] improve the heart cells, or does increasing it improve it?”

The work has ties to heart health, specifically to myocardial ischemia, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is reduced, preventing it from receiving enough oxygen.

Smith said she was nervous at first, but has quickly grown comfortable in the lab.

“It’s nice to do some research and go further in depth,” Smith said. “And hopefully that helps me as I go to college and start taking lab classes — and beyond that as I continue to pursue my dream of becoming a surgeon.”

Abhay Dharanikota, a rising junior at Godwin High School, is also participating in RAM Opportunity this summer. Dharanikota is working with Janay Little, a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine. They are working with DNA to clone bacteria as part of Little’s research into issues related to E. coli.

“It’s hands-on, so [in the future] I can come back to the lab and know what I’m doing — how different machines work and know procedures and techniques,” said Dharanikota, an aspiring orthopedist.

Abhay Dharanikota, left, and Janay Little, in the lab at VCU.

VCU students and high school students interested in RAM Opportunity can contact the Graduate School at [email protected]. Newman said the Graduate School will likely begin matching applicants for summer 2020 in late fall of this year. Though the program is starting small, Newman and Tyler said it has potential to grow quickly given VCU’s breadth of academic programs and the size of the Richmond region’s high school systems. With that growth, Tyler said, would come a need and an opportunity for sponsorship — both within VCU and outside the university.

“That’s going to be a key to growing this,” Tyler said.

Little, Dharanikota, Smith and Kovilakath will present on their work July 25 at a luncheon celebrating the conclusion of the program. For Little, who one day hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or as a medical science liaison, RAM Opportunity has been a way to continue her work and share knowledge with others.

“I’ve always liked interacting with people who want to learn something new,” she said. “I feel like the whole point of learning is to teach somebody else at some point.”

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PHOTOS: University of Richmond opens new integrated “Well-Being Center” on campus

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services.

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Providing college students with the skills and experiences they need to succeed is only one part of an education. The University of Richmond also is committed to enabling students to develop a holistic approach to well-being that will not only serve them while they are on campus, but throughout life.

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services. Locating these critical student services in a single location enhances the university’s ability to provide integrated care and support for students.

“We’ve eliminated the barriers for students seeking help,” said Tom Roberts, associate vice president of health and well-being.

Research shows that students often neglect three areas: nutrition, mindfulness, and sleep. The Well-Being Center offers solutions to all three.

The new building includes features to encourage students to visit the facility not only when they need care, but also when they want to be proactive about their health. The Center offers a meditation garden, labyrinth, salt spa, and rest stop with massage chairs and sleep pods. The Organic Krush Café offers health food options and a demonstration kitchen will help students understand how to prepare nutritious dishes. Well-being classes also will be offered.

“Some of these things sound like such luxuries, but they are really necessities,” said Roberts. “I hope students come in here and find something they need and that can help them.”

The Center will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Plans for the $20 million building kicked off in April 2018 with the announcement of a lead gift from the Walrath Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by alumni Michael and Michelle Walrath.

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University of Richmond begins spring semester with students back on campus, health and safety policies in place

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students.

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The University of Richmond has resumed in-person instruction and the residential educational experience for the spring 2021 semester as of yesterday, Tuesday, January 19th, 2021.

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students. Specific plans for the spring semester include:

“The University continues to monitor very closely pandemic developments, and we are prepared to modify our approach to instruction if conditions warrant,” said Jeff Legro, executive vice president and provost. “At this time, we believe we can safely and responsibly continue with our plans for an in-person spring semester, and our community is committed to adhering to our guidelines to make that possible.”

Testing and Screening Protocols

All students were tested for COVID-19 on campus prior to move-in or taking in-person classes. Students were asked to self-quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to campus by staying at home to the fullest extent possible and following additional health and safety protocols. All members of the University community must monitor their health daily. Faculty and staff are also being provided options for COVID-19 testing. UR will also continue COVID-19 prevalence testing, which involves testing a randomly selected group of asymptomatic people to assess the incidence of COVID-19 on campus. 

Move-In

In order to promote physical distancing and ensure adherence to health and safety protocols, student move-in is being phased over a period of 17 days and is expected to conclude Sunday, Jan. 24. Students moving in during this final week are starting their classes remotely and will begin in-person classes following their arrival to campus.

Red Stage Opening and Enhanced Rules

As in the fall, the University of Richmond will open in the Red Stage of its Physical Distancing Framework. During the move-in period, additional enhanced Red Stage rules were implemented to promote a successful and safe start to the semester. These policies provide guidance for students awaiting COVID-19 test results, limit visitors in student residences, and require residential students to remain on campus.  

Calendar and Class Information

The first day of classes is Jan. 19, and classes will conclude April 23. Finals will take place April 28 through May 6. There will be no spring break; however, UR has added two mid-week break days in Feburary and April. As was the case this fall, many courses will be offered in-person while some will be offered fully online or use a combination of approaches. In-person classes will continue to be offered in classrooms modified to support active learning while adhering to physical distancing and related safety protocols. Students could also choose to complete the semester fully online.

Dashboard Data

The University of Richmond COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at least weekly, remains a source of information to provide updates on COVID-19 data specifically related to the campus community.

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U of R announces socially distant service opportunities and virtual events in honor of MLK Day

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

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The University of Richmond has announced it will be closed Monday, January 18th to allow the campus community to engage in physically-distanced service activities celebrating MLK Day.

Historically, UR celebrates the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through a day filled with service opportunities completed alongside the greater Richmond community. Due to COVID-19, this year’s MLK Day events will foster opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to volunteer virtually by working on project kits developed by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The kits entail projects such as transcribing documents from the Library of Virginia; creating birthday cards for Celebrate! RVA; making toys for the ASPCA; writing letters to elected officials; and more.

The community will also have the opportunity to use the Book Arts Studio’s printing press on MLK Day, to create book art and journals that align with this year’s theme, “The Revolution Then And Now: A Time of Healing.”

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

“In the wake of two pandemics — COVID-19 and social injustice — we’re encouraging our community to reflect on what it will mean to heal as we look to the future and explore the ways that we can better impact the lives of those in our community and beyond who experience social injustices and are fighting their own individual revolution,” said Morgan Russell, associate director of multicultural affairs and event organizer.

Full details about UR’s MLK Day celebration are available at richmond.edu/mlk.

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