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Student Highlights

aerial view of the old robert e. lee statue on monument avenue in richmond virginia covered with graffiti

Podcast by Students Named a Finalist in NPR National Contest

When Time Slows Down,” a podcast created by three VCU students, that explores disruptive art through the lens of Richmond’s graffiti-covered Confederate monuments, was named one of 10 finalists in a national podcast competition held by NPR in March 2021.

“We were inspired to create this podcast after witnessing the racial reckoning that not only happened here in Richmond, but globally,” said Gabriela Santana, a senior creative and strategic advertising major in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, who co-created the podcast with Hassan Fields and Joshua Gordon.

In their podcast, the students set out to answer questions such as, “What is the difference between art and vandalism?” and “Do the monuments, now transformed by Black Lives Matter graffiti, qualify as art?” Along the way, they consider the concepts of how graffiti can be intertwined with community and taking back one’s voice. They interview Richmond artist Hamilton Glass; Tracey Bowen, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga who studies graffiti; and artist Dread Scott. Ultimately, they conclude they weren’t asking the right questions.

“By and large, I think the question is not whether it’s art or not art,” Scott said in the episode. “The question is, why are these damn monuments still here?”


syeda fatima and anirban mahanty
Biology students Syeda Fatima, left, and Anirban Mahanty

Two Students Receive NIH Scholarships

Anirban Mahanty and Syeda Fatima, students from the Department of Biology, received prestigious scholarships from the National Institutes of Health. Both students received $20,000 and a guaranteed summer research position at the NIH, as well as a paid post-baccalaureate training position at the NIH after graduation. Mahanty and Fatima were only the third and fourth VCU students to receive the scholarship. As part of her internship at the NIH, Fatima plans to focus more on the clinical side of medical research, with a particular focus on obesity. Mahanty is planning to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. to become a surgeon-scientist. One reason he is excited about the scholarship, he said, is because it will expose him to physician-scientists who need to balance clinical practice and research in the lab.


leslie bolda, brianna griffin, and cole williams
Leslie Bolda, left, Brianna Griffin and Cole Williams

Three Students Selected for Fulbright Scholarships

Three College of Humanities and Sciences students were awarded Fulbright scholarships for 2020-21. The Fulbright scholarships are highly competitive awards funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. These academic year awards can fund independent research or creative projects, graduate study or English teaching opportunities in more than 140 countries around the globe. Fulbright student scholars also serve as cultural ambassadors from the United States to their host countries.

Recipients include: Leslie Bolda, a May 2020 graduate with degrees in chemistry and Spanish; Brianna Griffin, a May 2020 graduate with a degree in psychology; and Cole Williams, a 2016 graduate with a degree in religious studies. In this year’s competition, approximately 2,100 Fulbright scholars were selected from a field of more than 10,000 applicants.


raven witherspoon
Physics student Raven Witherspoon

Student Named First VCU Schwarzman Scholar

This year, Raven Witherspoon, a May 2020 graduate in the Department of Physics, became Virginia Commonwealth University’s first recipient of the highly competitive Schwarzman Scholars graduate fellowship for 2021-22. Witherspoon was one of 154 scholars chosen from more than 3,600 applicants. In August, she traveled to Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, to pursue a master’s degree in global affairs. “I want to impact nuclear nonproliferation,” she said. “I would like to help reduce the number of nuclear weapons and to transfer those materials into peaceful uses like civil nuclear energy.”


jordan matamoro-mejias
Jordan Matamoro-Mejias, a VCU P.R.I.M.E. executive board member

New Organization Supports Underrepresented Students Interested in Health Care

This past year, William Burke, pre-health/STEM academic adviser, and a group of undergraduate students in the College of Humanities and Sciences created a new student organization, VCU P.R.I.M.E., which stands for Pre-health and Related Interest Mentoring Experiences. P.R.I.M.E.’s aim is to ensure that underrepresented students interested in health care are empowered by gaining awareness of different career paths, understanding necessary prerequisites and requirements, connecting to resources on and off campus that provide support and opportunity, and gaining access to advising. Since it’s conception, P.R.I.M.E. has hosted panel discussions, research and internship workshops, networking opportunities and lectures.

“I knew walking in I always wanted to go on a pre-medicine track, but I didn’t have any mentors and no one around me was in the pre-med track as well. But being in VCU P.R.I.M.E. really helps me to understand why I even wanted to go into the field of medicine to begin with,” said Lugene Qawasmi, a freshman interdisciplinary science major with a concentration in professional science.


colorful game pawns on a playing board

Math Students Publish Six Papers in Top Journals

Students in one mathematics class — “Introduction to Mathematical Biology” — have co-authored six articles that have been published so far, another two that have been accepted for publication, and two more that have been submitted. The remarkable number of papers emerged from a class taught in fall 2019 and spring 2020 by Jan Rychtár, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. Rychtár worked in partnership with Dewey Taylor, Ph.D., an associate professor in the math department. The research covered such topics as insecticide treated nets, the decline of pollinators, and retroactive hepatitis B vaccinations, and were accepted by PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, Involve and the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.

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