At faculty convocation, recognition for those ‘contributing pieces to a larger puzzle’
June Nicholson’s path to a career in journalism was solidified when she was an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. She watched as students at universities around the country — including her classmates — became influential voices during a tumultuous period, their protests, sit-ins and backstories chronicled by the press.
The experience reinforced in Nicholson a passion for seeking the truth. It fueled a decade-plus long career as a journalist in North Carolina and Virginia and later led her to the Virginia Commonwealth University Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, where Nicholson today teaches the craft of in-depth storytelling and reporting of major issues as a professor of journalism.
“Journalism and storytelling have always existed, and good journalism will always be needed,” Nicholson said. “We have seen over history that the press has a vital role to play as a watchdog of government, as well as the watchdog of institutions and corporations.”
Nicholson has spent her career helping the public understand complex issues — and teaching others to do the same. On Thursday, she and five colleagues were recognized for teaching, scholarship and service achievement at the university’s Opening Faculty Address and Convocation.
“Our system of checks and balances is made stronger by the presence of a free press and our world is much stronger by the work of journalists, many of whom risk their lives in pursuit of truth,” Nicholson said. “It’s a public good.”
'An unshakable commitment'
The faculty recognized Thursday — and VCU’s faculty in general — are connected by their desire to seek truth and improve the human condition, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.
“They have one really great thing in common and that is an unshakable commitment to the people who benefit from our mission and vision — in teaching, research, service and care,” he said.
Nicholson does this by preparing the next generation of reporters, editors and producers who will inform the public. Christine Lee Bae, Ph.D., begins even earlier. Bae, an assistant professor in the School of Education, conducts research in educational psychology and science education. Her NSF CAREER project partners with educators in local school divisions to improve middle school students’ knowledge in technology, math and science — and address “systematic inequities in K-12 education,” Bae said.
“Science is a subject where you are learning to read and write and think critically and communicate your ideas,” Bae said. “The major goal of this project is to get kids to talk science in classrooms, to get them excited about making sense of complicated ideas so they develop scientific literacy.”
Groups and individuals
Faculty convocation recognizes individuals, but individual achievements are often part of something bigger, said John Kneebone, Ph.D. A public historian, Kneebone retired earlier this year after a long career teaching history — the last 15 in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, where he also served as the history department’s internship coordinator.
“It’s true, at the university we do work as individuals,” Kneebone said Thursday. “We struggle to make sense of ambiguous data, to find meaning in experimental results, to transform a pile of notes into prose to solve a problem, to make words coherent on a blank screen. But even then we never work alone.”
Take history, Kneebone said, where the academic gold standard is “the monograph: the single author of a scholarly book.” Yet in the back of that book is an acknowledgement section, and a bibliography, citing and thanking archivists, librarians, contemporary scholars, predecessors and friends who helped the book become a reality.
“And every monograph becomes part of the foundation for future monographs,” Kneebone said. “So yes, we work as individuals, but we’re all part of a vast, ongoing human enterprise.”
That sentiment extends to medical and scientific research, said John Ryan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biology and a nationally recognized immunology expert. Ryan has received more than $13 million in funding for research related to understanding asthma, allergic reactions, infection and cancer. Sometimes, the act of contributing a building block to a future solution is as important as the solution itself, he said.
“At a fundamental level, I think all scientists just enjoy solving puzzles,” Ryan said. “All of us are contributing pieces to a larger puzzle and it may not be our group that gets the credit for some of these things, but as long as we’re contributing to the overall improvement of patient care, that’s a big success.”
'I can't think of any job more satisfying'
Lisa Brath, M.D., is a professor in the School of Medicine and serves as medical director of the Unique Pathogens Unit at VCU Medical Center. She is a busy and well-known figure at VCU.
Brath helped create a program in 2014 that led to the medical center becoming one of the first 35 federal Ebola treatment centers in the United States. She worked the medical tent — and subbed as the race starter — at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond. But for Brath, what stands out most as she enters her fourth decade at VCU is connecting with patients and students.
“The ability to connect with people on a daily basis and hope that in some small way I can make a difference, I can’t think of any job more satisfying than that,” she said. “I can only touch so many people in my life, but in teaching others — whether it be my learners or patients — I can touch the lives of people that I may never meet.”
Making those small differences in the lives of others is energizing, Brath said. Karen Kester, Ph.D., agrees. Kester, an associate professor of biology, is an entomologist who specializes in insect behavior and ecology. She helped create — and serves as program director of — the Bridges to the Baccalaureate: Dream to Goal program, which prepares community college transfer students interested in biomedical sciences for their transition to VCU.
As she walked across campus Thursday, on her way to an event at which she would be honored, Kester was thinking about her grandmother.
“When I told her I wanted to study insects she said, ‘Bugs? You’re going to study bugs?! Why don’t you do something useful like teaching or nursing?’” Kester said. “And it turns out, you can do both.
“I’m surprised at how emotional I am. But that’s an indication of how meaningful this is to me. It is wonderful to be recognized for doing what one loves.”