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‘They make learning real’: VCU honors six faculty with distinguished awards

The event was held at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts but only a limited number of people were allowed to participate because of the coronavirus. The majority of people watched online.
ray shephard speaking from the podium at convocation

Right: Ray Shepherd at the podium during Thursday's Faculty Convocation event.

Five years ago, Katharine Tibbetts, Ph.D., picked up her life and relocated to Richmond for a position at Virginia Commonwealth University. She had no lab, only an opportunity.

Shortly after her arrival, two students — Derrick Ampadu Boateng and Mallory John — volunteered to help establish her lab in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Those two students took a chance on a brand new professor who had no idea what she was doing and an empty lab that was full of asbestos and had to be completely renovated,” said Tibbetts, an assistant professor in the chemistry department. “The two of them helped me build that lab.”

Five year later, Tibbetts’ lab is one of the premier research facilities at the university. Tibbetts investigates how light reacts with chemical bonds. Her lab uses cutting-edge technology and Tibbetts collaborates with faculty at VCU and across the country. None of that would have been possible without Boateng and John and her other students over the years, she said.

“I’m eternally grateful to those two students and all of my students,” Tibbetts said.

On Thursday, Tibbetts and five colleagues were recognized for their work at VCU’s annual Faculty Convocation ceremony. The event was held at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts but only a limited number of people were allowed to participate because of the coronavirus. The majority of people watched online.

peter boling accepting an award
Peter Boling speaks at Thursday's event. Boling was recognized with VCU's Distinguished Service Award.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., acknowledged that the ceremony looked different than in prior years but said that does not take away from the importance of the event. The faculty honored embody the university’s mission and are actively working to transform lives, despite the challenges facing the university and the nation.

“They make learning real,” Rao said. “And no question that they bring energy that inspires us to learn. It’s so important because given what we are going through right now, it's helped me to understand that energy that exists between a student and a faculty member, that energy that inspires us to want to understand something.”

That is what Nicholas P. Farrell, Ph.D., Tibbetts’ colleague in the Department of Chemistry, has done throughout his career. His research improves pharmaceuticals and has played a key role in developing important drugs. He said none of his work would have been possible without collaboration. He has worked with researchers across the globe and has always enjoyed the process.

“I do want to emphasize the notion of collaboration,” Farrell said. “I think it is so critical and critical for VCU.”

He said partnerships and teamwork are even more important in the current environment, because scientists need to build relationships. Researchers need to “be more than scientists these days,” he said. They need to build up friendships and collaborate.

michael rao speaking from a podium at convocation
VCU President Michael Rao. "They make learning real,” he said of the 2020 honorees. “And no question that they bring energy that inspires us to learn."

For Maryanne M. Collinson, Ph.D., associate chair and the John B. Fenn Professor in Chemistry, collaboration kept her academic career alive and prospering. Several years ago, she had considered quitting academic life but decided to take a position at VCU.

Soon after arriving, she was introduced to people within the health system and began working with them. That has led to her involvement in a variety of research projects at the university. The work brought new passion and meaning to her career.

“Here we are 15 years later and I look at my job as being the best job in the entire world, because I get to do what I love,” Collinson said. “I love being in the lab. I love teaching. I love working with my students.”

So does Linda E. Zyzniewski, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology. She said a key challenge for faculty members is getting students to approach and engage in content that intimidates them. She has worked throughout her career to help students confront statistics and other challenging subjects.

Today, however, faculty members face unprecedented challenges in the classroom. The online environment makes it more difficult to make connections with students, but professors are working to understand the new environment, she said.

“We are grappling with, ’How do we teach online with the world we find ourselves in?’” Zyzniewski said. “It’s difficult right now. How do I make connections with 200 students that I haven’t met and that I would very much rather be in front of in the classroom than talking to my computer?”

2020 Faculty Honorees

Nicholas P. Farrell, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences
University Award of Excellence

Maryanne M. Collinson, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences
Distinguished Scholarship Award

Linda E. Zyzniewski, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, College of Humanities and Sciences
Distinguished Teaching Award

Peter Avery Boling, M.D., School of Medicine
Distinguished Service Award

Katharine Moore Tibbetts, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences
Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award

Ray W. Shepherd, M.D., School of Medicine
Outstanding Term Faculty Award

Educating that next generation is something Ray W. Shepherd, M.D., director of interventional pulmonology in the School of Medicine, has done throughout his career. He helped developed a new specialty at VCU and has worked to train others who can perform the care. He told the story of when he brought interventional pulmonology, which uses endoscopy and other tools to diagnose and treat conditions in the lungs and chest, to VCU. He was vacationing in North Carolina when a colleague called and informed Shepherd that one of his patients was in the hospital. No one else was available to perform the necessary procedures. Now a team of people understand the techniques.

“Having a unique skill set can be an asset, but it can also be a great burden at times, especially when you are the only one doing it — the only one available in the early years,” Shepherd said.

Peter Avery Boling, M.D., who works at the VCU Center for Advanced Health Management, likewise works hard to train future health care professionals, because his work means nothing if it is not passed on. He has advocated for people throughout his career. Boling improves health care practices and said the key is listening. He wants to hear from patients and their family members who have had good experiences with the medical system and model health care practices after those efforts. He advocates for medical professionals providing more care in the home.

Making changes in a system like health care is a major challenge and requires the efforts of multiple people, he said.

“In the end, the legacy we will leave behind is the kind of care rendered by the kind of people who follow us,” Boling said. “I’m a transient here. My legacy will be the people who come behind me.”

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