Two smiling men standing back to back with their arms crossed wearing virtual reality goggles headsets on their foreheads
Collaboration across different, and sometimes unexpected, disciplines, like the work of game designer/illustrator Jason Bennett (left) and forensic psychologist Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., often leads to remarkable results and fruitful friendships. (Photo: Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing; Mural: Brent Fagg)

Dynamic Duos

When professors from different disciplines team up to work on projects they’re passionate about, that’s when the magic happens.

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One of the hallmarks of Virginia Commonwealth University is the interdisciplinary collaborations that take place throughout the year. Equally important are the cross-collaborations that occur among different departments and disciplines. Each person brings different perspectives, skill sets and experiences that, when combined, result in fresh ideas and new approaches. In other words, some really cool stuff gets done that wouldn’t have otherwise. The relationships that form in the process often also turn into lifelong friendships. Three of these dynamic duos are highlighted below, along with examples of the meaningful work that happens when they put their minds together.

Jeanine Guidry and Carrie Miller

Two women sitting on a couch with a dog in between them. The woman on the right is holding a cup of coffee and the one of the left has a laptop in front of her that she is pointing at. Both women are looking at the laptop
Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D. (left), and Carrie Miller, Ph.D., have spent many late nights working together on public health research and articles at Guidry's home, often with the companionship of Guidry's dog Lola. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Jeanine Guidry and Carrie Miller are more than just colleagues and research partners. They are good friends who are like-minded but bring different perspectives to their research.

The two met in 2014 when they both started their Ph.D. program in social and behavioral sciences at the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine.

The pair bonded while preparing for their comprehensive exams.

“That laid the foundation for our collaboration,” said Guidry, Ph.D., now an assistant professor in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “And it developed further when we did what we called our ‘boot camp,’ six or seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, preparing for our comprehensive exams. That is where we got to really know one another as friends and researchers.”

They kept working together through their dissertations and practice rounds for their respective defenses.

“We just got each other,” Guidry said. “So when we both started working for VCU, it was a natural thing to collaborate. We had become good friends, and we liked working together.”

They began meeting once a week at Guidry’s home in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, often with their dogs and cups of hot coffee or tea nearby.

“Being friends and collaborators was a good combination for us from the start,” Guidry said.

The two have worked on more than 18 projects together and have co-authored 12 peer-reviewed publications over the past three years.

“Carrie has more population health experience than I do, and my background is more on the health communication side. Overall, though, our approach is pretty similar, and our skills are complementary,” Guidry said. “Working together helps make the total work better – and a lot more fun!”

“Jeanine is a big-picture person,” said Miller, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy. “The way she sees things is amazing. She is creative and great at thinking out of the box. I am able to help translate those thoughts and make our research ideas come to life.”

“Creative ideas are one thing – but Carrie then asks the question, ‘How are we going to make this happen?’ That combination is great and makes us both better at what we do,” Guidry said.

The two often bounce back and forth as leads on projects, depending on the research topic, with Miller’s primary focus being cancer prevention and control and Guidry’s vaccine misinformation on social media. By blending their interests, they expand their joint scope of work. As an example, their individual interests were combined when they completed three breast cancer studies looking at social media, including Pinterest.

“Not many researchers were studying Pinterest, and yet Jeanine started in 2014.” Miller said. “That is a great example of how Jeanine is on the edge of what is new and upcoming.”

Guidry appreciates how they combine their individual interests to undertake innovative research.

“What makes this collaboration special is that we combined the study of Pinterest, my focus area, with Carrie’s skills in cancer prevention and control, ending up with results that are larger than the sum of the parts, and in this case, three studies on the way people discuss breast cancer on social media that one or the other would not have focused on singularly,” she said.

Several of the pair’s current research projects focus on COVID-19, looking at everything from cancer survivors to long COVID-19. Together with an international team of colleagues, they are creating an online aid to help people make decisions about the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. The study was commissioned by Art Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System.

Guidry and Miller recently submitted a grant proposal to the National Cancer Institute focused on developing a communication intervention to improve health literacy and cancer screening uptake in rural settings. They are also finishing data collection for a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund grant they received to do an eye-tracking study focused on developing suicide bystander behaviors among college students.

Perhaps most importantly, Guidry and Miller want to see each other succeed.

“I know that Carrie has my back, and if she needs anything I am there,” Guidry said. “When we tackle a project together, it gets better. There is a lot of processing data, but when we are at each other’s side, we feel less alone.

“This is a real thing. We have history together.  I know I am going to be in Carrie’s life for the rest of our lives. That is what makes it powerful,” Guidry said.

Working in academia isn’t always easy and can be isolating, Miller said.

“What makes us unique is knowing that someone is in my corner as I am in hers,” she said of Guidry. “It makes all the difference. I think the research world could use more of this.”

Jason Bennett and Nicholas Thomson

Two men sitting in chairs. The man on the left has a virtual reality goggles on his forehead, and the other man is placing them on
Bennett (left) and Thomson, who are collaborating on a virtual reality emotion recognition training program, meet up at the School of Medicine's virtual reality lab. (Photo: Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing; Mural: Brent Fagg)

Jason Bennett and Nicholas Thomson hit it off the first time they met at VCU’s School of the Arts to talk about collaborating on a project.

“We have a fantastic, dynamic working relationship. It’s exactly what I was looking for,” said Thomson, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist and director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health Trauma Center. “Jason and the arts school read my mind. They got it and were as enthusiastic about it as I was. Now, here we are two years later, and it’s been great.”

Bennett, an illustrator, game developer and assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts, and Thomson, an assistant professor in psychology and surgery, are developing a virtual reality intervention that focuses on teaching youth with conduct disorder how to recognize others’ emotions, which may reduce delinquency and long-term physical and mental health problems into adulthood.

“We are leveraging each other’s expertise,” Thomson said.

Conduct disorder is often misdiagnosed during childhood and adolescence, Thomson said.

“It’s one of the most prevalent child psychiatric disorders, with a lifetime prevalence of about 12% in males and 7% in females. Unfortunately, it’s poorly diagnosed, which means very few children and families get the adequate support that they need.”

Kids with conduct disorder have deficits in being able to recognize negative emotions in others, he said.

“If we treat that with immersive game play using virtual reality, it has been found to reduce anti-social behaviors,” said Thomson, who has been doing research for years using virtual reality for kids with conduct disorder and other mental health diagnoses.

Bennett utilized a prototype he built in 2020 for the project. He was able to spin that into a computer science capstone project for his students between VCUarts and the College of Engineering

“It’s been quite a learning curve for students, but also a chance for them to get in touch with the technology,” he said. “Initially I did the coding, but once it rolled into a capstone project, I now serve as the mentor for design, production pipeline, etc.”

The capstone project includes a series of minigames — short interactions focused on a stylized 3D exposure of emotions.

“One minigame is a matching game,” Bennett said. “The player drags emotive faces to matching text. Another is a memory game. Faces are shown to the viewer, and then turn away. The player needs to recall which emotion was which. We’re using a mix of visual styles — a clinical assessment mode features video of real people, while the minigames have a cartoony look.”

They wanted to make the game so that it’s not just a training program but also an assessment level, Thomson said. “We can tailor the game play for the individual.”

The final product will be the first virtual reality emotion recognition training program, Thomson said.

“One of the things we are doing that has never been done before is to include eye tracking into virtual reality,” he said. “What we thought wouldn’t be available for decades is something we are working on right now, and that is because of the partnership between schools. We did submit for additional funding through a VCU Accelerate Fund to support the final development and implementation of the intervention. If we get that, we can have a final product in six months.

“The program would be relevant to children with autism and ADHD as well as youth with conduct disorder,” he said. “Once this is developed, we will be piloting it in different youth populations to see if we notice improvements, including in general population children who have experienced social isolation and mask wearing during the pandemic, which may have inhibited emotional understanding in others.”

Bennett and Thomson enjoy working together, often talking about the program at lunch and during coffee breaks.

“Working with Jason is easy,” Thomson said. “Jason is the type of person that if I haven’t heard from him, I know he is still plugging away. He’s one of the best when it comes to game development and art direction. The key is to have someone who just gets it like he does.”

Bennett respects Thomson’s vision and energy, as well as his openness, he said.

“For me, coming from the commercial side of the game industry, it’s nice to use these tools for social good. It’s a dream project,” Bennett said. “And to have a partner that is both excited about it and patient with the process is great. I’m appreciative of the ability to loop in VCU students too; sharing this project and this incredible medium has been a wonderful opportunity for all of us.”

David Berdish and Stephen Fong

Two men sitting across from each other at a table with a coffee and expresso cup in front of them.
Stephen Fong, Ph.D. (left), and David Berdish often get together over coffee to discuss their project that aims to address food insecurity by using mobile refrigeration units to distribute perishable foods. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

David Berdish and Stephen Fong are fighting food insecurity in the Greater Richmond area by teaming up on a project that will not only help people in food deserts get fresh produce, but also help small farmers combine and aggregate their inventories.

The onset of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 impacted food security in Virginia. Early research from the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University estimated that Virginia’s food insecurity rose 12.5 percentage points to 22.5% (or more than 1 in 5 people) during the April-May 2020 time frame, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.

As one of the co-leads of VCU’s iCubed Sustainable Food Access Transdisciplinary Core, Fong, Ph.D., works to address the food desert problem through research and data collection.

Berdish, executive-in-residence for supply chain management and analytics in the VCU School of Business, is experienced in supply chain issues, having worked for Ford Motor Co. for 31 years, including 14 as the company’s social sustainability director. He is also a member of the iCubed Sustainable Food Access Transdisciplinary Core.

The two have been working on projects in Richmond’s East End and Charles City County.

“There are no grocery stores in Charles City. One out of every 5 people in the county don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Berdish said.

Ironically, there are many small farms in Charles City that grow vegetables. But getting the produce to the people who need it isn’t as easy as it may sound because the farms are so spread out.

“It’s a juxtaposition of grown produce and not having food,” said Fong, who is a professor of chemical and life science engineering in the College of Engineering. “We started working with the local food pantry there, which serves 150 to 180 families. … It is working out of a leased space in a building. Because of that, they are very restricted in what they can do and what they can provide, like fresh produce.”

Farms in the area don’t have ways to store produce so volunteers must go out in the morning to pick up fresh produce and bring it back to the pantry the same day.

Looking at it from an engineering perspective, the idea of creating a portable mobile solar-powered refrigeration system that could be located in a parking lot seemed plausible, Fong said.

“It will store and distribute perishable foods. I got David connected with Norm Gold, who was instrumental in developing and running the Market @ 25th in Church Hill,” Fong said. “We keep seeing different needs in different communities. We want to figure out how we can change the situation and help multiple groups around the region.”

Mobile refrigeration units could become food aggregation hubs, Fong said.

“It’s a model for food pantries and helping local farmers as well,” he said, adding that the prototype is being built.

Fong aims to test the prototype on campus this summer when temperatures are high.

“The hope is if we have enough information from the prototype that we can implement the system if it looks promising,” he said.

The mobile refrigeration unit could be used in broader applications, he said.

“We are thinking about other things such as natural disasters and war, situations where you would want a mobile structure,” Fong said. “We want to address the problems locally, but there are things we will be able to address nationally and internationally. That is the long-term bigger hope.”

As part of their collaboration, Berdish likes to bounce ideas off Fong.

“That helps me think through solutions that go with supply chain issues,” Berdish said. “Steve and I are both food stability-minded and humanitarians. Working with Steve is fun. He and I bring our own techniques and methodologies to the project.”

Their similar interests help the project outcome because of a “good blending of each of our strengths and skills,” Fong said.