Seven people standing next to each other.
Seven faculty members were recognized for their commitment to the university and their students’ success. (Thomas Kojcsich)

VCU honors outstanding educators and researchers at 40th faculty convocation

Seven faculty members were recognized for their commitment to the university and their students’ success.

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Virginia Commonwealth University honored seven faculty members on Tuesday at the 40th annual Opening Faculty Address and Convocation at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. 

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said the faculty at VCU are committed to the success of their students, and anyone whose life they touch. 

“So many of you, their professors, you're passing on and giving knowledge about your areas, but you're also providing a broader understanding of the game of what becomes possible when you focus on the things that we don’t understand.” 

He said he has heard this from students, but also experienced it himself. When Rao was an undergrad, he came from a town where no one else had attended college. He was deeply interested in what his professors were saying, and connected to what they were talking about.

Rao said his professors gave him guidance and a sense of self-confidence. 

“And so I want to thank you for being what you are to our students, who are at the center of our mission,” he said. 

This year’s honorees: 

M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., School of Medicine

University Award of Excellence

Damaj, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and co-director of the VCU Translational Initiative for Pain and Neuropathy, focuses on substance use disorders. 

After going to school for pharmacy, Damaj said he realized he wanted to focus more on discovery than practice. He said he has enjoyed his research, but also thanked his students, saying he wouldn’t be able to do anything without them. 

“The next generation of scientists, they will take these discoveries to an even higher level, the next level. That is an important marker of success,” Damaj said. 

Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., School of Pharmacy

Distinguished Scholarship Award

Van Tassell, a professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Research in the School of Pharmacy, has been a pioneer in the understanding of the role of inflammation in cardiovascular disease and the development of therapeutic agents to treat it. 

Van Tassell said his work was motivated by the many friends and family members touched by heart disease. Inflammation is often present with heart disease and his goal is to find the best medicine to combat it. 

“We can actually make a difference in the patient's life,” Van Tassell said. “None of the work that we do here is possible without patients that are willing to participate in this process. When we talk about a community of research, it's not just the scientists, it's the patients as well.” 

Dewey Taylor, Ph.D., College of Humanities and Sciences

Distinguished Teaching Award

Taylor, a professor of mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has taught 25 different courses, mentored faculty and students in research activities and is part of the VCU HHMI Inclusive Excellence Program.

She said her teaching goal is to meet students where they are and help them get to where they want to go. When students work with her on a research project, Taylor said they learn a lot of skills they will be able to bring with them into the work world. However, it’s hard to gain those skills from just a classroom experience. 

“You need a good project, you need a mentor, and you need somebody to believe in you,” Taylor said.  

Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., College of Health Professions

Distinguished Service Award

Gendron, chair of the Department of Gerontology, director of the Virginia Center on Aging and author of the bestselling book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It,” has worked to raise awareness and end ageism through education. 

She is a founder of the VCU iCubed transdisciplinary program, developed several dual degree programs and three accelerated B.S. to M.S. programs. She received the 2022 Distinguished Academic Gerontologist Award from the Southern Gerontological Society. 

Gendron said she was motivated to serve the aging population after realizing how embedded and normalized ageism is in society, but how those beliefs are also internalized. She said ageism contributes to inequity and a society that doesn’t value older people.

“The goal of my work, really, is to empower each and every person to be an elder in training,” Gendron said. “To reclaim themselves at all ages and stages. To take the shame away from whatever age we are.” 

Caitlin E. Martin, M.D., School of Medicine

Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award

Martin is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and affiliate faculty in the Department of Psychiatry as well as with the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies and the Institute for Women’s Health.

Her research is focused on the intersections of addiction, sex, gender and social determinants of health. 

Martin said she volunteered with a needle exchange program her first year in medical school. Most of her clients were young women who were dancers at clubs. They told her they were treated poorly by health care providers and felt like they were being punished for seeking treatment. 

“It just really frustrated me and motivated me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with women to empower women for their health and their lives.” 

John Robert Robbie” Kinter, School of the Arts

Outstanding Term Faculty Award

Kinter, an instructor in the Department of Dance and Choreography, said he got into a car wreck his freshman year of college that paralyzed him for a while. During recovery, his roommate, who was a dance major, suggested Kinter try a dance class. 

“Dance science is a huge part of our curriculum, and we've had a lot more majors who go on to be physical therapists,” Kinter said. “Who else better to translate the mechanisms of the body and how to move the body properly and help you than the dancer?”

Ewell Dingani Mthethwa, College of Humanities and Sciences

Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award

Mthethwa joined VCU in 2006 as an adjunct instructor of Zulu language in the School of World Studies.

Mthethwa grew up in apartheid South Africa but said when he got to school, his instructors were the first to show him that he could “look further than where you are.” He believes in experiential teaching and learning and has taken students as far as South Africa, but also just down the road to locations such as Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. 

“I can’t think of a university that exists in a place like this,” he said. “I take [students] to these communities because I want them to be thinking about what they’re learning here and how it will contribute to the challenges that we’re facing.”