Head shot image of Varun Kodali.
Varun Kodali is a second-year Honors College student studying biology and minoring in chemistry in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. (Contributed photo)

VCU award winners are Keeping it REAL in research, community engagement and global education

Projects that highlight relevant, experiential and applied learning touch on cancer treatment, youth exposure to science and cultural expansion.

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Varun Kodali felt both surprise and a sense of belonging when hearing his name announced recently as a winner at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Keeping It REAL showcase.

VCU’s REAL Initiative promotes relevant, experiential and applied learning for students. At the 2023 Keeping It REAL showcase in late April, part of VCU Research Weeks, Kodali was honored with the REAL Researcher Award, which recognizes a project demonstrating research excellence and coordination with faculty.

“It was encouraging to have validation for the hard work and dedication that went into the project and knowing that I can continue to play a role in the scientific community,” said Kodali, a second-year Honors College student studying biology and minoring in chemistry in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences

Kodali was part of a research team that investigated combining two drugs for treating triple-negative breast cancer by measuring cell viability and cell death. The research found the combination treatment to be effective.

“The project demonstrated how students can contribute significantly to data generation by participating in labs of their interest, even with little to no experience in lab procedures,” Kodali said. “It also highlighted the importance of collaboration and mentorship within the scientific community, and I gained valuable skills and knowledge that will benefit me in my future studies and career.”

Junior Re’Anna Finister received the Community Supporter Award, which recognizes an impactful project through community-engaged teaching and learning partnerships.

Her project, part of her forensic science service-learning class, included visiting 10 middle and high schools in Richmond and Henrico County to talk to students about chemistry, biology and forensic science. The sessions featured hands-on labs that included a blood-spatter activity and footwear and tire impressions.

“I’m proud that something I did was getting recognized,” Finister said.

The Global Learning unit in VCU’s Global Education Office won the Most Innovative Award, given to a project that pushes the boundaries of traditional thinking and practice and that introduces new approaches or concepts to address critical needs or challenges.

The unit presented a poster to highlight the three REAL-designated opportunities available through its office, including the Peace Corps Prep Certificate program, Cultural Conversations virtual exchanges and the process for study abroad experiences to fulfill the REAL graduation requirement. 

“We also highlighted the Global Learning Program Development Awards, funded in part by the REAL Challenge Grant Program, which offers seed grants to faculty to support the creation of new global learning programs – specifically, domestic study-away programs focused on global issues such as poverty, gender equality and climate action through alignment with the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” said Stephanie Tignor, director of global learning. “These programs can take place within the U.S. or one of its territories.”

She added: “We were surprised and delighted to be recognized for our efforts to provide an enterprise-level structure for developing domestic study-away programs focused on global issues for the first time at VCU.”