A photo of nine people standing next to each other.
(From left to right) Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., School of Medicine; Anika L. Hines, Ph.D., School of Medicine, School of Population Health; Deborah L. Polo, College of Humanities and Sciences; Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.; Emiola Oyefuga, Ph.D., School of Education; Martin K. Safo, Ph.D., School of Pharmacy; Evan M. Sisson, Pharm.D., School of Pharmacy; and Michael F. Miles, M.D., Ph.D., School of Medicine. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Excellence – and commitment – celebrated at VCU Faculty Convocation

Seven educators and researchers are highlighted at 41st annual ceremony, where President Michael Rao links education and empathy.

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Commitment – to students, service and research – was celebrated Wednesday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s 41st annual Faculty Convocation.

In an afternoon ceremony highlighting seven educators and researchers for excellence, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., emphasized how faculty blend education and empathy to serve students in lasting ways.

He cited the words of one of this year’s honorees, Emiola Oyefuga: “Any student can learn. One just has to find the best way to teach.”

“That's care. That's empathy,” Rao said. “And really, it's a commitment to others, which when we treat students the way we treat them, we are multiplying our ability to positively impact the lives of so many other people whose lives they will touch.”

He thanked all faculty for their service as the new school year begins. Convocation was held at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, and it featured the following honorees for 2023:

Anika L. Hines, Ph.D., School of Medicine, School of Population Health

Outstanding Early Career Faculty Award

Hines heads the Equity in Cardiovascular Health Outcomes Lab, where she and student mentees work to uncover and mitigate the impact of health disparities, which lead to premature death and poor health outcomes in marginalized people.

Hines said she thought she would pursue child psychology, to help shape human development. But learning about health disparities, and enduring an unexpected personal loss, made her think about unfair and ineffective health systems. She became inspired to investigate chronic stress and its intersection with structural and social environments, with an eye toward designing solutions.

“For me, each dot in the graph represents a life that is something we must never forget,” Hines said.

Michael F. Miles, M.D., Ph.D., School of Medicine

University Award of Excellence

Miles researches functional genomics, studying underlying genetic risk factors and gene expression in individuals with alcohol use disorder. This research looks at why some people are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to alcohol than others.

Through his research, Miles identified a gene that is regulated by alcohol and the protein it generates. He and his team discovered that a drug being used in clinical trials to treat other diseases would inhibit the protein.

Miles said he grew up with an interest in science, and medicine allowed him to use science to help others.

“I came here to make a difference for my students, colleagues, patients in my field,” Miles said. “VCU has given me that chance to make that difference, and I'm deeply thankful.”

Emiola Oyefuga, Ph.D., School of Education

Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award

Oyefuga’s research interest centers around using social capital to improve educational outcomes for students, and she is currently working with a team of VCU researchers investigating educator sexual misconduct in schools across the U.S.

The program aims to train teachers and school employees about signs of sexual abuse and reporting it. Oyefuga said everyone needs to be involved in the education of children, which includes creating safe spaces for learning.

Deborah L. Polo, College of Humanities and Sciences

Distinguished Teaching Award

For more than 30 years, Polo has contributed to positive educational outcomes for thousands of undergraduate students of chemistry. She noted the importance of introductory-level courses, which can set students up for achievement in school and beyond.

“My overarching goal is always student success – and not just in the classroom but beyond the classroom,” Polo said.

Her high school chemistry teacher, who attended Wednesday’s ceremony, inspired Polo to pursue both the science and the education field.

“What she showed me was what an excellent teacher does,” Polo said. “An excellent teacher inspires and motivates and gives the tools that are necessary for success.”

Martin K. Safo, Ph.D., School of Pharmacy

Distinguished Scholarship Award

Safo is an international leader in the research of sickle cell disease. Safo and late mentor Donald J. Abraham, Ph.D., discovered it is possible to directly target mutant hemoglobin in red blood cells to reduce sickling, redefining conventional thinking on the development of sickle cell pharmacotherapeutics.

Born in Ghana, Safo said he struggled in school due to undiagnosed autism. But when he turned to science, he “began to bloom.”

He said in sub-Saharan Africa, treatments for sickle cell are limited and expensive. His goal is to create more accessible, lower-cost oral treatments.

Curtis N. Sessler, M.D., School of Medicine

Distinguished Service Award

In the VCU Health System, Sessler served as medical director of the medical respiratory ICU for 30 years and as medical director of critical care for 27 years.

Sessler said the driving force in his career has always been the people. He has aimed to enhance care of critically ill patients, whether at the bedside, in the research lab or on the national level by influencing policy.

He also has focused on improving the work experience for health care workers, as reducing burnout yields better patient care.

Evan M. Sisson, Pharm.D., School of Pharmacy

Outstanding Term Faculty Award

Sisson has led innovative collaborations among health care professionals from different fields that have improved patient outcomes and provided learning experiences for students and junior faculty.

Sisson has osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease that causes brittle bones, and spent the first 20 years of his life using a wheelchair. His parents emphasized that he could do anything.

While earning a master's in health administration, Sisson realized that his passion was helping people with diabetes. He became a master lifestyle coach and revised one of VCU’s courses in the School of Pharmacy so that its first-year students are trained as lifestyle coaches.