‘Queer Eye for the Hero Guy,’ and other notable work to see at VCU’s research symposiums

Thea Cheuk standing at a table with comic books spread out in front.
Thea Cheuk wrote a 72-page paper on Dick Grayson. The work explores “the ways in which [Grayson] has been subtextually coded queer” since his comics introduction as Robin, Batman's sidekick. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Thea Cheuk’s current research project has a lot of pop culture appeal. For one, it’s about a comic book character, and the past decade especially has been full of films and TV shows inspired by comics. Cheuk’s work also focuses on a familiar character — Dick Grayson — who has been around for nearly 80 years since he was first introduced as Robin, Batman’s “Boy Wonder” sidekick.

Then there’s the title of Cheuk’s work: “Queer Eye for the Hero Guy: Exploring Dick Grayson’s Sexuality.”

“I can’t take credit for that one,” Cheuk said, laughing. “Chris Irving, my mentor, came up with that. That was all Chris.”

Cheuk, a junior in the Honors College studying communication arts in the School of the Arts and gender, sexuality and women's studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of more than 400 Virginia Commonwealth University students who will present their research April 23 and 24 at VCU’s graduate and undergraduate research symposiums. The events are part of the university’s ninth annual Student Research Weeks, April 5-26.

For students like Cheuk, the events mark the culmination of months of focused work. Cheuk also admitted to some good fortune in finding the right research topic.

“I was taking a media studies class [with Irving, a communication arts professor] and he wrote his thesis on Batman and Robin and sexuality, which was very interesting to me,” Cheuk said. “We struck up a conversation over that and decided that Grayson had a really interesting backstory and there was a lot of material to cover.”

Cheuk’s work will be featured at the undergraduate research poster symposium on April 24 in the University Student Commons. Here’s a quick glance at “Queer Eye for the Hero Guy” and some other notable work being showcased:

Thea Cheuk sitting at a table, holding a comic book
The way Robin is visually and narratively presented helps shore up Batman’s masculinity, Cheuk said. "Batman is covered head to toe in body armor. And you have Robin wearing this essentially feminine outfit — very short shorts, flashlight bright colors, blaring that his presence is here." (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Dick Grayson: A collision of sexuality and gender


Cheuk, who uses the pronoun “they,” wrote a 72-page paper on Grayson. The work explores “the ways in which [Grayson] has been subtextually coded queer” since his comics introduction in 1940. Superheroes, Cheuk said, offer a great opportunity to combine communication arts and gender studies.

“There are a lot of parallels between superheroes and closeted queer people,” Cheuk said. “They are hiding themselves except in certain situations. They use costuming to release their true selves into the world. They have this alter ego. And I found that was true when looking at the old comics of Batman and Robin." 

Cheuk began by examining Grayson’s early relationships with other characters.

“The way he is visually and narratively presented helped shore up Batman’s masculinity,” Cheuk said. “Batman is covered head to toe in body armor. And you have Robin wearing this essentially feminine outfit — very short shorts, flashlight bright colors, blaring that his presence is here. 

“He’s also kidnapped a lot, and plays this damsel in distress role. Batman doesn’t have a solid love interest — you have a couple women but they come in and out. And when they do, Robin becomes very distressed at the idea of Batman’s attention being split from him, which is indicative of some queer themes.” 

Throughout their research, which often led to VCU’s massive comics collection, Cheuk found sexuality and gender colliding in unusual ways. 

“As [Grayson] got older and a different kind of masculinity came way in the ’80s and ’90s, he became more of a womanizer, but also he’s gotten hit on more often and more aggressively,” Cheuk said. “And that has generally been very uncomfortable for him. You see him deflecting attention or not being sure how to deal with it. I thought that was interesting, that the gender roles were kind of swapped.” 

Cheuk has grown more interested in comics through the project, and hopes to continue the research in some capacity.

“Dick Grayson has historically had a very unusual female and queer following that the creators of the comics haven’t always understood — in some cases they’ve tried to ignore it, or downplay it, but it’s always been a big aspect of his character,” Cheuk said. “I was curious if the subtext of his narrative stories and visuals had anything to do with attracting this queer audience. I’d like to continue researching that if possible.”


Faculty Mentor Awards


Student research is on display during the university's Research Weeks, but faculty also are recognized. Three will be presented with faculty mentor honors:

- Bryant Mangum, Department of English, College of Humanities and Sciences

- Christine Cynn, Ph.D., Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences

- Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Internal Medicine, School of Medicine; C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

Fighting cancer in the lab

Mudassir Lodi, a sophomore studying bioinformatics, wants to pursue a career in cancer-related research. He and his mentor, Georgi Guruli, M.D., Ph.D., director of urologic oncology and a professor in the School of Medicine, spent last summer testing a new combination drug therapy to treat prostate cancer cells.

The tests involved combining two current cancer drugs, pracinostat and lenalidomide, and measuring their effect on dead cancer cells in Guruli’s lab. 

“We also tested the two drugs individually as a base to see if the combination actually was effective,” Lodi said. “It turns out the combination was very effective.”

Guruli and Lodi’s combination drug killed 57% of the cancer cells (the individual drugs killed only about 10% to 15%). It was a statistically significant increase, Lodi said, and an energizing experience. 

“I felt great knowing the drug therapy actually worked,” he said. “I think anything, any research and development that can be done to help people affected by cancer, is beneficial. It’s for the greater good.”

Lodi aspires to attend medical school and study oncology. He and Guruli will be back in the lab again this summer when they test their combination drug using live cancer cells. After that, if the results are good enough, they will look to proceed to clinical trials.

“That’s the goal,” Lodi said. “I’ve learned a lot, not only in the lab, but just about cancer and knowing what works and what doesn’t. This whole experience has been great.”

Poster of Uncle Sam in a victory garden
Stephanie Campbell's research project involved an examination of victory gardens — wartime vegetable gardens planted outside homes and in parks to increase food production during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

War and food


Stephanie Campbell’s research took her to the archives at the Library of Virginia, where she examined how governments use food policy to motivate civilian populations during war. Campbell, a junior history major, focused on programs promoted by the Virginia Office of Civilian Defense from 1940-45.

“I basically looked through all the documents related to nutrition, victory gardening, canning programs and war bonds to spread information about how to prepare food so people could make more with less,” Campbell said. 

Victory gardens — wartime vegetable gardens planted outside homes and in parks to increase food production — sprouted across America during World War I and II, providing produce during a time when food was rationed. Food programs were a way for nonmilitary civilians to contribute to the war effort, Campbell said. She found letters to that effect in her research.

“I found a lot to the Roosevelts [from people] asking how they could get involved with the civilian defense,” she said. “I found one from a Spanish-American [War] and World War I veteran who wanted to fight but he was too old to be in the military so he was asking what roles he could play. There was a group of Boy Scouts who wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking what they could do. I believe the date [of that letter] is Dec. 11, 1941, which is the day the U.S. officially declared war on Japan and Germany for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It demonstrates the extent to which even children were aware of, and affected by, the atmosphere of war.” 

Handwritten letters from a citizen to Eleanor Roosevelt
Campbell combed through hundreds of pages of documents, including personal letters, for her project. The saddest, she said, was from a woman who was widowed and who said she wanted to get involved in civilian defense to ease her loneliness. Her letter to Eleanor Roosevelt begins: "In America’s hour of need for loyal workers, I wondered if there might not be some special task I might do.” (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Campbell via Library of Virginia)

Campbell selected wartime food policy as a research project after taking a class — Food will Win the War: Food Policy during World War II — taught by Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Her History 201 class made me change my major [from political science], and then I took her food policy class,” Campbell said. “I just loved it because I really love to garden and [her class] was really engaging.” 

The ensuing research project, she said, was an extension of Raymond’s course, and further humanized the topic. 

“The handwritten letters were my favorite,” Campbell said. “I liked reading about people’s personal motivations for participating.”

The experience also has led to a new adventure. Campbell recently decided to pursue a master’s degree in library science. 

“I didn't plan on that before — I just decided this in the last two weeks,” she said. “This has been a great opportunity. I would definitely recommend it.”