Wright Center series trains next generation of community-engaged researchers

How would you react if someone started a conversation by saying what was wrong with you and your family?

Probably not well. And that’s exactly what health researchers often do, when they try to talk to community members, said Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D, an associate professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy.

“We go into communities and we tell them what the data says: ‘The county health rankings say that you have the worst health outcomes in this county,’” she said. “Well, they likely know that things are bad, and some things are good, too. They live in that neighborhood.”

Mosavel shared her experience in December in the first of the Wright Center’s Community Engaged Research Seminar Series. The inaugural three-part series was geared toward early career faculty at VCU whose research seeks to study and improve community health, as well as work in partnership with community groups and outside institutions. More than 75 researchers from across multiple disciplines attended the series, which is now available for all to view online.

Mosavel kicked things off with an introductory session: What is community engagement and why does it matter? Among other things, she said, “it’s a major social justice issue when we’re talking about marginalized, disenfranchised communities that, as researchers, we want to ‘study’ but we have never truly engaged with them in a meaningful way.

“And communities have not seen the benefit of the research that they have participated in.”

Her presentation gave examples of how to rectify that gap between research and results.

Amanda Hall, Ph.D., director of community-engaged research and special projects, followed up Mosavel’s introduction with a presentation on how VCU supports community-engaged research.

In January, the second session on developing and sustaining community relationships had Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., and Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., M.P.H. as presenters. And the third session on ethical and practical considerations in community-engaged research featured Alex Krist, M.D., M.P.H., the Wright Center’s community-engaged research co-lead.

The speakers represented decades of combined experience in clinical and translational research that brings the community into projects in meaningful ways. They offered practical tips and real-world examples of community engagement, in addition to the theory and objectives.

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Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D, an associate professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, kicked off the Community Engaged Research Seminar Series.

“Community-engaged research is a phrase that’s sometimes thrown around without context or substance,” said Rob DiRenzo, M.S., faculty development manager at the Wright Center and the series co-lead. “The series sought to give real meaning to the phrase, and our speakers were well-positioned to do that.”

A pre-series survey showed that over half of the registrants were already engaged in some form of community-engaged research.

“We saw that researchers at our institution were hungry for more training on this topic,” said Rachel Hunley, M.A., community engagement program manager at the Wright Center and series co-lead. “We hope this series can be a model for future ones here at VCU and other institutions.”

“I really like this series,” said one participant in a post-session survey. “Even though I’ve done [community engaged research] before, it really helps to get back to the basics and do it right from the beginning as I start a new partnership.”

What community engagement looks like varies by discipline and research question, speakers said. By its nature, community-engaged research is contextual, guided by the reality, the history, the politics of the community. Mosavel emphasized that community-engaged research requires not only collaboration, but flexibility and a willingness to change course, when community feedback requires it.

“Research has a clearly specified process: step one, step two,” Mosavel said. “But when you add community engagement, it becomes fluid, dynamic, and requires a completely different approach and commitment. Be prepared to change course.”

Mosavel urged the attendees to recognize their position and privilege and how it impacts perception.

“If you go out into the community and do community-engaged research, you’re always representing your academic institution,” she said. “And not only are you representing the academic institution, you have to be mindful of the context and historical relationships. Community-engaged researchers must recognize the larger context and do work that is mutually beneficial.”

You can watch the Wright Center’s Community Engaged Research Seminar Series on its Kaltura page.

Contact Rob DiRenzo and Rachel Hunley for questions about the series.

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Wright Center researchers co-author winning N3C poster on organ transplants and COVID-19

The Wright Center’s Amy Olex, M.S., and Evan French were co-authors on a poster that won top honors at a recent conference.

The senior bioinformatics specialist and informatics system analyst, respectively, helped produce Covid-19 In Solid Organ Transplantation (SOT): Results of The National Covid Cohort Collaborative (N3C). The poster was accepted to the Cutting Edge of Transplantation (CEoT) 2021 conference that took place Feb. 25-27.

The primary author of the poster, an associate professor at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, won the Young Innovator Award for the submission.

View the poster.

The research identified a cohort of solid organ transplant recipients who received COVID-19 tests last year and evaluated health outcomes using N3C data. The collaborative, which VCU joined last summer, securely collects and organizes clinical and diagnostic data from patients across the country to create a dataset broad enough to engage in meaningful study of the novel coronavirus. VCU researchers can access the data for their studies.

Olex leads the national Immunosuppressed or Compromised Clinical Domain Team, which mines N3C data to identify how different types, levels, and durations of immunocompromise may affect severity and outcomes of infected patients. The team was instrumental to Vinson’s, Olex’s and French’s research.

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Amy Olex, M.S., senior bioinformatics specialist, and Evan French, research informatics systems analyst
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Wright Center Translational Scholar brings addiction research to compassionate clinical care

Wright Center Translational Scholar Caitlin Martin, M.D., MPH, joined one of her patients, Nichole Hollie, for a conversation about addiction treatment and recovery this week.

Hollie sought care at VCU Health’s OB MOTIVATE Clinic, designed for women to address substance use disorders before, during and after pregnancy. Martin was her provider.

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Caitlin Martin, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the VCU School of Medicine

“The care I received from Dr. Martin is amazing,” Hollie told VCU Health News. “I love coming into the MOTIVATE Clinic to see Dr. Caitlin . . . just seeing the smile on her face, or just her asking me how I’m doing, or actually caring . . . I can feel that she cares.”

Martin returned Hollie’s praise and spoke about her work at the clinic to translate research into direct patient care.

“The care within the OB MOTIVATE Clinic is evidence-based so we make sure that all the treatments that we offer to patients are based in research, and we know they’re effective,” Martin said in the video interview.

Read and watch the full story at VCU Health.

Martin is a Translational Scholar at the Wright Center, part of a cohort of faculty scientists supported and mentored by the center. She won a Wright Center Endowment Fund grant last year to study the effectiveness of an addiction treatment.

Aerial photography of VCU's Monroe Park campus and downtown Richmond, VA at night time.

Blood pressure, proteins and precision health: Three research projects funded by the Wright Center

The Wright Center has awarded three VCU researchers grants from its Endowment Fund for health sciences research.

The awards support preliminary studies that enable researchers to develop hypotheses, collect preliminary data and establish methods necessary for successful external funding.

Lana Sargent, Ph.D., RN, CRNP, assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing’s Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, was awarded for her project: “The association of ambulatory blood pressure phenotypes with cognition in community-dwelling older adults: A pilot study.” Collaborators include Dave Dixon, Pharm.D., and Elvin Price, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

Weihua Qiu, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry, was awarded for her project: “Active mechanism of mycobacterial membrane protein large 3 and its inhibition by SQ109.” Qiu’s co-principal investigator is Youzhong Guo, Ph.D.

And Youssef Roman, Pharm.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, was awarded for his project: “Cardiometabolic genomics and pharmacogenomics investigations in Filipino Americans: Steps towards precision health.” Roman will work with a community partner, the Filipino American Association of Central Virginia.

Wright Center Endowment Fund grants are awarded four times a year – three of those times to individual investigators and small groups of investigators. VCU faculty from both the MCV and Monroe Park campuses are encouraged to apply.

Congrats to Sargent, Qiu and Roman!

The next deadline for the grant is May 1, for a multi-school project funded at up to $130,000.

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Left to right: Lana Sargent, Weihua Qiu and Youssef Roman

Children are at heart for investigator funded by Wright Center’s pilot imaging grant

The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU spoke to Uyen Truong, M.D., about her research into pediatric pulmonary hypertension.

Last year, Truong received a Wright Center Pilot Imaging Fund award, supported by the National Institutes of Health, for her project titled “The impact of bariatric surgery on adolescent cardiovascular function.”

The fund supports pilot work that uses the Wright Center’s research-dedicated MRI. The submission deadline for applications is Feb. 21.

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Uyen Truong, M.D.

The goal of this study is to show that MRI is a safe and accurate method to assess the cardiovascular function of children with pulmonary hypertension. Success in this study has the potential of shifting the paradigm of pediatric pulmonary arterial hypertension care towards a safer, non-invasive monitoring modality and significantly improving quality of life in children with pulmonary hypertension.

Read more at the hospital’s website.

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Wright Center informaticist leads international team for COVID-19 research

Organ transplant recipients, people with HIV, those with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially scary for people whose immune systems are compromised or suppressed.

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Amy Olex, M.S.

They’ve fought or are fighting battles against other diseases – or even their own immune systems. And the newness of the virus means no one is sure how they would fare against it.

“There’s very little data on how immunocompromised patients will respond to COVID-19,” said Amy Olex, M.S., senior bioinformatics specialist at the VCU Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “It’s resulted in patients wondering if they should suspend life-altering treatments.”

To help fill that gap in data, Olex is leading a team that will leverage a national platform of COVID-19 clinical data to guide and support research into immunocompromised patients.

The National COVID Cohort Collaborative, or N3C, led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), securely collects and organizes clinical and diagnostic data from patients across the country to create a dataset broad enough to engage in meaningful study of the novel coronavirus.

The Wright Center joined the collaborative last summer, and VCU researchers can access the data for their studies.

“The N3C initiative and data repository has sparked national collaborations with the goal of answering many of these yet unanswered questions about COVID-19,” Olex said. “It’s already yielding vital research.”

Within N3C, a collection of Clinical Domain Teams enable researchers with shared interests to analyze N3C data and collaborate efficiently. The teams provide researchers an opportunity to collect pilot data for grant submissions, train algorithms on larger datasets and learn how to use N3C tools. With teams, researchers can build off each other’s work, collaboratively and efficiently working to improve outcomes for patients affected by COVID-19.

Olex leads the Immunosuppressed or Compromised Clinical (ISC) Domain Team. Initial research will focus on people with HIV, organ transplants and those with autoimmune disorders, including skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis and eczema. And the team will identify areas that warrant additional study.

“The ISC Team will mine the N3C data to identify how different types, levels, and durations of immunocompromise may affect severity and outcomes of infected patients,” Olex said. “The hope is that our research brings much needed clarity to healthcare providers and people who are immunosuppressed or compromised.”

Teams like ISC welcome new members. They feature researchers and experts like statisticians, informaticists and machine learning specialists who collaborate across disciplines to tackle COVID-19 and its health impacts.

N3C is hosting an open house to engage CTSA members, newcomers, and the wider translational research community beginning on Jan. 19. The event will kick off with a 1-hour symposium, followed by a week of open Clinical Domain Team meetings, including the Immunosuppressed/Compromised Domain Team.

VCU researchers can contact Amy Olex at alolex@vcu.edu with questions about immunosuppressed or compromised COVID-19 research.

Update 1/26/21: VCU researchers interested in learning more about N3C can attend two orientation sessions on Feb. 2 and 9. 

N3C key metrics dashboard Visit ncats.nih.gov/n3c for information
Image credit: NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
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The Wright Center is here to help with your research resolutions

Last year did not go as planned for anyone. But 2021 will slowly, we hope, bring a return to the new normal in our professional lives.

If more or better health-related research at VCU is one of your 2021 resolutions, the Wright Center can help. Find your research resolution below and see how.

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Wright Center events bring together VCU research leaders, health care providers and research professionals on timely topics.

Upcoming events include:

Bookmark the Wright Center’s calendar and make sure you’re signed up for the regular newsletter to be alerted of more upcoming events.

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The Wright Center’s funding opportunities include a few with upcoming deadlines:

  • The Endowment Fund for grant to individuals and small groups of investigations has a Feb. 1 deadline for its up-to-$50,000 award.
  • The Pilot Imaging Fund for grants up to $25,000 is accepting applications until Feb. 21 from investigators looking to use the Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging (CARI) facility.
  • And the Clinical Research Voucher Program has a rolling deadline for investigators looking for funding to use VCU Health clinical research facilities and services.

Find more funding opportunities at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation’s website and in RAMS-SPOT.

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Request access to a cohort discovery program that helps investigators test feasibility and collaborate with other institutions.

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Through the Wright Center, you can access Protocol Builder, a secure, cloud-based technology that helps investigators write interventional or observational research protocols. Find links and resources on protocol development. Read More

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Wright Foundation gifts $16 million to the Wright Center

The C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research has received a $16 million gift from the foundation of its namesake benefactors.

The funds are part of a $24 million gift from the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Foundation, announced on Friday. Four million dollars will go to the VCU College of Engineering, and another $4 million supports the VCU Health Adult Outpatient Pavilion.

The Wright Center’s $16 million will support the mission of the center — to advance science and foster partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health. Plans to develop specific programs and scholarship around that vision are underway.

“We’re humbled by and grateful for the generosity that the Wrights and their foundation have shown our center,” said F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the Wright Center. “This year has shown us how important clinical research is for the health of our community. And this gift will help the Wright Center promote important collaborative, community engaged research.”

C. Kenneth Wright made a $16 million gift in 2015 to name the Wright Center. The gift established six Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research and a physician-scientist scholars program. Wright’s support has enabled the university to recruit distinguished researchers from around the country and helped VCU prepare scholars for careers along the spectrum of translational science.

In 2018, Wright renewed his support with a $5 million gift to expand the Wright Center’s biomedical informatics program.

The Wright gifts have helped the center leverage the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its 2010 Clinical and Translational Science Award of $20 million. The NIH renewed the award in 2018 with a $21.5 million grant — the largest NIH grant in VCU’s history.

Kenneth Wright passed away in 2019, and his wife, Dianne, died in 2013. Their foundation continues their dedicated work to fund research and education.

Read more at VCU News.

Image at top: C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright

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2020 clinical research by the numbers

The researchers and study teams that make clinical research happen at VCU have gone above and beyond this year. They worked quickly to adapt ongoing research. They started new studies hoping to contribute to knowledge of COVID-19. They joined national and international studies. And they continued their important research on all the other diseases that didn’t take a break during the pandemic.

The Wright Center crunched the numbers on VCU researchers’ work this year.

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2,108 participants enrolled in studies


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1,403 VCU and VCU Health study team members


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885 studies active during the year



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576 multi-site studies




183 studies opened



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43 COVID-19 studies opened



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36 departments represented


Thank you to all the clinicians, researchers and study teams that make clinical research at VCU possible.

Numbers current from OnCore as of Dec. 9, 2020. Special thanks to Robert Moulden, manager of clinical trials management systems at the Wright Center.



MCV Foundation’s NEXT magazine features Wright Center researchers, studies

The latest issue of MCV Foundation’s NEXT magazine is out, and the Wright Center plays a big role. The issue focuses on COVID-19 research and highlights the innovation and resourcefulness shown by VCU researchers, including many from the Wright Center and those funded by center grants.

Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., and the Wright Center frame the lead story, “The Great Shake Up: How COVID-19 upended and refocused research at VCU Health.”

“Our researchers and administrators really stepped up to the plate in every way,” Moeller told NEXT. “It’s not a scenario that individual researchers can really plan for, but they have really managed it well.”

Also featured in that story are:

  • John Ryan, Ph.D., a professor of biology who serves on the Wright Center’s Operations Committee
  • Somaya Albhaisi, M.D., whose COVID-19 registry is funded in part by the Wright Center
  • Translational Scholar Caitlin Martin, M.D.

Other Wright Center leaders and researchers featured in stories include:

  • Arun Sanyal’s, M.D., in “Remdesivir: Establishing a Standard of Care for COVID-19”
  • Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., and Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., in “Calming the Cytokine Storm of COVID-19”
  • VCU Massey Cancer Center Director Robert Winn, M.D., in “Access & Equity: Combating Health Disparities and COVID-19 through Community Engagement”
  • KL2 Scholar Julian Zhu, Ph.D., in “Big Things in Small Packages”
  • Stephen Kates, M.D., in “Amid Crisis, Inventing Solutions”
  • Alpha “Barry” Fowler III, M.D., in “Follow up: Applying Previous Research to the Current Crisis”

And Kathy White, who serves on the COVID-19 Clinical Trials Oversight Committee, shared her experience surviving COVID-19 and participating in a clinical trial led by Abbate.

Read NEXT here.
Or download the pdf.