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This is the most diverse 10 Under 10 class ever, honoring two veterans, five entrepreneurs (including two business partners sharing an award), alumni of nine different colleges and schools from six graduation years, and seven honorees who are from minority populations. Below we feature the four honorees from the College of Humanities. Visit VCU Alumni's 10 Under 10 page to view the full list of honorees.
When a drug is active where it isn’t needed, it can harm the patient. Traditionally, this harm is called a “side effect” and accepted as a necessary evil. Martin Dcona, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the startup Light Switch Bio think that should change.
For pharmaceutical manufacturers who produce potent drugs that cause severe side effects for patients, Light Switch Bio offers a laser-guided platform that minimizes side effects. The initial application is for delivering site-specific chemotherapy for head and neck cancers, developed in partnership with VCU Massey Cancer Center, the Center for Advancing Innovation and VABeachBio. Light Switch Bio’s innovative technology attaches a chemotherapy drug to a cell-impermeable molecule that remains inactive until it is illuminated, at which point it becomes active and cytotoxic only to the targeted cancer cells. Traditional chemotherapy drugs are active everywhere in the body, producing wide-ranging, unwanted side effects.
“The bigger goal is fewer side effects,” says Dcona, who designed the patented technology. “With this technology, patients undergoing chemotherapy will have lesser side effects because of this modified approach, which is a big deal. This type of targeted chemotherapy has not been done before.”
Dcona is now headed to the University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center as a research faculty member, after postdoctoral and graduate studies at Massey Cancer Center and previous work in the lab of Matthew C.T. Hartman, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Chemistry, where light-based chemotherapeutic technology, the founding idea of Light Switch Bio company, was born. He calls himself the co-inventor, and Alex Ratti (B.S.’13/En; M.S.’18/En), who was also working in the lab and read Dcona’s papers, the entrepreneur who is helping the startup move forward.
“We scientists know stuff about science and work our magic, but the people who will make it sexy are at the entrepreneurial level,” he says. “Eventually, whenever the company gets established, I will be playing a more active role. Currently I am just watching it grow because it’s a very limited-resource company, and that’s how everybody starts.”
The company has participated in several pitch competitions, vying for funding and mentorship. Dcona also has presented his work to national and international audiences as a keynote speaker, a skill he honed at VCU.
Originally from India, Dcona says he had to overcome his fears of writing in and speaking English when he came to VCU. “You always think in your mother tongue, but then to articulate it is very difficult,” he says. Over time, his colleagues in the chemistry department encouraged him to write and speak more. “I put myself out there and overcame speech and writing challenges. I published book chapters and manuscripts and co-wrote the whole [Light Switch Bio] patent application,” he says. “Now I’m sort of a motivational speaker here at Massey,” he says. Massey Alliance, a fundraising arm of the cancer center, regularly taps Dcona to talk to donors in layman’s terms about the scientific advancements happening there. It’s fun to talk to donors on a personal level, he says, and it’s for a good cause. “It’s something I like, and I am proud of.”
Stephanie Lynch never thought she’d run for public office or even take a front-and-center role in politics. She’s more of a policy wonk — and proud of it. “I am a classic social worker, a policy practitioner. What I really like is the down-and-dirty policy work that I do every day, the behind-the-scenes stuff that you don’t get credit for or you may not see in headlines; it’s consensus building, it’s connecting people and getting things done for the people in the community — the stuff that really makes an impact and a difference in people’s lives.”
So says the 5th District Richmond (Virginia) City Council member, who won a special election in 2019, becoming the first woman to represent the district. Now she’s running to keep the seat in the general election in November.
Her resume reads like a policymaker’s dream — director of government affairs at Good Neighbor, a nonprofit focused on mental health, where she continues to work; a key lobbying position representing Medicaid managed care plans, who helped push through Medicaid expansion in Virginia; and various policy and administrative jobs for state departments such as social services.
She also sits on the governor’s Task Force for Behavioral Health Workforce Development, the governor’s Children’s Cabinet for Trauma Informed Care and the governor’s Task Force for School-Based Health.
While her work has often focused on policy areas such as health care, mental health access and criminal justice, the common thread is how it all affects real people — frequently people without the wealth and power that often guarantees a voice in public decisions. For example, her work on Medicaid was spurred by one of her social work clients. “She was like a grandmother to me. She died of a preventable disease, and she would be with us here today if she had had health insurance. She inspired me to fight and go change the system. Now we have 400,000 [more] lives that are covered.”
She has VCU to thank for her current career, she says. As an undergraduate, she was influenced by a number of professors to be a changemaker, while her double major of women’s studies and psychology, with an African American studies minor, “allowed me to see the world from a lens and a perspective that to this day shapes the way I see the system and what solutions we apply to change it.” Her experience in VCU student government helped forge her standards of transparency, consensus building and collaboration — not just as guiding principles but also because putting those principles in action is the best way to get things done.
Lynch has her immediate sights on the upcoming election. Whether it’s ultimately a step toward higher office remains to be seen, she says. That’s a standard nonanswer from an elected official, but in her case, it stems from a deep respect for the job. She’s spent plenty of time as an advocate in the state legislature and watched people run for Congress; as important as those roles are, she relishes the direct impact she has at this level. “I’m like, man, local politics is no joke. It is not for the faint of heart, but the opportunity for impacting and improving the community is extremely tangible and real.” And it’s exactly where she wants to be.
One of David Vu’s favorite phrases is “off the beaten path.” You might even call it a mantra.
Which helps explain why he put himself through pharmacy school but didn’t end up working at a pharmacy.
Not that he’s not passionate about the field. In the past couple of years alone, he’s worked in various capacities, most recently as quality assurance engineer for Kit Check, which serves hospital pharmacies, and as affiliate faculty at his alma mater in the VCU School of Pharmacy Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science.
In 2019, he co-founded Pharmacy Informatics Academy, which helps educate the next generation of pharmacists about careers in health care technology; and, in June 2020, he co-founded Dispense As Written, a venture focused on helping health care professionals develop their personal brands.
His introduction to pharmacy came as an undergraduate at VCU, when he was earning his bachelor’s in science, with a concentration in professional science, and he volunteered at a free clinic. Immediately after he earned his degree, he worked as a pharmacy technician for a community pharmacy, which helped cement his passion for the discipline. As an inveterate problem-solver, he saw a space where he could put his talents to work. Watching the day-to-day operations, “I started thinking ‘What sort of technologies could improve a lot of these manual tasks and save a little time for the pharmacists?’ — not only to help the pharmacists but also to optimize patient care downstream.”
Gravitating to nontraditional health care careers is what spurred him to establish his own ventures. He created the Pharmacy Informatics Academy because he wanted to make pharmacists aware they could use their considerable skill sets in settings beyond community pharmacies and hospitals, which can have just as much impact as a pharmacist filling prescriptions. He has also established a scholarship to expand opportunities for pharmacy students interested in pharmacy informatics, a specialty that integrates pharmacy and technology.
His more recent venture, likewise, is to expand horizons in the world of pharmacy — “to help pharmacists build their own brand within the health care space, to help them realize the value they bring so they can really navigate the job market and find a job that suits their passions.”
He returns often to VCU as a volunteer: as a preceptor for Pharm.D. candidates and an “ambassador” for OpenEMR at the annual Health Hacks event. His ambassador role is particularly fulfilling, he says, because he learned about OpenEMR, a nonprofit organization that provides open-source electronic health records, when he attended Health Hacks as a student. While there, he collaborated with other students to create a virtual-reality-based approach to help calm children with special needs prior to medical procedures.
If he has any single piece of advice for future students, it’s to keep an open mind. “I always think about the end goal in mind, but at the same time, if opportunity arises, why not try it?” he says — and don’t worry if your end goal changes, too. He admits his “off-the-beaten-path” career trajectory has been “a little bit of a whirlwind. But it's been a fun whirlwind, of course.”
A steadfast and focused civil servant and veteran, Jonathan Ward believes in government and its potential to affect the lives of its citizens in positive and efficient ways.
As Virginia’s assistant secretary for veterans and defense affairs, he works to advance issues and policies affecting veterans, service members and their families within the Office of the Governor and the General Assembly. “I serve a team and an administration that is committed to ensuring veterans and issues related to the commonwealth’s significant military communities receive the focus they deserve,” he says.
Ward’s interest and desire to serve others started at a young age. Not only did he volunteer on political campaigns before he was able to vote, he was also active in the Boy Scouts, where he earned his Eagle Scout rank, and held two part-time jobs while in high school. “I gained a sense of appreciation and a desire to be a hard worker and a public servant,” he says of his days growing up in Southside, Virginia.
During his time at VCU, Ward served in multiple leadership positions. He served as the president of the Young Democrats at VCU for the 2008 and 2009 election cycles and as a member of the Student Senate and on several university committees. Selected for the Wilder School’s Virginia Capitol Semester program in his junior year, he took graduate-level courses and served as a legislative intern for Virginia state Sen. Janet D. Howell. “The academic and extracurricular opportunities VCU and its professors afforded me were significant to my development as a person and as a leader,” he says.
After graduating from VCU, Ward accepted a commission in the U.S. Army and was stationed out of Ft. Stewart in Georgia after attending Officer Candidate School and the U.S. Army Field Artillery School. Like many other service members who joined during the 2009 troop surge, he was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a field artillery officer in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. “Leading soldiers and being a member of a dynamic team such as the unit of which I was a part, was the best job I have ever had,” he says.
Upon completing his initial active duty obligation in 2014, he joined the Virginia National Guard. In his civilian career, his public service continued when he was appointed as the confidential assistant and executive aide to Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring. Later, Ward served Herring as his director of constituent services and special projects. These positions provided him with a front-row seat to historic changes in Virginia’s legislation, most notably the AG’s decision not to defend the commonwealth’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. “He was the first Democratic attorney general and progressive attorney general in more than 24 years,” Ward says. “There were a lot of new issues to address, and I am very proud of being able to serve as a small part of that team.”
Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Ward to his current position in August 2019. Similar to his previous roles, Ward says, he plans to leave the agency in a better place, even if it is perfect, than when he found it. “Every organization, process and/or service can be improved, and making a difference to me translates into improving the organization,” Ward says of the takeaways from his time at VCU and in the military. That opportunity presented itself in the most recent General Assembly Session. Ward coordinated the advancement of several pieces of legislation concerning improvement of Virginia’s existing licensure process for military spouses and exempting state income tax liability for the forgiven student loan debt of totally and permanently service-connected veterans.
“Identifying challenges affecting our commonwealth’s veteran and military family communities and proposing new ways to improve the quality of life for our veterans, service members, and their families, are what I look forward to doing every day. They are what my experiences at VCU and serving as a leader in the military prepared me to do.”