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VCU’s iCubed assembles teams of scholars to tackle some of the toughest problems facing Richmond, other urban communities

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Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., director of iCubed and interim vice provost for faculty affairs, welcomes iCubed scholars at a kick-off event at the Hippodrome Theater.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s recently launched Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, also known as iCubed, has created five transdisciplinary teams of faculty, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars that will focus on solving some of the most vexing challenges facing Richmond and other urban communities across the country.

“Everyone has an idea for how to make the world a better place, an idea for how to make America great again, perhaps,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., director of iCubed and interim vice provost for faculty affairs. “[With iCubed,] we had an idea about how to make VCU better than it was when we all arrived here.”

The five transdisciplinary cores assembled by iCubed will seek to promote diversity and inclusion in research, scholarship and creative activity, with an emphasis on children and adolescents’ oral health, health disparities, health and wellness among aging populations, racial equity in arts and culture, and social justice.

“What we’re attempting to do is cross disciplinary divides, and create new and innovative approaches that include multiple communities of knowledge,” Nasim said. “By transdisciplinary perspective, I mean looking beyond disciplinary boundaries and considering other types of knowledge bases, whether we’re talking about lived experiences or the cultural and religious bodies of knowledge from diverse communities, and bringing them to the table to develop new approaches toward solving challenging, persistent problems.”

Our goal is to change the academic and research landscape at the university.

The program’s overarching goal, Nasim said, is to fulfill the promise of the Wayne Commission in 1967, which created VCU by forming partnerships between faculty and the community to solve urban challenges.

“Our goal is to change the academic and research landscape at the university,” he said. “We’re an urban research university. Back in 1967, the Wayne Commission laid out a vision of what our university ought to be, and part of that was an interconnectedness with the community. They have to be involved with [our mission of] solving the persistent challenges that impact us all.”

On Friday, iCubed hosted a kickoff celebration at The Hippodrome Theater in Richmond’s Jackson Ward to welcome the faculty, postdocs and other scholars serving on the transdisciplinary teams, as well as VCU and VCU Health leadership.

Marsha D. Rappley, M.D., VCU vice president for health sciences and chief executive officer of the VCU Health System, said iCubed is already among the university’s most effective programs.

“The group of [iCubed scholars] who are joining us are advancing the university research portfolio in very important and amazing ways,” she told the crowd. “The research that you are bringing to us cuts across disciplines, which is one of our president’s top priorities this year.”

The teams’ work, she added, will advance the health and wellbeing of people in Richmond and other urban communities.

“We really earn our value through the way we impact the lives of people throughout this nation, and your work is part of that,” she said. “You bring enormous visibility to this work, and you are helping us succeed in ways that we didn’t imagine really we could in such a short amount of time.”

The iCubed team, from left: Jena Gray, Emily Avesian, Brandi Summers, Ph.D.,  Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., and Susan Brock Wilkes, Ph.D.
The iCubed team, from left: Jena Gray, Emily Avesian, Brandi Summers, Ph.D., Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., and Susan Brock Wilkes, Ph.D.

The iCubed teams are meant to spark recruitment of diverse and talented faculty members who want to create inclusive educational contexts for VCU students.

Last year, as iCubed launched, it implemented three programs — the Cluster Hiring Initiative and Program, Pathways to the Professoriate, and the Visiting Scholars Program — that aimed to attract a critical mass of faculty and student scholars engaged in collaborative inquiry and team science.

During fiscal year 2017, iCubed conducted national searches for 19 new faculty and postdoc positions, and has so far hired 17. Of these, 16 are a racial or ethnic minority and 13 are women.

“iCubed is a model for recruiting diverse and highly talented faculty and postdocs, and represents one of the most diverse cohorts of faculty demographic and discipline in any VCU institute or center,” said Kathy Bassard, Ph.D., senior vice provost for faculty affairs. “This … is worthy of national distinction.”

Bassard added that the iCubed scholars’ work will make an impact both at VCU and in the community.

“iCubed is an investment in the promise of you as faculty and postdocs,” she told the audience at the kickoff event. “We’re expecting you to go beyond your classroom and beyond your lab, to effect change in our communities and to enhance the human condition.”

The new iCubed faculty and postdocs were hired by 10 of VCU’s 13 schools and the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Several scholars have achieved national distinction in research, scholarship and creative activity. Among them are artists Paul Rucker, a Guggenheim Fellow, and Meghan K. Abadoo, a Fulbright Fellow, who are serving on the Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Core; Faika Zanjani, Ph.D., who received a career award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is on the Health and Wellness in Aging Populations Core; and Cecelia Valrie, Ph.D., who received a career award from the National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute and is serving on the Culture, Race and Health Team.

Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior executive director for strategy and presidential administration at VCU, said he is excited to welcome the new scholars at a time when solutions are greatly needed for the difficult problems facing the community.

“[We are] very excited to see what’s going to occur over the next year,” he said. “We have very high expectations.”

Faculty, post-doctoral fellows and visiting scholars taking part in iCubed's five transdisciplinary teams focused on challenges facing Richmond and other urban communities gathered at a kick-off event Friday.
Faculty, post-doctoral fellows and visiting scholars taking part in iCubed's five transdisciplinary teams focused on challenges facing Richmond and other urban communities gathered at a kick-off event Friday.

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