A photo of a woman from the hips up standing in front of a wall covered in frames. In the prames are photos, illustrations, and degrees.
From eager student to esteemed academic dean, B. Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D., has left an indelible mark during her 50-year journey at VCU. (Vernon Freeman Jr.)

‘VCU has been my life’: B. Ellen Byrne retiring after a half-century of commitment

Academic dean in the School of Dentistry began her campus connection as a School of Pharmacy student in 1974.

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An era is coming to an end at Virginia Commonwealth University as B. Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D., retires after an extraordinary 50-year journey that saw her transition from student to resident, faculty member and, finally, academic dean.

“VCU has been my life,” Byrne said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be taught by giants at the School of Dentistry, School of Pharmacy and School of Medicine who helped build this university into what it is today. I am humbled to be a part of that history and to have a hand in teaching a generation of health care professionals.”

Lyndon F. Cooper, D.D.S., Ph.D., dean of School of Dentistry, said Byrne has exemplified excellence and dedication, leaving a legacy at VCU and on the entire health sciences community.

“She will be greatly missed, but her impact will forever be felt at VCU,” Cooper said. “Thank you, Ellen, for your unwavering commitment and for being a true inspiration to us all.”

Byrne’s journey at VCU began as a pharmacy student in 1974. Little did she know that initial step would mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the university.

A career in academics wasn’t always in the plans for Byrne. As it turns out, she didn’t set out to be a faculty member at all. Academia found her.

“I never thought I would be in academia or be an academic dean,” Byrne said. “But I was always ready to walk through a door if it opened. So, if the door opened and I felt I could walk through it, I did. And VCU gave me that opportunity at a lot of turns.”

The beginning of a 50-year journey

Byrne recalls excitement upon arriving at the then Medical College of Virginia with her twin sister, who was also attending pharmacy school.

“Back then, parking wasn’t an issue,” she recalled. “I remember my sister and I drove up and we parked right in front of Cabaniss Hall.”

While pharmacy was her sister’s passion, it actually was Byrne’s backup plan. “Being a pharmacist is a good career,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to be a dentist.”

The sisters earned bachelor’s degrees from the School of Pharmacy in 1977, and shortly thereafter,      Byrne began working as a pharmacist in Martinsville. But just three months later, VCU came calling.      She accepted a position as an instructor for the School of Pharmacy, marking her first job in academia.

“I worked in the compounding lab, teaching people to make solutions and capsules,” she said.

After two years as a pharmacy instructor, Byrne enrolled as a student in the VCU School of Dentistry to pursue her dream – and worked as a pharmacist on weekends and summers to help pay for school.

A photo of an old newspaper article. The headline says \"Twin Druggists' Customers See Double.\" Next to the article is a photo of two women stading next to a counter with pharmacy equipment on it.
Byrne and twin sister Carol were featured in the Richmond News Leader in 1977 after graduating from pharmacy school at VCU. (Contributed photo)

Career in academia

Byrne’ dedication and skills caught the attention of longtime faculty member Bill “Willie” Crockett, D.D.S., who encouraged Byrne to consider a career in academia.

“Dr. Crockett is the one that recognized that I liked to teach,” Byrne said. “I was a tutor as a pharmacy student and as a dental student. I also was the class note-taker. He was the first person to tap me on the shoulder, so to speak, and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about academics as a career path?’”

Crockett’s words and belief in Byrne opened a door that she would soon run through.

After she earned her D.D.S. degree in 1983 and completed her general practice residency at McGuire Veterans Hospital, an opportunity arose to teach full-time in the School of Dentistry. Byrne joined the Department of Restorative Dentistry, becoming only the second-ever full-time female dental faculty member at the school.        

Combining her dental and pharmacology backgrounds, Byrne later applied to the National Institutes of Health for a Dentist Scientist Award, which helped her continue her education. At VCU, she ultimately earned a certificate in endodontics in 1990 and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology in 1991.

After a brief stint in private endodontics practice, Byrne returned to the School of Dentistry as an assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics. Her passion for teaching, coupled with her expertise in her field, made her a favorite among students and colleagues alike.  

A black and white group photo of about 30 people standing at the enterance of a building.
Byrne (middle right) as an instructor at the VCU School of Pharmacy in 1978. (Contributed photo)

“I never thought of myself as a mentor to anybody,” Byrne said. “I was just working as hard as I could, and as I got older, I realized it was really important to reach out and mentor other people.”

Byrne would find out the sheer fact that she was a trailblazer in dentistry academia, making her a role model for students who aspired to follow in her footsteps.

For former students like Matthew Cooke, D.D.S., M.D., Byrne was inspirational, playing a pivotal role in his success both as a dental student and in his career. 

“I owe her a complete debt of gratitude,” Cooke said. “She was one of the people who believed in me. She wrote my letter of recommendation for my pediatric dentistry residency.”

He said Byrne has been instrumental in VCU School of Dentistry’s growth and ascent as one of the best dental schools in the country.

“She has been a fixture here and has always been a great cheerleader and advocate for this institution and for students,” Cooke said.

From faculty member to a leader in her field

Byrne credits former Dean Ronald J. Hunt, D.D.S., for her growth not just at VCU but at state and national levels. With her rare background in dentistry and pharmacology, she became a national speaker for several national organizations, including the American Dental Education Association and the American Dental Association.

“He gave me opportunities to get involved in dentistry,” Byrne said of Hunt. “All these things just spring forward from somebody that believes in you.”

Byrne served as interim chair of the Department of Endodontics, was promoted to professor and ultimately became an academic dean. In 2004, under the leadership of Hunt, Byrne was promoted to assistant dean for academic affairs. Over the past 20 years, Byrne’s tenure as assistant dean, associate dean and then senior associate dean has been marked by significant advancements in curriculum development and successful accreditation site visits by the Commission on Dental Accreditation     .

Byrne credits her academic affairs team – Meredith B. Baines, Angela Easley and Samantha Mitchell – for her success as an academic dean.

“I have such smart, wonderful people that work around me,” Byrne said. “I have to give them full credit for everything. Meredith can think circles around me. Sam can out analyze everything. Angie keeps me organized. I've been very fortunate to have an awesome team that’s stuck with me. The key to success is to hire people smarter than you – because they make you look good.”

A group photo of five people standing in a row.
Louis Formica, D.D.S. (from left); Barbie Dunn, Ph.D.; Becky Perdue; Bronwyn Burnham; and Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D., share a moment at the MCV Foundation's annual awards dinner. (MCV Foundation)

A legacy of excellence

As Byrne bids farewell to VCU, she leaves behind a university transformed by her passion and dedication. Her legacy will be felt for generations, a testament to 50 years of hard work and an unwavering commitment to excellence.

Baines, director of curriculum advancement at the School of Dentistry, has worked closely with Byrne for two decades, and “what I’ve come to realize is that not only does she know so much of our institutional history, but she is in fact herself a big part of our institutional history,” Baines said. “She has shaped so many parts of VCU School of Dentistry that we love today. What an amazing legacy she will leave behind that will impact generations to come.”

Not only has VCU been a big part of Byrne’s life, it’s been a big part of her children’s lives: She is the proud mom of three VCU graduates. Daughter Bridget completed the accelerated nursing program at the School of Nursing, son John completed dental school, and youngest son Tyler completed the accelerated nursing program and is now a student in the nationally ranked nurse anesthesia program at VCU’s College of Health Professions.

While retiring is difficult, Byrne says it’s time for the next generation of leadership.

“This was not an easy decision, but it’s time for me to leave,” she said. “I want to leave while I feel on the top of my game and I’m healthy enough to chase my grandchildren.”

In retirement, Byrne looks forward to simple things – “I want to be able to go to the museum on weekdays when nobody’s there, do yard work, go see my grandkids and travel,” she said – but she will continue as interim associate dean of student services until the position is filled.   

“I would say I’m phasing out,” Byrne said with a laugh. Ultimately, though, she will miss her VCU friends, colleagues and shared experiences.

“I carry with me the inspiration they have given me over the years,” she said. “It has been the honor of my life to be part of this institution. I have been privileged to learn, teach and lead here, and I am immensely proud of all we have accomplished together. VCU will always be my home.”                                   

A photo of a man and a woman standing next to each other and smiling in front of a baseball field. The woman is holding a baseball in her left hand.
Byrne said she has no big plans for retirement. She just wants to do the simple things like spend more time with her husband, Mel, who is a retired pharmacist and pharmacy owner. (John Wallace)