Putting their degrees to work

Woman in Army camouflage standing.
Ashley Ertel is one of many VCU alumni who have followed their degrees to careers with transformative, creative and adventurous elements. (Photo by Samantha Ramos, Carbon and Copper Photography)

Note: This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 VCU Alumni magazine. Learn more and engage with VCU Alumni at vcualumni.org.

For many, graduation brings a thrill of both excitement and fear. It’s the moment of leaving campus and setting out into the unknown. It’s the moment of truth that reveals how a course of study will work when applied to the “real world.” It’s the moment when, amid pressure to “get a job,” a person might be searching for what to do in life.

The possibilities, however, are out there. The nine Virginia Commonwealth University alumni below have followed their degrees to careers with transformative, creative and adventurous elements. They might not fit traditional images of what comes after a person earns a particular degree, but in the glimpses they’ve shown here, they reveal how they use their knowledge and skills to find fulfilling career paths and to make a mark in their field.


Alice Tangerini
School of the Arts
B.F.A., 1972

Woman drawing at a desk.
Alice Tangerini. (Photo Jud Froelich)

As a botanical illustrator, Tangerini creates drawings and paintings of dried plant specimens from all over the world based on microscopic-level examination of their features. The purpose of the illustrations is to enable botanists to identify plants and to support their research. Tangerini’s artistic expression shines through but always in service to scientific accuracy.

Though there aren’t many job openings for botanical illustrators in a museum setting, Tangerini broke in through a tip from a neighboring Smithsonian botanist willing to take a chance on an unknown.

Today, Tangerini is a major figure in the field of botanical illustration, and her work was featured in three different exhibits in 2018. She has illustrated more than 1,000 different plant species over the course of 46 years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. She is also responsible for curating the museum’s Catalog of Botanical Art, a collection that includes illustrations dating back more than 200 years.


Isaac Rodriguez
College of Engineering
M.S., 2010; Ph.D., 2013

Man standing in laboratory.
Isaac Rodriguez, Ph.D. (Photo by Brandon Dill Photography)

Rodriguez used his two biomedical engineering degrees to co-invent a product, a combination of Manuka honey, a collagen derivative and nanoparticles, which promotes tissue regeneration. Though his primary expertise is in the lab, since graduation Rodriguez has stepped into the world of business to bring his invention to market.

He co-founded the Memphis, Tennessee-based biotech startup SweetBio in 2015, with his sister, Kayla Rodriguez Graff, and serves as its chief science officer. The company quickly earned accolades, raising more than $3 million and graduating from ZeroTo510, an accelerator program designed to help entrepreneurs clear medical devices for commercial use, and from LaunchTN’s The TENN, an economic development program that helps entrepreneurs in the Tennessee area.

SweetBio recently launched a product in the veterinary market. In 2019, it will launch its first human clinical product, Apis, a resorbable solid sheet that can be used for wound care treatments and in dentistry.


Zachary Casagrande
School of Dentistry
D.D.S., 2004; M.S., 2006

Man standing and holding cup.
Zachary Casagrande. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

He might appear to be your average coffee enthusiast, but Casagrande also has a successful practice with Northern Virginia Orthodontics. There, his love of coffee helps to raise money and awareness for good causes.

The Cup for a Cure Starbucks Cafe, a unique idea inspired by the practice’s expansion in 2015, is located inside NVO’s Ashburn, Virginia, office. NVO purchases the coffee and provides complimentary beverages to all its patients and their guests, and for every cup of coffee the in-house barista pours, NVO donates $1 to the practice’s nonprofit, The NVO Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting community causes and the fight against pediatric cancer.

NVO serves 200-300 drinks a day. The cafe has raised almost $50,000 to date.  

In the meantime, Casagrande has made a name for himself as one of the best orthodontists in the Northern Virginia area, earning recognition from Washingtonian magazine and Northern Virginia magazine, among others.

His drink of choice? “Double Americano with just a little bit of cream,” he said.


Woman standing in front of Capitol of Virginia.
Adele McClure. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

Adele McClure
School of Business

B.S., 2011

McClure describes her work as outreach and policy director for the office of Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax as “a position I never could have imagined myself in when I was a child.”

Though she was interested in politics from a young age, McClure arrived at her current career through a circuitous path. Poverty, homelessness and repeated evictions caused her to attend three high schools her freshman year. She rose above the difficulty to become the first person in her family to attend college.

Passionately concerned about mental health, homelessness and access for people with disabilities, McClure volunteered to work on those issues through civic engagement, including on Fairfax’s campaign, for years before she could do it as a career. She said she was “honored” when she received her appointment in January 2018.

“Now I have the opportunity to shape policy discussion around issues that the lieutenant governor cares deeply about, issues that impact the lives of all Virginians,” she said.


Stuart Harris
School of Medicine
M.D., 1999

Man seated outdoors.
Stuart Harris, M.D. (Photo by Jim Harrison Photography)

Originally an English major, Harris tried on various careers and locations before deciding to study medicine. He taught English in the small Japanese village of Iwaizumi, backpacked on the slopes of Mount Everest and earned an M.F.A. from the prestigious creative writing workshop at the University of Iowa.

A longtime outdoor enthusiast, Harris found his calling in the practice of medicine under extreme circumstances, when resources are limited, the location remote and the stakes might be high. He is an attending physician at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine. Within that department, he founded and serves as chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine.

Harris is also an associate professor of emergency medicine at nearby Harvard Medical School and has taught medical students in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, treated patients in high-altitude regions of Nepal, accompanied scientific missions to the Amazon and used a floatplane to make house calls to patients in extremely rural parts of Alaska.


Kristin Dickinson
School of Nursing
B.S., 2009; Ph.D., 2014

Woman standing in laboratory.
Kristin Dickinson, Ph.D. (Photo by Don Shepard Photography)

Dickinson became interested in research when she was an undergraduate nursing student working as a research assistant at the VCU School of Nursing. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she continued at VCU, studying for a doctorate. At the same time, she began working as a new RN on an inpatient oncology unit at VCU Medical Center. Working on this unit and interacting with the patients and families provided her with a deeper understanding of the clinical issues affecting patients with cancer, and she realized she wanted to understand more about cancer symptoms and quality of life for patients.

In particular, Dickinson saw many patients with cancer-related fatigue. Little is known about this pervasive symptom, and she approached it through her love of biology.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, her research focuses on studying cancer-related fatigue at a cellular level and finding ways to improve quality of life for those with cancer through treatments that target that symptom.


Capt. Ashley Ertel
School of Social Work
M.S.W., 2012

Woman in Army camo uniform seated in a field.
Ashley Ertel. (Photo by Samantha Ramos, Carbon and Copper Photography)

Ertel had “absolutely zero intentions” of joining the military after she earned her master’s in social work. After a couple years of working, however, she said, “I realized I wanted to do something bigger with my life.”

Now one of a relatively small number of U.S. Air Force social workers, Ertel has a lot to juggle on the job. Stationed at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base west of Cheyenne, Wyoming, she manages a large mental health caseload and serves as alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment program manager, suicide prevention program manager and disaster mental health team chief.

A key factor of military mental health care, she said, is that she has “a responsibility to both the patient and the mission.” To help get patients back to duty as quickly as possible, Ertel said she’s been given significant training and certification in many evidence-based approaches, opportunities she’s not sure she would have received anywhere else.


Jade Sullivan
School of Business
M.S., 2014

Hannah Sullivan
School of Mass Communications; School of Business
B.S., 2012; M.S., 2014

Two women standing behind a table with two laptops.
Jade and Hannah Sullivan. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

Jade and Hannah met while studying at the VCU Brandcenter, and they’ve brought their knowledge of design and communications to bear on an insurance startup called Pogo, in an industry not exactly known for being on the artistic cutting edge.

The couple, who married in 2016, wanted to help freelancers, independent contractors and the self-employed sort out commercial insurance as painlessly as possible. They had a way into the industry through Hannah’s father, an insurance broker who partnered with them to create Pogo. Their experiences in the gig economy, as well as stories of frustration from artistic friends, helped them identify room for improvement in how people learn about and compare insurance options. To do that, they use their creative skills to present information in a friendly, intuitive, accessible way.

In the process, they’ve blended their skills to create a unique product, working as partners in business and in life.