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12th Annual Women’s Health Research Day Awards

Here is a list of award-winners from the 12th annual VCU Health Research Day, held April 27.

The best posters by junior investigators received awards in three categories: basic science; clinical and translational research; and community and public health research. One of these three was selected as the best poster by a junior investigator and wins the Elizabeth Fries Young Investigator Award. 

Building Interdisciplinary Bridges in Women’s Health Research Award was given to the poster that best demonstrates interdisciplinary collaboration in women’s health.

  • Basic Science Research Award# 32 – Melissa Maczis

Submitting Author: Maczis, Melissa, PhD Candidate, Biochemistry &Molecular Biology, Medicine,
Title: Role of ERα36 in Sphingosine-1-Phosphate/Sphingosine Kinase 1 Axis in Breast Cancer

  • Clinical & Translational Research Award – # 5 – Heather Jones

Submitting Author: Jones, Heather, Engagement in Prenatal Behaviors and Quality of Life Relate to Attention-Deficit, Psychology, College of Humanities & Sciences
Title: Engagement in Prenatal Behaviors and Quality of Life Relate to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Symptoms in African American Women

  • Community and Public Health Research Award: # 19  Amanda Ritter

Submitting Author: Ritter, Amanda, PGY-4 Resident, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Medicine
 Title: Plan B:  Is it Just One Step?

  • Elizabeth Fries Young Investigator Award# 5 – Heather Jones

Submitting Author: Jones, Heather, Engagement in Prenatal Behaviors and Quality of Life Relate to Attention-Deficit, Psychology, College of Humanities & Sciences
Title: Engagement in Prenatal Behaviors and Quality of Life Relate to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Symptoms in African American Women

  • Building Interdisciplinary Bridges in Women’s Health Research Award: # 26 – Abigail Conley

Submitting Author: Conley, Abigail, Assistant Professor, Counselor Education, Education,
Title: Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Violence and Bystander Behavior: A Campus Alliance to End Violence (CAEV) Initiative.

For more information on Women’s Health Research Day, visit the VCU Women’s Health Institute.

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Call for Abstracts for Women’s Health Research Day

The deadline to submit abstracts for the 12th annual VCU Women’s Health Research Day is March 11. The event will be held Wednesday, April, 27 in the Auditorium of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building (MSB), at 1217 E Marshall St., on the MCV campus.

Women’s Health Research Day is a celebration and promotion of research in Women’s Health and Sex/Gender Differences at VCU. The program includes a plenary session with presentations from VCU researchers and a poster session highlighting women’s health and sex/gender differences research from VCU faculty and students. Awards will be given for best posters in basic science, clinical and translational research, and community and public health research. The best overall poster by a junior investigator will be selected to win the Elizabeth Fries Young Investigator Award, and a Building Interdisciplinary Bridges in Women’s Health Research award will be given to the poster that best demonstrates interdisciplinary collaboration in women’s health and sex/gender differences research.

All VCU faculty, residents, students, and staff with original research are invited to submit poster abstracts in any research area that focuses on women’s health or sex/gender differences. Interdisciplinary research projects that demonstrate broad collaboration across disciplines are highly encouraged. Abstracts will be reviewed for research originality, scientific rigor, and relevance to women’s health or sex/gender differences. Recently presented research is acceptable.

For more information about this event or to submit an abstract on-line, please visit:

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Nursing Student Selected as Jonas Scholar

By Angela Flagg/VCU School of Nursing

Christina Wilson, a Ph.D. student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, was selected for the highly competitive Jonas Nurse Leader Scholars Program of the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare. She is one of 425 doctoral students nationwide chosen for the 2016-18 cohort.

The mission of the Jonas Scholar program is to increase the number of doctorally prepared faculty available to teach in nursing schools nationwide and the number of nurse leaders providing direct patient care and filling roles as clinical faculty. Sponsored by the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare, the program provides financial assistance, leadership development and networking support to expand the pipeline of future nurse faculty and advanced practice nurses.

As a Jonas Scholar, Wilson will receive a $10,000 scholarship, matched by the VCU School of Nursing, to support her doctoral studies. She joins more than 1,000 future nurse educators and leaders at 140 universities across all 50 states supported by Jonas Center programs, the Jonas Nurse Leaders Scholars Program and Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program. These scholarships support nurses pursuing Ph.D. and DNP degrees, the terminal degrees in the field, as part of a national effort to stem the faculty shortage and prepare the next generation of nurses, which is critical as a clinical nurse shortage is anticipated just as an aging population requires care.

“In 2008, we set an ambitious goal to support 1,000 Jonas Nurse Scholars,” said Donald Jonas, who co-founded the center with Barbara Jonas, his wife. “This year, on our center’s 10th anniversary, we celebrate this achievement and are amazed by the talent of this cohort of future nurse leaders. In the decade to come, we look forward to continuing to work with our partner nursing schools and to the great impact that the Jonas Scholars will have on improving health care around the world.”

Jean Giddens, Ph.D., dean and professor at the School of Nursing, said, “We’re thrilled that the Jonas Center is supporting our school’s efforts to prepare a greater number of future nurse faculty. I have no doubt that Christina will go on to make a significant impact in nursing education and research.”

Wilson’s research focuses on how women with gynecologic cancer can improve their body image. Deborah McGuire, Ph.D., associate dean of research at the School of Nursing, will mentor her.

“It’s a pleasure to work with Christina because she is exploring some important clinical research ideas and is very responsive to mentoring and support,” McGuire said. “Notably, she is highly appreciative of opportunities and recognizes the excellent environment we provide here to our Ph.D. students.”

While pursuing her Ph.D. full time, Wilson is also working as an adjunct faculty member, teaching clinical aspects of two undergraduate nursing courses. In addition, she helps recruit and follow up with patients involved in a pilot project, “Physical Activity as a Self-management Approach to Improve Health Outcomes in Acute Myeloid Leukemia,” led by Tara Albrecht, Ph.D., assistant professor at the School of Nursing.

A member of the Oncology Nursing Society, Virginia Council of Nurse Practitioners and the Southern Nursing Research Society, Wilson volunteers in her spare time at Crossover Clinic in Henrico County.


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Treatment for Symptoms of Perinatal Depression Can Include Yoga

Yoga can be a component of treatment for women suffering perinatal depression, a VCU researcher says.

Patricia Kinser, an assistant professor for the VCU School of Nursing’s Department of Family and Community Health Nursing, led a presentation titled, “When Mommy Gets Depressed: A Discovery Dialogue about Complementary Approaches for Perinatal Depression.” It was part of a Discovery Dialogue seminar program held by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR) at VCU.

Studies of depression over the lifespan of men and women have found that women in their reproductive years (24-30) are at the highest risk for developing depression. Statistics such as this led Kinser to dedicate the focus of her research on depression. She works with a special emphasis on perinatal women experiencing major depressive disorder and the effects of intervention techniques such as yoga and mindfulness-based stress reduction.

“Sometimes clinicians asking the right kind of questions serves as an important intervention,” said Kinser. “However, screening alone is not enough. We’ve seen results that indicate that when pregnant women treat depressive symptoms early on during their pregnancy, they may minimize time of exposure to symptoms by developing fetus.”

Complementary health approaches include:

  • Mind-body practices
    • Physical activity
    • Yoga
    • Guided imagery
    • Massage
    • Acupuncture
    • Mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Other
    • Omega-3s (such as DHA and EPA from fish or fish-oil supplements, and ALA from nuts, flaxseed and leafy vegetables)
    • Bright-light therapy

Kinser has put yoga into practice as a complimentary approach for perinatal depression because it is relatively easily available in the United States, it has minimal side effects and it focuses on wellness rather than illness. Additionally, Kinser’s research uncovered that study participants who practiced yoga not only experienced mental health improvements, but sustained them as well.

“The use of yoga as a treatment for depression is important because it can be adapted to one’s mood,” Kinser said. “If depression is keeping you from getting out of bed, we can suggest yoga exercises you can complete in bed. If your mind is racing and you need to move a lot to refocus your thoughts, there are options for more active yoga practices as well.”

Kinser is currently studying psychobehavioral and biomarker outcomes in the integration of yoga into prenatal care programs in Richmond, Va. She hopes to see an increase in the practice of yoga as a means of early intervention and/or prevention of the development of postpartum depression.

For additional information on postpartum stress, or

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Depression Screening Urged for Pregnant Women

By Leha Byrd/University Public Relations

They are considered bundles of joy.

Still, from novices with newborns to veteran pros of motherhood, all pregnant women are susceptible to the not-so-joyous issues associated with postpartum depression, such as anxiety and sadness, which are unhealthy for both baby and mother.

The United States Preventative Services Task Force’s recent recommendation that pregnant women and new moms be screened for depression is necessary and critical, Virginia Commonwealth University Health experts said, even for women who have never experienced depression.

The task force panel, a group of experts appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services, suggests clinicians have the ability to diagnose and treat women or to give appropriate referrals. Additionally, experts agree that pregnant women with depression often take poorer care of their prenatal health and that maternal mental illness can cause behavioral problems and emotional instability in children.

Consequently, both baby and mother are on better footing if mental wellness measures are in place before and after pregnancy, and physicians should be prepared to diagnose and either treat or refer patients to providers who can help, experts said.

“All pregnant women are susceptible to postpartum depression because of a combination of factors, including changes in hormone levels, fatigue and emotional factors like feelings of doubt about pregnancy, guilt, sadness and anger that may accompany caring for a newborn,” said Frances Casey, M.D., director of Family Planning Services and assistant professor, VCU Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the School of Medicine. “At VCU, health providers screen all postpartum patients for depression using validated screening tools. Women identified as at risk or experiencing depression may be referred for counseling or group therapy or may be started on antidepressants.”

A woman’s social environment is important, too, Casey said, adding that lifestyle components, such as the presence of supportive partners and family members, are significant in mental health before and after a pregnancy. Some changes in a pregnant woman’s emotional state are routine, such as abnormal sleep patterns or crying for no clear reason. However, if symptoms persist beyond one to two weeks and prevent a woman from functioning daily, there is cause for concern.

A strategic support system can help.

Janet Abraham, clinical social worker in VCU Women’s Health at VCU Health, said access to excellent prenatal care is critical. A woman who makes routine doctor visits before giving birth is able to become an active participant in her care, helping to develop a trusted and balanced relationship with her health care team. In these circumstances, a woman becomes educated, aware of her body and prepared for the many changes that pregnancy brings. In the postpartum period, the prepared patient can plan and hope for a sense of personal accomplishment, calm and equilibrium, increased maternal satisfaction, and strong mother/baby bonding.

“An excellent example of a model or type of participatory care that we deliver at VCU Health is with our CenteringPregnancy program, where women meet with others in a group prenatal care setting and are educated and assessed medically for their prenatal care needs,” Abraham said. “This is a very comprehensive care model and we have found it to be quite useful in assessing women’s health statuses, as well as their personal mental health needs. It also creates a very strong and vibrant peer/community support environment.”

Overall, moms should be aware that some changes are expected with a newborn in the home, and they may even question their ability to care for a newborn. An estimated one in seven postpartum mothers experience similar symptoms. However, there are services available to help with the transition.

Nationally, Casey suggests National Women’s Health Information Center, Postpartum Support International and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for more information and resources.

Through a March of Dimes grant, VCU Health has been offering CenteringPregnancy group prenatal care as an option for pregnant women since 2005. It is a national program that provides innovative prenatal care intervention through treatment, collaboration and education to bridge the gap, Abraham said.

“The presence of the father of the baby or significant other is always important and helps a woman feel connected to what she has created. However, this is not always the case,” she said. “This can sometimes be mitigated by others in the mother’s support system, programs like CenteringPregnancy, as well as additional family members or friends that can serve in exceptionally supportive roles.”

For more information about VCU’s CenteringPregnancy program, call 804-628-1762 or visit

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VCU Health Promotes Heart Health with Lewis Ginter Seminar Series

By Carissa Etters/University Public Affairs

February is National Heart Month, and Virginia Commonwealth University Health presents its free educational seminar series throughout the month featuring experts that will provide important heart health information and answer questions on a variety of current topics in health care.

The following seminars will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Kelly Education Center, 1800 Lakeside Ave. All seminars are free and open to the public, but registration is recommended. For more information or to register, call 804-828-0123 or visit
Thursday, Feb. 4

“New Treatment for Atrial Fibrillation”

Despite the fact that atrial fibrillation, or a-fib, is the most common heart rhythm disorder, it remains complicated to treat. VCU Medical Center is one of the few hospitals in the country to use a new procedure — hybrid ablation — which combines a surgical procedure and catheter ablation to treat a-fib. Join Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., and Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., from VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, who will lead a conversation about hybrid ablation and its benefits.

Thursday, Feb. 18

“Everything You Wanted to Know About a Woman’s Heart”

A woman’s heart is somewhat smaller than a man’s. Its physiology is different too, especially when it comes to heart disease. Join Phoebe Ashley, M.D., from VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, who will talk about the anatomy of a woman’s heart and how the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease in women are subtle and very different.

Thursday, Feb. 25

“Peripheral Artery Disease: Current Treatment Alternatives”

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a dangerous disease that can restrict blood flow to the main arteries which include kidneys, stomach, arms, legs and feet. Leaving this disease untreated can lead to infections and possible amputations of limbs as well as having a higher risk of stroke and heart attack. Luis Guzman, M.D., and Mark Levy, M.D., from VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, will talk about PAD and how it is diagnosed and treated.

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VCU Receives Grant to Look for Indicators of Preterm Birth

By Anne Dreyfuss and Rachel Machacek/University Public Affairs

Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $378,026 grant from the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, an initiative of Seattle Children’s, to look for predictors of preterm birth and other adverse pregnancy outcomes in pregnant women.

The two-year Human-Microbiome Alterations Predictive of Prematurity (HAPP) study will expand on two earlier studies under the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project that looked at microbial communities in pregnant women and how changes in communities of bacteria, viruses and human cells affect women’s health.

“We’re looking at the microbiome as women go through pregnancy to try to determine what the roles of the microbiome are and its impact on the reproductive tract,” said Gregory Buck, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at the VCU School of Medicine and director of the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity.

Buck is leading the study with Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU Center for the Study of Biological Complexity. The team has been applying omics technologies to investigate both the human host cells and the microbiome.

Omics take a holistic view of the molecules that make up a cell, tissue or organism with the idea that these complex systems can be understood better if considered as a whole. In the HAPP study, Buck and Fettweis will expand upon earlier studies and deepen their analysis by also looking at global changes that occur in proteins and metabolites throughout pregnancy.

“With the high-throughput technologies we now have available, we’re able to look at things we couldn’t see before,” Fettweis said. “We think by using a systems-level approach, we have a better chance at finding biomarkers that might indicate which women are at risk for delivering preterm.”

There are already indicators of microbiome imbalances leading to preterm births in specific ethnic groups. One in six African-American babies are born too soon, and researchers now think that 40 to 50 percent of those preterm births have a component that is associated with an imbalance of microbiome in the vaginal community.

By identifying these imbalances and biomarkers, researchers could potentially move into treatment to help prevent babies from being born to soon.

Preterm birth is a global problem. According to the World Health Organization, 15 million babies are born premature every year, and more than 1 million premature babies die. Babies who do survive stay in the hospital longer and face health complications including cerebral palsy, developmental delays and respiratory issues.

Joining Buck and Fettweis on the research team are Adam Hawkridge, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Pharmaceutics, School of Pharmacy; Dayanjan S. Wijesinghe, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, School of Pharmacy; and J. Paul Brooks, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, College of Humanities and Sciences.

VCU’s Masho Receives Award for Work to Improve Birth Outcomes

By Leha Byrd/University Public Affairs

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine professor Saba Masho was recently honored as a 2015 Birth Matters Advocate of the Year for her work in improving birth outcomes.saba_masho

Masho, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, was principal investigator for a $1 million Strong Start for Mothers and Infants grant, bringing Centering Pregnancy to five locations that support low-income, underprivileged, expectant mothers in Virginia. The CP prenatal care model is designed to address individual clinical, lifestyle and behavioral problems facing pregnant women.

Birth Matters Virginia is an organization that works to educate women and provide positive birth outcomes for women statewide. Peggy Caister, the organization’s director, said selection of award recipients was highly competitive, but decisions were made based on a candidate’s success in eliminating health disparities for women.

Work produced from the Strong Start for Mothers and Infants grant includes risk assessment and management, targeted education, and group support for pregnant women through the CP model, Masho said. She was one of two people selected for the award.

“I am so humbled to have been chosen for this award, knowing that there were many qualified applicants. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the committee for selecting me as a recipient,” Masho said. “This award is possible because of the hard work of the Strong Start sites, Greater Prince William’s Community Health Center, Richmond Health District, and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who work tirelessly, providing services to underserved pregnant women. A special thanks also goes to the March of Dimes, Virginia Chapter; the Department of Medicaid and Medicare Services; the Virginia Department of Health; and the Centering Health Care Institute.”

Masho will be publicly honored at a ceremony Nov. 8 in Charlottesville, Va., along with the other awardee, Claudia Booker.


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Collaborative Study Offers Treatment Options for Premenstrual Dysphoric disorder

By Anne Dreyfuss/University Public Affairs

Confining antidepressant treatment for premenstrual dysphoric disorder to only the days that women are symptomatic is effective at lessening the condition’s symptoms, according to a collaborative study from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, Yale University and Cornell University.

“Many women who have PMDD prefer to take their antidepressant medication for as few days as needed during the month,” said Susan G. Kornstein, M.D., professor, Department of PsychiatryVCU School of Medicine and principal investigator at the VCU site. “Symptom-onset dosing allows them to restrict their medication use to only the days that they have premenstrual symptoms. It also offers the advantage of lower cost and fewer concerns about long-term side effects such as weight gain or sexual dysfunction.”  Antidepressants have previously been shown to be effective for PMDD when taken either every day throughout the month or for the last two weeks of the menstrual cycle.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a condition in which a woman has severe depressive symptoms, irritability and tension before menstruation. Symptoms occur during the week just before menstrual bleeding and usually improve within a few days after the period starts. PMDD is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). According to the National Institutes of Health, PMDD affects between 3 and 8 percent of women during the years when they are having menstrual periods.

Kornstein collaborated on the study with Kimberly Yonkers, M.D., professor, Yale School of Public Health, and Margaret Altemus, adjunct associate professor, Weill Cornell Medical College. The study, “Symptom-Onset Dosing of Sertraline for the Treatment of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder,” was published Sept. 9 as an advanced online publication in JAMA Psychiatry, a monthly, peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

The executive director of the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, Kornstein and her colleagues received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct the first large placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial of symptom-onset treatment with an antidepressant for PMDD. Sertraline is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor used commonly on a daily basis to treat depression. In the study, 250 women diagnosed with PMDD took sertraline or a placebo for an average of six days a month during the premenstrual week over six menstrual cycles.

“This study supports the rapid therapeutic action of serotonin reuptake inhibitors for PMDD symptoms,” Kornstein said.

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VCU Project Encourages Breastfeeding Among Low-Income Mothers in Richmond

By Brian McNeill/University Public Affairs

A new project at Virginia Commonwealth University will encourage, inform and empower economically disadvantaged Richmond-area mothers to breastfeed.

The project, “A CBPR Evaluation of the ‘Mommies, Babies, Bellies & Daddies – The ABCs of Breastfeeding,'” is a targeted intervention to increase breastfeeding initiation and duration.

“Breastfeeding provides substantial health benefits for children and mothers and the American Academy Pediatrics strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months followed by continued breastfeeding for the first year of life,” said project leader Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The health benefits of breastfeeding, she said, include reduced rates of infection, obesity and post-neonatal mortality among children, as well as a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer among mothers.

The project is funded by a nearly $20,000 Community Engagement Grant, which is awarded to VCU academics and academic support units in partnership with Richmond-area organizations to advance community-engaged scholarship that creatively addresses community-identified needs.

The project is a collaboration between Bodnar-Deren and RaShel Charles, director of research development at VCU’s Institute for Women’s Health, along with Richmond community organizations Health Hearts Plus II (HHP-II) and Kinfolks Community.

The goal of “The ABCs of Breastfeeding” is to evaluate and disseminate the outcomes of a community-based breastfeeding intervention that was developed by HHP-II and that seeks to reduce racial and socio-economic disparities in breastfeeding and related health outcomes.

“This proposal is in response to the community-identified need and invitation to VCU to assist them in conducting a fully collaborative, community-driven research evaluation that includes data collection, analysis and dissemination of the efficacy of the intervention, using [community-based participatory research] methods,” Bodnar-Deren said.

Most new mothers in Virginia initiate breastfeeding, but only 39.5 percent exclusively breastfeed after three months and only 15 percent exclusively breastfeed after six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Each additional week of breastfeeding confers benefits, Bodnar-Deren said.

While breastfeeding rates have increased nationally, significant socio-economic disparities exist. In the Richmond area, only 4.3 percent of Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children recipients breastfeed their babies.

Racial and ethnic disparities in breastfeeding also exist, Bodnar-Deren said, with African-American women having lower rates as compared with white women. As a result, she said, the CDC has found that African-American mothers and babies may benefit from targeted support to start and continue breastfeeding.

As part of “The ABCs of Breastfeeding,” the project will seek to empower and educate economically disadvantaged pregnant women about the benefits of breastfeeding and will engage new and experienced mothers in a peer-to-peer support model called “Sister Circles.”

The program uses a holistic life-skills approach, and works with young women by providing hands-on training to ensure that they become successful breastfeeding mothers, Bodnar-Deren said.

“The program, informs, encourages and empowers new or expecting mothers to A, appreciate themselves; B, bond with their baby; and C, become a better caretaker of self and baby,” she said. “In addition, it promotes wellness through providing education and modeling on healthy lifestyle practices and healthy eating choices, thereby giving babies and mothers a healthier start to parenting. The program not only works with mothers; it embraces the entire community, from friends, fathers to grandparents.”

A team of community members and VCU students will collect and help analyze the project’s data, overseen by the project’s leaders.

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