Raised on a farm, medical student knows value of hard work and determination
Many would consider Alex Atwood’s upbringing to be idyllic. Being raised on a family cattle farm in rural northern Virginia with generations of relatives located nearby is an uncommon experience these days. For Atwood, a fourth-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), his childhood helped sow the seed of a future in medicine.
“Growing up, I helped out on the farm when needed, filling grain sacks, splitting wood, repairing fences, and other necessary jobs,” Atwood said. “But my parents also understood the value of education, and they knew that schooling was most important.”
In high school, Atwood decided he wanted to pursue medicine and picked biology for his area of study when he attended Mountain Vista Governor's School.
“I enjoyed learning about medicine, and I like interacting with people,” he said. “When I picked a college, I knew that medical school applications were hopefully going to be in my future.”
Atwood and his fiancée, Vanessa Calevro, who were high school sweethearts, began putting down roots in Southwest Virginia when they enrolled at Radford University in 2014. Atwood majored in biology and chemistry, diving into research with six different scholarly projects.
VTCSOM’s research curriculum put it high on Atwood’s list when he applied for medical schools. When he entered the school in 2018, his depth of undergraduate research experience helped him navigate the school’s rigorous research curriculum. Over the past four years, he has focused his research on evaluating the accuracy and precision of mainstream activity trackers in children. His research mentor was Stephanie DeLuca, associate professor and co-director of the Neuromotor Research Clinic at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. VTCSOM is one of only a few medical schools nationwide that requires a hypothesis-driven, longitudinal project from every student in order to graduate.
“Because research is actually built into our curriculum, we have dedicated time to carry out our projects,” Atwood said. “And with so many outstanding faculty and researchers, the options are really kind of limitless.” Atwood presented his findings at the Southeast American College of Sports Medicine conference this spring.
While at Radford, Atwood was able to meet Pat and Nancy Artis, benefactors to a scholarship he received as an undergraduate. Little did he know at the time, but they would play an instrumental role in his medical school career as well. Atwood received the H. Pat and Nancy E. Artis Endowed Scholarship at VTCSOM.
“As first-generation college graduates, we know the barrier that educational expenses can present,” said Pat Artis. “This is especially true for medical students who face more than a decade of educational expenses between the start of their undergraduate education and the completion of their residency.”
The Artises have been involved in VTCSOM since its inception, when the late Charles W. Steger, then Virginia Tech's president, introduced them to Cynda Johnson, the school’s founding dean. Nancy Artis served on the school’s inaugural Dean’s Council on Advancement.
“We were honored to stand by them as they transformed a dream into reality and share the celebration when the inaugural class enjoyed a 100 percent match just before their graduation,” Pat Artis said.
Atwood recently learned he will continue to grow his career with a residency at Carilion Clinic-Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. The specialty choice was pretty simple for someone from a family of farmers who keeps himself occupied by renovating his house, volunteering at Roanoke’s Bradley Free Clinic, and pursuing such activities as disc golf, cycling, gardening, and basketball.
“Emergency medicine,” he said. “It’s fast-paced and there is always something different. From the moment I had my first clinical shadowing, I knew my place was in emergency medicine.”
Atwood will graduate in the school’s ninth commencement exercises on May 7. The financial benefits from the Artis scholarship will help him in the future, giving him less debt to worry about during residency.
“The fact that Pat and Nancy are supporting someone else’s career path means the world to me,” he said. “It’s nice to know there’s someone out there who gives back as a way of helping me and the community I will one day serve.”
The ninth class of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will graduate on May 7 at 9 a.m. The ceremony will be livestreamed.