“I want to be a DOKDER.”

Even at age 6, Connor Madalo knew what his calling was and expressed it with all the conviction of a first grader, writing his goal for his teacher and classmates. His childhood conviction deepened years later when Madalo lost a family member to a heart attack.

“I was an EMT for years and had seen many cases from a medical standpoint,” he said. “But going through it with my family allowed me to experience the mental and emotional side of things. I realized there was an emotional component to my career choice that aligned with my personal values.”

Now, almost 20 years after he penned his grade-school desire, Madalo is a second-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) and well on his way to fulfilling that dream.

Having grown up in Southern California, Madalo found his way to VTCSOM through a circuitous route that started with him choosing Colgate University in New York for his undergraduate education. He majored in molecular biology and economics, an interesting combination that allowed him to study how economic factors relate to health care and the medical system.

With relatives living in Roanoke at the time, Madalo visited and instantly loved the Roanoke Valley.

“When I found out there was a medical school here, I knew I was going to apply,” he said.

Each year, the school interviews about 300 of the initial 6,000+ applicants. Rather than one traditional interview with the selection team, candidates move through a series of timed one-on-one interviews based on a scenario that they read before entering a room to meet their interviewer.

Due to the pandemic, onsite interviews in 2020 and 2021 were virtual. Applicants had multiple discussions based on scenarios that they read just before entering a breakout room to meet their interviewers. Despite the limitations of the virtual format, the interview process was a vital component of the application process. Interviews help identify the best candidates for VTCSOM and provide community volunteer interviewers with engaging opportunities to support the medical school. 

“Everyone did a fantastic job making sure the interviews were comfortable,” Madalo said. “It was a pressure cooker, but I felt like we were truly being listened to. The multiple mini-interview process really shows how much the community is interested and involved in the school.”

Now with his first year under his belt, Madalo feels like he has reached his academic stride.

“Every day I’m excited and feel extremely lucky to be doing what I get to do,” he said. “This first year has reaffirmed to me that medicine is what I was meant to go into.”

Having lost a family member to a heart attack, it was natural that Madalo chose a research project related to cardiovascular disease. Working with Jessica Pfleger, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, he will spend a total of four years researching what role circadian rhythm potentially plays in how insulin functions in the heart.

“When cells aren’t reacting to insulin the way they’re supposed to, they’re considered insulin resistant,” Madalo said. “Insulin resistance has been proven to affect the heart’s function. We want to determine how changes in circadian rhythm play into this.”

Out of more than 6,400 applicants, 49 were selected to be part of Madalo’s Class of 2025. Ten students were from Virginia; the remainder were from all across the country.

“One of the most surprising things so far has been getting to know classmates who have completely different backgrounds from me,” he said. “Because we are a small school, we get to learn everyone’s story and how they ended up at the same place as me. The relationships I’m building mean so much.”

Each of the classes at VTCSOM reach graduation day with tight connections and lasting friendships. One class in particular, the school’s charter class, joined together to create a scholarship for a deserving student to help lessen the financial burden of the cost of medical school. Madalo was the recipient of the Charter Class Scholarship this past year.

“I am tremendously grateful,” he said. “Coming from a family that has struggled a bit in terms of finances, this allows me to not have to be so worried about loans and how I’m going to pay for my education. It allows me to look into the future.”

In the near future, Madalo isn’t certain what specialty he would like to pursue, but he has plenty of time to make that decision. One thing is certain when he graduates, the world will gain a passionate, committed “dokder.”

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