Trailblazing medical student sets course for new home
Oscar Alcoreza becomes first dual M.D./Ph.D. graduate at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
When Oscar Alcoreza and Jennifer Park met as first-year medical students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) in 2015, they quickly bonded as first-generation Americans with shared experiences from living in Boston. Now, nearly eight long years later, they are preparing to return to Beantown and continue their medical careers as a married couple.
At the school’s commencement ceremony on May 6, Alcoreza will become the first VTCSOM student to earn both a medical degree and a Ph.D. — for him a doctorate of philosophy — through Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program. That dual pursuit meant that Alcoreza remained in Roanoke as Park graduated in 2019 and went on to her residency in anesthesiology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
“It has been very challenging to be apart, but it has been an incredibly fulfilling path,” said Alcoreza, who matched for his residency in anesthesiology with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. “The M.D./Ph.D. has to be something you are really passionate about to commit so much of your life to it. But I can’t envision a career for myself without research in medicine.”
VTCSOM’s curriculum is known for its strong focus on research, requiring students to develop and investigate their own four-year longitudinal projects. There are now four other VTCSOM students pursuing a dual M.D./Ph.D. to expand upon their research.
“Oscar has been a trailblazer for us at VTCSOM, and we are proud of the work he has done,” said Lee Learman, dean of the school. “His completion of the Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health Ph.D. program speaks to his commitment to spend a substantial part of his career studying new approaches to improve human health. We’re delighted that Oscar will be joining an outstanding residency program where he can continue developing as a physician scientist – a journey he started here at VTCSOM.”
After two years of medical school and working in the lab of Harry Sontheimer, a former professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, Alcoreza was named a fellow in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Medical Research Fellows program. The funding allowed him a yearlong break from medical school to commit to his research investigating a novel treatment strategy for epilepsy. Alcoreza continued his research for another three years to earn his Ph.D. before returning for the final two years of his medical school curriculum.
“Dr. Alcoreza is truly a pioneer and someone who I expect will accomplish great things in his career as a true physician-scientist. From the time I met him and had the opportunity to discuss his career plans and his research interests, I immediately knew he was one of those future leaders in medicine and science who had the right stuff – a fire in the belly to make a difference, an intellectual curiosity to deeply understand how things worked, a keen intellect and an unselfish passion to help others,” said Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and VTCSOM’s senior dean for research.
“During his time carrying out his dissertation research here at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, he fully engaged in the scientific enterprise, becoming deeply involved in his own research and taking advantage of the rich intellectual and technological environment. He brings that same full on dedication to medicine – when I or my family may need the services of an anesthesiologist, Dr. Alcoreza is exactly the type of person I would want to provide our care.”
Alcoreza said the opportunity to conduct basic science research about how the brain works will elevate his medical career as he deals directly with the neurological effects of anesthesia.
“I don’t think I would be in the position I am today if I went to any other medical school,” Alcoreza said. “I believe VTCSOM was the perfect environment for me to evolve and become the person I am today. I can’t thank the school and the administration enough for that.”
Alcoreza, whose mother is from Puerto Rico and father is from Bolivia, said his family moved frequently when he was growing up, and he never lived in one place for more than four years. After earning his master’s degree from Boston University, he came to Roanoke, where he has been for eight years.
“I have been at VTCSOM for more than half of its existence,” Alcoreza said.
“But he definitely had the most fun when I was around,” Park said. “We had such a great time with the Class of 2019, and right after we graduated, he missed us a lot. But he knew that he wanted to pursue his Ph.D., and we both knew this was needed for his future.”
Park, whose family is from Seoul, South Korea, attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston before her acceptance to VTCSOM. She and Alcoreza became a couple as they both adjusted to moving south to a smaller city. When she graduated, they developed plans to bridge the distance between them, but faced unexpected challenges.
“For the first year, it wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be because he was busy with his Ph.D. research and I was busy with my intern year. But then in the second year, we started to feel the weight of the long distance and missed each other a lot,” she said. “Then COVID happened. We were planning to travel to see each other at least once a month, but that was not possible because for a while I wasn’t allowed to leave Connecticut.”
The couple originally planned to get married in September 2020 in Seoul but were forced to postpone their nuptials. Their new date is set for the end of May.
“I wanted to bring my family over there to see and experience that part of the world, but we had to wait until COVID calmed down so we could make that happen,” Alcoreza said. “Now we are having that chance.”
After the wedding, they will get started on their life together in Boston. As Alcoreza begins his residency with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Park will set out on a one-year pediatric anesthesia fellowship with Massachusetts General Hospital.
They recently spent a week house hunting, looking for a location close to both hospitals.
“We are just happy that we aren’t going to be long distance anymore. We finally get to be in the same place and come back home to each other,” Park said.
“It feels like we are finally starting our life together,” he added.
There is another potential benefit to their new positions. Recently Mass General and Brigham and Women’s Hospital became more integrated under one system called Mass General Brigham.
“We will be in the same hospital system. So, there’s a really good possibility that Jenn might be my boss in the future,” Alcoreza said.
“I’m very excited for that,” she said.