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VTCSOM's Richard Vari wins prestigious national award for medical student education

November 6, 2017

Dr. Vari's PBL class
Richard Vari, senior dean for academic affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, participates in a problem-based learning group as a faculty facilitator.

Richard C. Vari, senior dean for academic affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, won the Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award.

The prestigious award provides national recognition to faculty members who have distinguished themselves in medical student education. Each LCME-accredited medical school in the United States and Canada may nominate only one faculty member each year for the honor.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) gave the honor to Vari at an awards presentation at its annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

“Getting this award is the pinnacle of my career and such an honor,” said Vari.

“Rick is one of the most energetic, engaging, and effective teachers I have ever seen,” said Cynda Ann Johnson, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “He is one of a kind. He teaches his students from his heart, his passion for his work is infectious, he leads his faculty by example, and he is revered by the students.”

“I always thought that Dr. Vari was influential in my ending up at VTC, because I remember feeling a connection with him when I interviewed. He inspired confidence in me that this school would be successful, even though on that day, there were no books and no physical school,” said Christopher Vieau, a VTCSOM charter class graduate and family medicine physician at Union Family Practice in Carolinas HealthCare System. “That so many students from VTC have enjoyed success is truly a testament to the type of man he is. Dr. Vari is deserving of the highest honor in teaching, and I couldn't be happier for a mentor and a friend.”

2017 Founding Donor's Reception
Richard Vari and Chris Vieau mingle at a graduation-related event. Vieau returned to the school as its first alumni speaker at commencement and had the opportunity to catch up with Vari, whom he considers a mentor.

Vari has been involved in medical education for more than 30 years, but at a young age, he thought he could be destined for the other side of medicine as a physician.

Growing up in a small town in eastern Kentucky, Vari said his family put a focus on his education. “Leadership potential was groomed in me. A lot of people had a lot of faith in me.”

An Upward Bound high school student and the first in his family to go to college, Vari completed his undergraduate education at the University of Kentucky. While working in a physiology lab as a work-study student, he decided not to pursue medical school, but instead graduate school and research, also at the University of Kentucky.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, he was asked to teach for the first time, explaining the complexities of the kidney, his area of expertise, to an undergraduate nursing class. “They gave me the entire kidney section and I had never taught anything,” Vari said. “I remember coming home and telling my wife, Patty, I kind of liked that.”

From there, Vari was hooked on teaching and hasn’t stopped since, even with changing delivery aids from a blackboard, to overhead projectors, to computer presentations, and now new emerging technologies. “When I'm in front of students, I still have a good time. Teaching is a place of home for me and I get a lot of solace out of it,” Vari said.

2017 Pearls and Awards
Richard Vari gives a talk at the Class of 2017's Pearls session, where the soon-to-be graduates invite faculty to give one last five-minute "pearl of wisdom" speech to the class.

As his teaching took shape, Vari found himself more involved in the development of medical education curriculum. While at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Vari was asked to serve on a council tasked with recommending a new curriculum.

“We had a new dean who asked us to go around the country and find a program we liked better than what we already had,” Vari said. The dean recommended Vari go to the University of Missouri to observe a new teaching style called problem-based learning, which uses small student-led groups to teach.

“I said, I don’t know what we are going to do here in North Dakota, but we are not doing any of this problem-based learning stuff,” Vari said. “Then I went to Missouri and I saw it and said, ‘Oh my, we have to do that. Look at how much fun the students are having!’”

Dr. Vari's PBL class
Richard Vari with a problem-based learning group from the Class of 2021.

After traveling to many schools across the country, Vari and the rest of the curriculum council recommended adoption of a problem-based learning curriculum. “I had been teaching medical students for 10 years or so and had never seen them so engaged and excited about learning. There was something about it and I didn't know what it was but if we could capture it, that's what we wanted to do,” Vari said.

The curriculum was later recognized by the Carnegie Foundation in the Flexner II Report as an exemplary medical education program.

When Johnson was named founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, leadership had envisioned a problem-based learning curriculum. She knew she needed Vari to make it a reality. “There was no individual in this country with credentials better suited to be our founding associate dean of medical education,” Johnson said.

Johnson hired Vari to lead efforts and build the curriculum from scratch. “Starting a new school meant we didn't have anything to tear apart so we could essentially do what we wanted to do,” Vari said.

In addition to problem-based learning, Vari helped establish two unique curricular elements: research and interprofessionalism, embedded into each year of the four-year curriculum. Altogether, the curriculum helps attract competitive students from across the country.

“We managed to pull something off that's pretty phenomenal here,” Vari said. “We have a lot of wonderful faculty, a lot of people who really care about the school. Our students have been incredible. The work has been very gratifying.”

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