David O’Neil’s quest for the big picture has served him well. The second-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine finds that his meticulous study habits often help bring to light new ways of thinking about problems.

“My efforts focus on being able to understand the concepts being taught and the underlying story that brings the various elements together,” he said.

An example where he uses this thoughtful, deliberate problem-solving strategy is in the small-group learning portion of the school’s curriculum. Each week during the first two years of medical school, VTCSOM students learn basic science, through the lens of real patient cases in small groups. O’Neil estimates he spends four to six hours each week preparing his group presentation. 

“Often I can bring something to the group that hadn’t been considered, a different way of looking at how two symptoms might be related, for instance,” he said.

At the end of each week, the students meet the patient and their doctors and family members to see the human side of the science they learned.

“It’s interesting to learn that even though we may have come up with a diagnosis in our group, we sometimes fail to address the patient’s immediate symptoms,” he said. “It’s useful to see that just having a diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re fixing everything for the patient.”

O’Neil’s learning strategy has served him well. Graduating from Virginia Tech with a perfect GPA, he spent a year putting his chemistry degree to work as a research associate at the prestigious Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he was part of a team developing radiopharmaceuticals.

In fall 2017, O’Neil entered the VTC School of Medicine, where he was drawn to the school’s dedicated research curriculum.

“I’ve always liked doing research,” he said. “I would have done research no matter where I went to school, but VTCSOM’s mandatory research requirement helps me stay motivated and committed.”

VTCSOM is one of the few medical schools in the country where all students participate in an intensive, longitudinal four-year research program.

For his research, O’Neil is working with Katherine Luci, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine, to apply group behavioral therapy to patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center who are anxious or depressed. The form of psychotherapy used in the group is called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and incorporates mindfulness to facilitate acceptance of painful experiences, providing group members with the necessary tools to shift their focus away from their pain and onto committed action in line with their personal values. O’Neil will be conducting analyses on the effectiveness of the intervention with a focus on quality of life changes.

This year, O’Neil was one of two recipients of the Sam and Priscilla McCall VTC Endowed Scholarship. The late Sam McCall was raised in Richlands, Virginia, and studied for a year in business administration at Virginia Tech with the Class of 1958. He moved away from the area to Texas, but his family that remained in rural Southwest Virginia faced limited access to health care. Sam and his wife, Priscilla, who now serves on the VTCSOM Dean’s Council on Advancement, created the scholarship with the hopes that some graduates would stay to practice in the area or other underserved communities.

O’Neil lived in Southwest Virginia until he was 10, when his family moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He has an early interest in pediatrics and is considering eventually setting up practice in the Roanoke area.

“I’m so grateful for this scholarship,” he said. “Having lived in rural Southwest Virginia, I know the need for better access to health care.”