Roanoke Campus Proves Wherever VA Tech Goes, Its Values Go Along

From humble beginnings in Blacksburg, the university’s programs and graduates have spread its traditional land-grant ideals and traditions of service across the commonwealth and beyond for a century and a half.

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are molded in the same spirit of service that has guided Virginia Tech since 1872, adapting over the years with new innovations to serve state residents and the world. The two organizations work alongside Carilion Clinic in Roanoke to educate the next generation of health-care providers and biomedical researchers.

“Virginia Tech has been engaged in outreach to communities across the commonwealth for much of our 150-year history, and Roanoke is a great success,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “With strong partnerships and a shared vision, the campus now plays a key role in the university’s academic and research mission, and is an important economic development driver in the region.”

 ‘An incredible sense of pride’

“Virginia Tech has a motto of Ut Prosim, That I May Serve, and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the whole health science campus here in Roanoke are very much embodied in that spirit,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for Health Sciences and Technology.

Friedlander arrived as the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s founding executive director with the task of building the research institute almost from scratch, attracting world-class investigators to a new, unknown institute in a city that did not have an existing track record for biomedical research.

At the time, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine was refining programs and preparing for its first class under founding dean Cynda Johnson, who began a tradition of service that is carried on today by Dean Lee Learman.

“It’s part of our DNA to think about service as a central aspect of how we train our medical students,” Learman said.

Together, the new medical school and the new research institute are seeding positive change in the Roanoke Valley.

“It has re-made part of the city, and that has translated into an enormous number of well-paying jobs that have brought folks into our community, and kept others here,” Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell said. “It’s created a whole new angle to our economic prospects and improved the health of our community in the process.”

Cowell, an authority in community planning, said biomedical research and educational innovation are cornerstones of Roanoke’s vision for the future.

“I would expect in 40 or 50 years, the campus will be directly and indirectly shaping the community, delivering its leaders, and driving this region’s economy in the same way that the railroad did through most of the 20th century,” Cowell said.

The campus sprang from the vision of the late Charles Steger, a former Virginia Tech president, as well as the late Carilion CEO Ed Murphy and others who steered their organizations and collaborated with state officials to invest in medical education and biomedical research.

They transformed industrial property in Roanoke into what has become the heart of a regional innovation hub.

When they each opened in 2010, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the School of Medicine were housed in a 150,000-square-foot building at 2 Riverside Circle.

“When I first got here and looked at a beautiful, brand new, empty building, I didn’t quite realize how fast we would have been successful,” Friedlander said. “What you see now are fantastic new facilities for research, for education, and for clinical service and care, all integrated into a true academic health center campus. But most important are the people who are working in those buildings — faculty, staff, and students who are all-in, committed every day to discovery and innovation to improve the health for all. There’s a vibrancy, there’s an excitement, and there’s a dedication to discovering new ways to improve the health and lives of everybody.”

From its infancy in the world of biomedical research, the research institute has grown beyond the university’s expectations.

Research is funded by more than $150 million in active grants and contracts, mostly from the National Institutes of Health. Along the way, Virginia Tech faculty members became involved with six spinoff companies that work to innovate biomedical solutions for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and brain maladies.

In terms of academic programs, the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program, headquartered on the campus, welcomed its first students in 2014. The program emphasizes the concept of translational science — moving discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic and the community. It brings together students from the life, behavioral, physical, engineering, and computational sciences to consider today’s major health challenges.

As a sign of faith in the institute’s current and future impact, in 2018, the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust and Heywood and Cynthia Fralin of Roanoke gave the institute a $50 million gift — at the time the largest single gift ever received by Virginia Tech.

Today, more than 400 employees and students conduct research in labs led by 35 principal investigators. The research institute formally opened its new, 139,000-square-foot addition at 4 Riverside Circle in 2021. When the building is fully occupied in the next five years, the number of research teams and employees will double.

“When I step out in the community and talk to people, they see what’s going on here, and they have an incredible sense of pride,” Friedlander said. “This is one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever worked in, and that local endorsement has been a tremendous factor in our growth and our ability to attract top global talent. Our neighbors have every right to share in our successes and accomplishments.”

‘A wonderful ecosystem’

When students apply to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the surrounding community is front and center in their evaluation. Community members participate in the interview process.

“They send our applicants a very strong message — if you’re coming to our school, you’re coming to our community,” Learman said. “The medical students arrive, they get situated, and we make a few community introductions. Then they start making connections of their own and identify how to be of service by improving health, poverty, and supporting our community in many other ways.”

The school will matriculate its 13th class this summer. The school is immensely popular and highly selective. In 2021, the school increased the number of students it accepts from 42 to 49. It is a competitive process — more than 6,900 students have applied to join the Class of 2026.

“Our medical school differentiates itself from other schools by graduating physicians with advanced critical-thinking skills forged through mentored research and outstanding basic science and clinical education.  Our graduates also emerge with an advanced understanding of health systems science and interprofessional practice. They enter health systems ready on day one to contribute to patient care and health system improvement,” Learman said.

But a growing demand for doctors means the school must plan for further growth, with additional classroom and lab space as well as clinical sites that are needed to expand class sizes — all to help address the shortfall of more than 3,900 physicians that Virginia expects by 2030, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

“We are thinking very seriously and methodically about what it would take to build the school to a larger size. What size building would we need? Where would it be situated?” Learman said. “It will be critically important to determine what size allows us to maintain or advance all of the things that are so important for our students: outstanding clinical education; outstanding small-group, problem-based learning curriculum; the strengths of our research ecosystem; and the close relationships our students have with their faculty. The next five years will be very important in setting the stage for what the school is going to be in the long run.”

Collaboration will remain key to the school’s ethos.

“Our collaboration with the research institute not only allows students to achieve magnificent successes through research mentorship but also creates a vibrant environment for our students that fosters their curiosity and creativity,” Learman said. “The same is true of Carilion Clinic, where many faculty physicians serve as teachers and mentors for our students. The learning environment at Carilion imparts the values of humanism, professionalism, compassion, and service that form our school’s hidden or informal curriculum.”

Collaboration is one of Carilion Clinic’s core values, Nancy Howell Agee, president and chief executive officer of Carilion Clinic, said in October at the opening of the newest building on the Health Sciences and Technology campus.

“With Virginia Tech, we are doing together what neither of us could do alone: push the bounds of medical knowledge to improve care for patients here and everywhere,” Agee said. “We are transforming our region’s economy and putting Roanoke on the map as a hub for biosciences.”

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