Alex Villalobos, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Interventional Radiology at the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiology. He recently joined the UNC Department of Radiology from Emory University, where he completed his Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology training. Dr. Villalobos was born and raised in South America before coming to the United States. While in the USA, he was raised in a rural Texas town prior to receiving a full-ride scholarship at the University of Texas at Arlington. His studies and research in physics (photonics) and biomedical engineering sparked his interest in advancing technologies to improve health outcomes. He then pursued and received his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He completed his internship at the Medical College of Wisconsin Affiliated Hospitals – St. Joseph before moving for his Diagnostic Residency and Interventional Radiology fellowship at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
Since his early college years, Dr. Villalobos has noticed and believed that imaging technologies will heavily influence the future of medicine. As he progressed in his training, he also understood the importance of connecting those who develop technologies/treatments and those who practice medicine. This led him to pursue and initiate his career as an academic interventional radiologist.
What attracted you to UNC Radiology?
I first learned about the department through a UNC Radiology faculty member who was introduced to me via a friend who was also involved in IR Global Health outreach. From them, I learned about all the amazing people and endeavors within the Department. The program’s strong attractions were the quality of life, people, and ongoing departmental growth – particularly in the research and clinical trial space.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
I was raised in a healthcare-oriented household in South America, where I had the formative opportunity to become exposed to the rewarding experience of being a healthcare provider to patients in underserved communities. Through college, I was heavily involved in research endeavors – where I found my passion for answering questions with currently unknown answers. There, I found that I liked being the ‘middleman,’ so to speak, between research and patient care. As such, I embarked on a trajectory to become an academic physician.
What attracted you to Radiology?
Since I was young, I was always very ‘techy’ oriented. This fueled my STEM/science endeavors in high school and college, eventually leading me to pursue medicine. I learned about Interventional Radiology in my medical school training relatively late after exploring other technology-heavy medical specialties. I found IR to be a natural fit for my desire to work with my hands and be involved in cutting-edge technology within Medicine. After I learned and decided to pursue IR, I also found diagnostic radiology to be a very rewarding specialty. Since I was in college, I have developed the belief that imaging technologies will heavily influence the future of medicine. Therefore, Interventional Radiology – a specialty rich in innovation, technology, and direct patient care – was a natural fit for me.
What medical advances would you like to see in medicine or your specialty in the next five years?
The next revolution in medicine, in my opinion, is personalized medicine. This personalization of healthcare will be further augmented by artificial intelligence (AI) technology within the decade. As every doctor knows, a dizzying amount of information is created in the field of medicine every day (think patient records, labs/imaging results, imaging study recommendations, etc.). AI can and is already helping doctors digest this information to have more time to treat their patients. This AI augmentation of healthcare is already in mass-clinical use, particularly in the field of radiology (think: imaging recommendation tools that read the report as it is being dictated to recommend to the radiologist to recommend specific imaging studies for specific findings; PACS add-ons that alert a radiologist of urgent (e.g., stroke, PE) study findings before opening the study; scheduling software that not only helps patients be scheduled for procedures but also sends them personalized texts reminders based on the specific procedure that they are going to have; and much more). While there may come a day when AI will meaningfully reduce the need for as many physicians, I personally think that day is far away. However, the day for AI to help carry on logistics and digest data easier is already here and will become more prominent in medicine as the years go by. This, of course, will come with challenges that are hard to predict now (e.g. ethical, legal, expectations, etc.). That being said, it never ceases to amaze me the new technology advances that I keep seeing at conferences every year – particularly those in the AI-assisted robotic space (which by the way, some of these technologies are already in clinical use (I’ve personally used them in IR procedures already!).
Why did you decide to go into academic medicine?
I am a naturally curious individual who seeks to find answers to questions I, and many others, find important. Academic medicine is a natural habitat for this – and I think UNC’s academic atmosphere, department resources, and people within UNC and the surrounding community will provide the best chance of helping us find the answer to our many research/clinical questions. Doing these things is also possible in private practice, but it takes a more personal effort to pursue these sort of endeavors in many private practices that may not share the same objectives. That is why I decided to pursue academic medicine.
What’s your one piece of advice for people who are interested in becoming a radiologist?
I recommend that you “Check It Out!” Of the hundreds of medical students in my graduating medical school class, roughly 1% went into radiology. This is partly due to the lack of exposure to the field and the many amazing opportunities it can offer. As a specialty, Radiology can truly provide the full gamut of desired clinical practice – from working at home and never seeing a patient/person directly (e.g., Teleradiology) to working at a clinic/OBL seeing patients and doing procedures all day. In my opinion, there is something for everyone within the field of radiology!
Last but not least, seek a mentor and (perhaps more importantly) a sponsor willing to promote you to others and help you grow as a person/professional. As a first-generation US-trained physician, I was often lost in achieving my goals at the beginning of my journey, and I struggled to where I am now. Finding a mentor/sponsor has been very helpful as I have progressed in my career, and I cannot highlight enough the importance of finding people interested in seeing your success become theirs.
What’s one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they met you?
I am very easygoing and aim to please within reason – but I am also a straight shooter when the time merits it.
Can you talk about the research you hope to conduct at UNC?
My background as of late has been in Interventional oncology, so it’s been focused on cancer research. We recently completed a clinical trial where we looked at ways to personalize cancer care, and we will continue those sorts of efforts here at UNC. In general, these trials will aim to answer the question: How can we deliver known therapies a little better? Will therapies that have shown promise in trials translate to real improved patient outcomes? How can we prove that a delivered therapy will work as expected before we deliver it? Etc. By leveraging the large number of resources available at UNC, myself and the IR team is excited to be able to explore answers that can be translated to meaningfully improved outcomes for patients.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I would choose Charles T. Dotter, the pioneering American radiologist credited with developing the field of Interventional Radiology. I am fascinated by the calculated risks he personally took in an endeavor to find innovative solutions for his patients in need. A story about him that sticks out to me is when a colleague asked him to perform a leg angiography. On the order sheet, in big capital letters, the order said, “VISUALIZE, BUT DO NOT TRY TO FIX!!!” He then decided to alter the medical trends of the time by treating the patient’s left femoral stenosis with balloon angioplasty – effectively performing the 1st successful femoral artery dilation and further opening the door to a whole new chapter of medicine that continues to evolve. I would love to understand his insight better and endeavor to leverage his confidence in his craft by taking calculated risks – all for the benefit of his patients and humankind.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
What do you do when you aren’t working?
I love to ‘disconnect’ by being outdoors and/or traveling. We love going on trips, particularly to remote parts of the world, whenever possible. Being able to see and better understand the plight of fellow human beings is always a very insightful and grounding experience for us – for we feel very fortunate in our lives and hope to augment the lives of others whenever possible positively. The Carolinas (and nearby states) also have some amazing scenery that we love exploring by ourselves or with our friends/family.