Honoring Excellence: Q and A with Alec O’Connor, MD, MPH 

February 20, 2023

This interview is one in a series of interviews with recipients of the 2023 ACGME Awards. The awardees join an outstanding group of previous honorees whose work and contributions to graduate medical education (GME) represent the best in the field. They will be honored at the ACGME Annual Educational Conference, taking place this week, in Nashville, Tennessee February 23-25, 2023.

2023 Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Awardee Dr. Alec O’Connor was the program director of the internal medicine residency program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry for the last 10 years; he recently transitioned into the associate program director role for the same program.

ACGME: How did you become involved in medicine, and in academic medicine specifically? 

Dr. O’Connor: I loved science as a kid. In college I explored a biomedical research career but spending a ton of time in the lab, I missed the interactions with people and caring for others, which led me to medicine. In residency I fell in love with clinical teaching and the culture of support and joy of learning in our residency program; when I graduated from residency, I explored other jobs but didn't want to leave behind all that I loved about our program and the teaching I could continue to do as a faculty member, so joining our faculty as a clinician teacher was an easy decision. And I've never thought about leaving!

ACGME: What does this award mean to you?

O’Connor: I'm overwhelmed by this award. So much of what we do in teaching and supporting learners is behind the scenes and sometimes thankless work. And trying to lead our residency program and help our institution and patients through the pandemic was so hard in so many ways. I was truly shocked and so grateful to receive this award, and so humbled that people thought of nominating me for this.

ACGME: What do you feel is the most important job the program director has?

O’Connor: It's really hard to pick one job, but broadly speaking, supporting learners through the challenges they face in residency. One of the biggest parts of that support is protecting residents from all of the forces that naturally would eat away from residents' educational opportunities and wellness. We have amazing teaching faculty members and an incredibly rich patient population full of opportunities for residents to learn and develop, but it feels like there's so many barriers to learning that we're constantly struggling to clear the path for our learners. 

ACGME: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

O’Connor: I love working with the amazing people in our program, including our program leadership and staff members, teaching faculty members, and of course our incredible residents. And I really love watching the transformation from a brand new intern, who lacks confidence, knowledge, and skills, to the graduating senior resident who's grown so much in three years and can handle nearly any clinical situation that arises.

ACGME: What is the most challenging?

O’Connor: Trying to maintain resident learning and wellness in the face of health care system limitations that interfere with both.

ACGME: What advice do you have to residents or fellows who may be interested in pursuing a career in academic medicine?

O’Connor: Follow your passions! There are so many different potential career paths in academic medicine, but that also means there's something for everyone.

Learn more about the ACGME’s Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Award and nominate a deserving program director for the 2024 Award – nominations are due by March 15, 2023.