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With talent ranging from the lab to the stage, VCU senior sees a future in medicine and mental health advocacy

Madison Cruz has mixed research, patient care, volunteer work and even the Miss Virginia pageant in her undergraduate experience.

Young woman in lab coat smiling Madison Cruz, a biology major, is working at VCU Health as a patient care technician, helping patients and getting hands-on experience. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Joan Tupponce

An inquisitive mind, an interest in science, a drive to help others and a desire to bolster her self-confidence have all taken Madison Cruz from the research lab to the Miss Virginia stage.

The senior at Virginia Commonwealth University is an Honors College pre-med student, majoring in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Cruz became interested in medicine and helping others as a child in Hampton, watching her mother, Karen, a VCU alum and nurse, and her father, Martin, a pharmacist, help their community.

In middle and high school, Cruz volunteered at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News. Now she is working at VCU Health as a patient care technician, helping patients and getting hands-on experience. “That has deepened my interest in medicine,” she said.

Cruz came to VCU because of her mother’s positive experience at the university and the diverse community on campus.

“I wanted to learn about all the different cultures so it would help me embrace my Filipino culture,” she said.

At home in the lab, with the heart in mind

Cruz has participated in notable research projects at VCU, and she was one of 36 Honors College students featured at the 2023 National Conference for Undergraduate Research, held in mid-April at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

She also was selected for this year’s VCU Health Pauley Heart Center/American Heart Association summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, which concluded July 28. As part of the program, Cruz joined clinical rotations and cardiovascular research with professor Edward J. Lesnefsky, M.D., and associate professor Qun Chen, Ph.D., in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine.

Cruz was involved in biochemical/molecular research related to mitochondrial and cardiac function in heart failure.

“This is definitely a field that I am used to, as my family has heart problems,” she said. “Now, cardiology is something I am considering as a possible track for the future.”

Cruz also participated in research led by M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU Health. The project on alcohol-induced peripheral neuropathy examined alcohol withdrawal and if it would reverse signs of neuropathy.

“Madison volunteered in my lab and worked closely with my graduate student Lauren Moncayo on the project,” Damaj said. “Madison is very intelligent and respectful. She’s always smiling and positive. She is a pleasure to be around.”

Moncayo recruited Cruz as a freshman to assist with projects and has served as her research mentor since then.

“She is extremely bright and has a dedication to scientific research and learning that is obvious through her commitment and efforts in the lab and experiments she conducted,” Moncayo said. “I am beyond proud of her growth as a woman in STEM and as an independent student finding herself through her own unique journey."

A commitment to youth and mental health

When she steps away from schoolwork, Cruz volunteers with Camp Kesem, a nonprofit that supports youths ages 6-18 as a parent navigates cancer. Its programs include weeklong summer camps and family outreach throughout the year, and Cruz started volunteering with the VCU chapter during her freshman year.

“A lot of time we are dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression. Seeing that during the camp made me realize mental health for children needs to be discussed,” Cruz said. “If you don’t recognize it, kids may see a progression of the disorder or issues as they get older. Early detection is key.”

Many of her undergraduate research studies are related to mental health, including one – about using a pocket lemon sniff test to detect depression – that was published in the national peer-reviewed Journal of Emerging Investigators in 2020.

Cruz also is tracking the rates of unrecognized, undiagnosed and untreated children with mental illnesses in the U.S. through her community service initiative, called Fighting Monsters of the Mind. One element is REMEDY – Recognition and Early Detection of Mental Disorders among Youth.

“Just seeing suicidal events on the news was a wakeup call – school shootings and other big tragedies, with most relating to mental health,” Cruz said. “These types of events are happening here in Virginia, and it makes me more passionate about mental health. It’s just so sad. A lot of really young kids are scared to talk about mental health because of the stigma that exists. We need to let them know that it’s not as scary as they think and that you can talk to people.”

Cruz is working to establish a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Eastern Virginia Medical School to raise awareness of mental health and recruit advisers who would visit elementary and middle schools to talk about mental health.

“That is one of my future plans,” she said. “What I have been doing is meeting with congressmen and mayors, talking about my advocacy.”

Woman playing piano and smiling while wearing a black ballgown

For the talent component of the Miss Virginia competition, Madison Cruz played a combined classical piece of Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto” and C.P.E. Bach’s “Solfeggietto.” (Photo credit Rick Myers, Kimberly Toney Needles, and Chelsie Darling)

Balancing her time and building her confidence

For the fall semester, Cruz is studying in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, learning Italian and taking electives related to health. She will return to campus in Richmond for the spring semester, “excited to graduate,” she said.

Cruz’s schedule can be overwhelming, and she admits she struggles with time management.

I’m trying to have a healthy balance. I know that learning how to prioritize things can help you,” she said. “Also setting time aside to play the piano, ukulele or singing helps to decompress.”

Cruz also struggles at times with her confidence, so in January this year, she decided to help build it by trying out for the Miss Virginia pageant, part of Miss America. After winning a local title as Miss Mountain Empire (Southwest Virginia) in April, she competed in the larger pageant this summer in Roanoke and made it to the top 10. Cruz also won the People’s Choice award, the Hundred X award for being the top fundraiser and earned more than $1,700 in scholarships.

“I was a pageant newbie,” she said. “I did it to get out of my comfort zone and to come out of my shell. The pandemic affected my social skills. Being in the pageant definitely helped me this past year. I have gotten more active with my school community, and I’m socializing with other people. During my job at VCU, I have to talk to patients, and I wouldn’t be able to do that without being in the pageant.”

Now that the pageant is behind her, Cruz has had time to process the experience.

“I definitely would do it again,” she said. “I’ve grown so much since this past January. I’ve seen my improvement over the past months. I am proud of how far I have come, and I don’t say that often. I would like to thank my family, friends, peers and VCU community for supporting me throughout this journey.”