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"I really thought for some reason I was going to be an FBI agent," he recalls.
Now, Hafdahl is a chief resident at the Mayo Clinic, one of the world's premier medical institutions. He helps lead early-career doctors and medical students in practicing evidence-based medicine. When he's done with that, he'll be a staff physician at Mayo.
In a word, Hafdahl was Unleashed.
He discovered a new side of himself. Professors at UW-Superior saw talents Hafdahl didn't even know he had and pointed them out. Hafdahl took heed.
As for his FBI career, "I guess I got a little ahead of myself as to what I wanted," he says.
Hafdahl doesn't hail from a long line of doctors or scientists. He grew up middle class on Minnesota's Iron Range, in Virginia, pop. 9,000 -- dad's a phy-ed teacher and mom works at the same school.
He had been taking criminal justice classes at UW-Superior and they were all right, but not what he expected. Meanwhile, to get a science requirement out of the way, he signed up for a chemistry class.
The professor, noticing that Hafdahl seemed to have a knack for chemistry, asked if he ever considered switching his major. No, not at all.
"But I really took it to heart, talked with my family, and they encouraged me. I switched to chemistry and I enjoyed it way more," he said. "It really lit a fire under me."
Later, chemistry faculty members Dr. Michael Waxman and Dr. James Lane suggested medicine might suit him.
"I realized wow, yeah, I love science, and I really love working with people," he said. "I like to think I'm self-aware, but truth be told, I didn't have that kind of introspection."
Hafdahl says UW-Superior's high-quality faculty, comfortable campus and class sizes made it possible.
"Your professors get to know you and you get to know them," he said. "They're going to be much better at recognizing your skills than you are. They're going to be able to guide you on a path depending on what your interests are. That's a big advantage. I wasn't thinking about it as an advantage when I came there, but it really is."
Professors also offered him the chance to work on their research projects, which helped him stand out among medical school applicants. They also knew him well enough to write detailed letters of recommendation.
When applying to Duke University's medical school, Hafdahl recalls sitting in a room full of Ivy League graduates, waiting to be interviewed. "I tried explaining to them where Superior is, much less the University of Wisconsin-Superior. They didn't have a clue," he recalls.
MED SCHOOL TO MAYO
No matter. Hafdahl's grounding in the sciences prepared him well for medical school and he says it set the stage for the role he's now playing at Mayo.
He is promoting evidence-based medicine to doctors-in-training and med school students. Evidence-based medicine is a philosophy of making scientific research and data play a much larger role in how doctors actually treat patients.
"Don't get me wrong, medicine has always had a strong scientific basis," he says. But at the same time, when it comes to actual practice, doctors in the past have often relied on a "this is the way it's done" mentality.
"In the chemistry division, we were taught to appreciate the scientific literature and the scientific process," he says. "That's imparted strongly by our professors. What's the evidence, why do certain things work? What does the literature tell us?"
Hafdahl is motivated to give back to UW-Superior. Although he's not able to write a big check now, Hafdahl has set up an informal job shadowing experience at Mayo for UW-Superior students interested in medicine.
He puts students up at his house and sets them up to follow some of the greatest minds in medicine as they do their work.
"One student last month spent a day with the world's leading expert in colon cancer," he says.
Where will tomorrow's leading experts come from?
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