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John DeSisto

Each summer a few students from around the country are selected to take part in the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s Summer Fellowship Program. The program, which is funded by the CU Cancer Center, a grant from the Cancer League of Colorado, and individual supporters, inspires and trains the next generation of medical scientists.

John DeSisto, a current fellow in the program, is not your typical undergraduate student. He has already received a degree in physics and a law degree from the University of Denver. Now in his fifties, he is preparing to go to medical school.

DeSisto, a Colorado native, moved to Utah as an undergraduate to ski and go to school. After he graduated with a master’s degree in geophysics from University of Utah in 1985 he worked in the oil business for a few years. It was during that time he realized he wanted a career that included public service and decided to go to law school.

“I was accepted into the law program at the University of Denver and started my studies again,” says DeSisto. “I received my JD in 1989 and eventually started practicing corporate litigation.”

But DeSisto’s litigation practice did not satisfy his desire for public service. He and his wife decided to do mission work in Africa after all of their children were grown and out of the house.

“We went through our church to an orphanage in Zambia. Most of the children there had lost one or both of their parents to AIDS,” he says. “It was truly horrible.”

It was on that trip that DeSisto was inspired to go back to school.

“After returning from Africa in late 2010 I began looking at the options for moving into a more public/human service sort of career and the biomedical sciences, including medicine, were on the short list of options that I considered,” he says. “At the time, I also thought about going back to get a PhD in physics or in economics.”

However, it was a tragic diagnosis that inspired DeSisto to study medicine. His wife was diagnosed with early-stage, but aggressive, breast cancer six months after they returned from Africa.

“My wife’s cancer diagnosis and treatment were what convinced me that medicine is what I really want to pursue,” he says. “I then did some clinical volunteer work at Denver Health and also a medical mission to Haiti to confirm my interest in medicine.”

In August of 2013 he started taking general life science courses at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“I have to admit I was a little nervous to go back to school at my age,” he says. “But soon I realized that none of my classmates or professors really cares about age and we all connect by having similar interests.”

After spending some time in basic research labs, DeSisto wanted to focus on research in a translational setting where discoveries can be quickly adapted to improve patient outcomes. He was accepted to the fellowship program at the beginning of this summer. He is now working in the lab of preceptor Adam Green, MD. Green specializes in pediatric neuro-oncology.

“Working in the lab has been such a wonderful experience and Dr. Green is an enthusiastic teacher who is pursuing many innovative projects,” says DeSisto. “I love being able to interact with everyone in the different labs in pediatric oncology and hematology — they are a smart and inspiring group of people.”

DeSisto is also a grant recipient from the St. Baldricks Foundation, which specializes in pediatric oncology.  He plans to go to medical school and further his studies. While he is not sure exactly what aspect of oncology he wants to specialize in, he knows that cancer is his calling.

“The way I see it I have at least another 20 years of work ahead of me,” he says. “It does not matter if I have to start fresh in a new career, I would much rather pursue something for which I truly have a passion.”