This past August 3rd, 2020 was my 34th pharmaceutical career anniversary, and a time to pause and reflect not only on my education and career but on how I got where I am today.
My parents immigrated in the mid-50s from Calabria, Italy. My mom and dad were sharecroppers and collectively had the equivalent of a high school education. They decided to make their way to the USA for greater opportunity, which for the uneducated back then, meant working in the factories. I venture to guess that they understood that the opportunity was not so much about them but more for the generations to follow. I deeply appreciate this difficult choice. To this day, I do whatever I can to visit my mom several times a year (excluding this current era of COVID-19.)
I grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin - a typical Midwest, blue collar working town. I have an immeasurable number of wonderful memories of those early years living with extended family. Until I was almost six years old, we all lived in the same home, and a small one at that, 12 of us in total! My childhood was characterized by close family, big Sunday dinners, holiday celebrations, gardens, summer backyard gatherings, neighborhood kids, yearly church festivals, and so much more. Our neighborhood was mostly Italian and from the southern regions like my family. The neighborhoods were defined by the churches and catholic schools in the vicinity, mine being Mount Carmel school and church. Columbus Park was also an integral part of our neighborhood, Kenosha history and my upbringing. Looking back today, I can see that I was mentored by so many teachers, coaches, parents and family – a literal village—around me.
After graduating from high school, I had a critical choice to make about my life and work. Following in my family footsteps meant going to work in any one of the several factories in town, but that’s not what I wanted. Fortunately, my parents wanted me to do what I wanted to do. All they ever demanded of my three siblings and me was that whatever path we should choose, to do it with all our heart and soul. I chose to go to college – the first in my family.
When my parents immigrated to the US, little did they know that their trans-Atlantic move, along with the strong community around us, would eventually result in my family’s first generation getting two PhDs in Chemistry, a Master’s in Molecular Biology, and a Bachelor’s in Accounting.
What advice and lessons did I learn from my childhood? 1) I’m not “self-made” but a product of so many people taking an interest and helping me grow. 2) Don’t be too quick to judge. Like gardening, the fruit of one’s sacrifices and efforts can take years or decades to see. Investing in others will eventually yield a great return regardless of the perceived change during the seeding and sowing phases.
With my high school education in the rearview mirror and little more than an insatiable desire to learn, I entered the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. I soaked up as much science as I
possibly could; eventually graduating with way more credits than I needed and almost double majoring in biology and chemistry. Afterwards, I began graduate studies at UW-Madison. As a fairly naïve young scientist, this at first represented just another higher layer of “stuff to learn”. As my older colleagues began to pursue careers in the pharmaceuticals industry, it finally clicked. I wanted to apply my thirst for knowledge to making an impact in discovering drugs and after 10 years of undergraduate through post graduate work, I entered the industry in 1986. Fast forwarding to today, with over 34 industry years behind me, I authored or co-authored 60+ scientific publications, over 80 issued US patents, and worked on the discovery and development of 20 drug candidates across a spectrum of therapeutic areas. It has been extremely rewarding knowing that I was part of improving the quality of life for patients suffering from diseases.
An equally rewarding and large part of my life has been my family. I’ve known my wife Vicky for over 45 years. We have three children; Michelle and Eric are still with us today, but sadly, our oldest son Joseph, who had epilepsy, passed away suddenly in 2011 of SUDEP at the age of 27. Joseph’s passing was an extraordinary time of loss and grief. It represented a potential challenge from which we could have never recovered and a moment for us to choose how we were going to respond. It’s relatively easy to establish a positive, forward direction from a place of high-level accomplishments, it’s much more difficult to find that direction in the midst of severe and even devastating hardship. Vicky and I chose to turn this season of pain into a major inspiration for creating positive change for those who faced similar challenges as Joseph. In 2013 we started the annual Joseph’s HOPE charity events for the Epilepsy Foundation of New England (EFNE), and established the Joseph’s HOPE Scholarship Fund and Emergency Fund, benefiting young adults and families challenged with epilepsy. Despite his challenges, Joseph was fortunate to have realized his educational and career dreams and aspirations before his time was cut short; his story is not the norm for those challenged with epilepsy. There is no better way of honoring him and nothing more rewarding than knowing we are helping young adults with epilepsy fulfill their dreams or knowing that we have helped a family in need.
I’m a big believer of paying it forward and leading others on this same path. All my life experiences, both good and bad, have been instrumental in shaping me and leading me to a space of creating opportunities so that others build better lives for themselves and future generations. If you ever have the opportunity to make that choice, TAKE IT because you will reap so much more joy and fulfillment than you sow.