May 08, 2017
By Greg Peters
After nearly five years of doctoral work in rehabilitation science, medical researcher Jason-Flor Sisante is packing up his freshly minted dissertation along with his guitar and his bowties. He is leaving the University of Kansas Medical Center to write the next chapter in a storied career that has already included stops as a NASA intern and collaborating with researchers at Duke and Yale universities.
If it seems like Sisante was genetically predisposed to study the science behind what makes the human body work, there is a strong case to be made for that since both his parents were physicians. His father, Dr. Fiorencio Sisante, was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States, while his mother, Dr. Joan Villarosa - also of Filipino decent - was born in Virginia.
And while having medical science in his DNA is a plus, what really set Sisante down the road toward becoming a health science researcher is something that happened when he was in high school. A friend of his who was a member of the school's kick line team suffered a stroke, which was odd since she was young, active and physically fit - she certainly didn't fit the stereotypical profile of someone who would have a cerebrovascular episode.
"I was baffled," he said. "This started me on my current path of asking questions regarding brain health."
Shortly thereafter, he began interning in the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) Lab at the Brookhaven National Laboratory near his hometown of Hauppauge on Long Island, New York. Since then he has worked in several outstanding research environments, including Duke University Medical Center, Yale University Psychiatry and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The right stuff
A self-described space nerd, Sisante recalls being the only person working in the NIDA Lab on the Saturday in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry into Earth's orbit, killing all seven astronauts onboard. The lab he was working in was located in a medical research building just down the hall from where NASA's radiation group had an office. He knew some of the scientists and felt their hurt.
"The morning of the Columbia disaster, I recognized there are scientific heroes willing to risk their lives to push the boundaries of our knowledge," Sisante said. "The next week it was heartbreaking to see the NASA group struggle to resume work. You sensed that they had lost family."
Fewer than 10 years later, he overcame long odds and was accepted as an intern for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston. In some ways his experiences working in close proximity to and being friends with the scientists from NASA in New York went from being one of the darkest moments of his life to one of the brightest when he became an intern in Texas.
"It was undoubtedly the best 10 weeks ever," said Sisante, who has since served as recruiter for NASA's educational programs. "It was like Disneyland for science lovers. The campus is filled with rovers, robots and ridiculously smart - but friendly and humble - people."
Coming to Kansas
Sisante set his sights on KU Medical Center and the REACH Laboratory run by Sandra Billinger, PT, Ph.D., FAHA, so he could focus on the ways cardiovascular health affects brain health. During his time at KU Medical Center the REACH Lab has grown and Billinger, his mentor, has established herself as a national leader as a stroke and exercise expert.
"My role in helping doctor of physical therapy students on their research projects has been very gratifying," he said. "And our collaborations with the Department of Neurology, whether it's the stroke team or the KU Alzheimer's Disease Center, will standout to me as memorable endeavors."
Two projects that Sisante was involved in were particularly important to him for personal reasons. Research done by Aditi Gupta (a medical doctor who is on the faculty of the KU Kidney Institute) to examine exercise intervention in patients with chronic kidney disease hit home because Sisante's father died from the disease. Sisante also worked with researchers investigating connections between cardiovascular and cognitive function among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sisante has friends and family who served in the military who suffer daily from the effects of PTSD.
Beyond the books
Beyond the research and his work with students, many people know Sisante for his musical talents, performing solo and with the band Vitamin Beat, covering everyone from Miley to Whitney to Elvis. He first paired up with another former doctoral student, Zaid Mansour, who had made a name for himself as a music producer in his home country of Jordan with performances at the White House and the United Nations to his credit.
"Eventually we became friends and started jamming out with Brandon Hidaka, who was in the middle of his MD-Ph.D. program, and Michael Abraham, who was on the neurology faculty," Sisante said. "That's how Vitamin Beat was born."
As for the bowties and hairstyles ranging from shoulder-length to ultra-short, those are part of the Sisante mystique as well. The bowties date back to his undergraduate days at Stony Brook University, when he first latched on to a "sweet-looking bowtie that depicted ribosomes (how could I NOT get that?)" at a Society for Neuroscience conference in 2004.
And something a lot of people don't know about Sisante is the fact that even his hair goes to a good cause. "I've donated my hair multiple times over the five years I've been here to a group that makes wigs for women and children afflicted with cancer," he explained.
Recently, Sisante received two honors that he will cherish among the most after he leaves KU Medical Center. He was named the winner of the Three-Minute Thesis competition and the recipient of the Kellyanne Jones Jamtgaard Commitment to Diversity Award. He saw the 3MT Award as milepost in his own growth from a student who was once bogged down in the minutia of research to a scholar who could articulate concisely what his work means to the everyday person.
Sisante said it was truly special for the son of immigrants to be honored by his peers for his work on campus.
"It's humbling to be recognized for my contributions to increase campus diversity and support our international students," he said. "I see scientific literacy as a social issue, especially in light of today's political climate, so my work as an educational recruiter and peer mentor is all in an effort to impact the next generation of scientists and informed citizens."
As this time in Sisante's life comes to a close, he's awash with emotions, ranging from joy, to excitement to melancholy. He's said goodbye to some wonderful friends during his time at KU Medical Center, and now it's time for his own farewell.
"I think about the amazing memories I've made here; the wonderful people and my personal and professional growth," said Sisante, who hopes to make his way back to a job at NASA someday. "I'm grateful for all this, and proud to call myself a Jayhawk. For the love of science - ROCK CHALK."