Despina Siolas, Ph.D., M.D. '01C

Despina Siolas against city background

Empathy is Vital

An oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, Despina Siolas, Ph.D., M.D., began her journey toward a career in medicine nearly 20 years ago at St. John’s University.

Dr. Siolas specializes in medical oncology, which focuses on chemotherapy as a way to cure or control cancer. Her “sub-specialty” is gastrointestinal oncology, and she primarily treats patients with colon, liver, esophageal, stomach, or pancreatic cancer, her primary focus. “Eighty percent of my time is spent doing research,” she said, “and 20 percent involves seeing patients. Of those, 50 percent suffer from pancreatic cancer.”

It was Salvatore Spizzirri ’67C, ’72GEd, ’77GEd, a former Associate Dean in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who originally suggested that Dr. Siolas pursue a career in medicine. She entered the University’s Women in Science Scholarship Program. “I was lucky,” she said. “I had so many great mentors—and not just in the sciences.”

She especially appreciated the personal attention she received in and out of the classroom. “I have a lot of vivid memories of interacting and getting advice from my professors,” she said. “I don’t think that would have been the case at a university with a larger faculty-to-student ratio.”

As a Biology major, Dr. Siolas spent much of her time in the laboratory of Christopher Bazinet, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biological Sciences. “That really cemented my research skills,” she said. ”Working in the lab is incredibly rewarding: you are always learning something new, and it is all for the good.”

Dr. Siolas’s interest in health care grew after a summer volunteering in the emergency room at Peconic Bay Medical Center, in Riverhead, LI. Combining her passions for scholarly inquiry and medicine, she was accepted into the dual M.D./Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University. She was able to conduct research at nearby Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Dr. Siolas had a personal reason for specializing in oncology. “Most people go into it because they had a loved one who suffered from cancer,” she observed. “My mom had colon cancer over 20 years ago. She’s fine now, but that sort of propelled me into studying oncology.”

Today, Dr. Siolas draws upon all the courses she took at St. John’s—including those in Theology and Philosophy. Subjects like those teach empathy, she said, a vital quality in a physician. “That is not something they always teach you in medical school,” she said. “But it is part of what you learn at St. John’s.”