Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we learn more about 2015 Tillman Scholar and Stanford University student Fabian Suchy whose family emigrated from Czechoslovakia to provide a free life for themselves and their children. As a combat medic, Fabian witnessed the need for regenerative medicine early in his career and is currently in the PhD Program research field at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University.
PLEASE SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY’S JOURNEY TO IMMIGRATE TO AMERICA FROM CZECHOSLOVAKIA.
“My parents emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1980 where they were accepted as political refugees from the occupying Communist regime. My parents came here in search for more freedom for themselves and their family. What they did is pretty remarkable to me. I couldn’t imagine leaving my home or family and friends knowing it’s going to be forever and you may never see them again. If they would’ve gone back, they would have received a 10-year jail sentence because they were not allowed to leave. During their travels to America they had to take separate flights because it would have been too obvious that a married couple was leaving. They both flew to New York, not knowing much of the language – which says a lot about the situation they were in and the risks they were taking in coming to America. They came with about $3,000, which was stolen when they put their bag down on a train and took their eyes off of it for a second. It was an incredible thing for them to choose the country they would live in rather than being born into it. The spirit of America is a powerful thing.”
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY TRANSITION FROM CZECHOSLOVAKIA?
“You can’t just come over to America. They went to New York and someone told them there was a Czech community in Chicago so they got a Greyhound ticket. Once in Chicago, they were told to go to a certain block and started walking into a bad neighborhood with bags full of mayonnaise and bread because that’s all they could afford to eat. As they were walking, a cop drove by, U-turned, started talking to them and he could see they were scared. The police officer gave them a ride to the police station where they received a lot of help and eventually both found work. Long story short, they ended up in Kenosha, WI. My mom now has her PhD in Neuropsychology and my dad is an Engineer. They did a great job!”
BEING BORN AN AMERICAN CITIZEN, WHICH EVENTUALLY DROVE YOU TO YOUR MILITARY ENLISTMENT AT THE AGE OF 18, WHAT SENSE OF PRIDE DID YOU FEEL ONCE YOU LEARNED OF YOUR FAMILY’S STORY AND THAT YOU WERE AN AMERICAN CITIZEN?
“I always knew I was an American citizen but never knew the details of their story in coming to the U.S. and their path to citizenship. Recently I asked my mom and dad separately about their venture coming here and there were so many details I didn’t know. When I joined the military I didn’t immediately recognize that their past greatly influenced my decision to enlist. I knew I felt a huge sense of obligation but didn’t realize it was because my parents had gone through their own amazing journey to get to the U.S. Having time to reflect on that decision over the past 11 years, I felt that since I was willing to do it and able to do it, I had to do it. It was a huge sense of responsibility for me.”
WHAT DID YOUR ROLE IN THE ARMY NATIONAL GUARD ENTAIL?
“In 2003 I was initially part of a field artillery unit where I was line medic. Each battery had one medic responsible for about 80 people. In 2005 we deployed for the first time with an Air Assault Infantry battalion for 15 months to Kuwait where I was a platoon medic responsible for 30-40 people. After that deployment and briefly joining a Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, we deployed for another 12-months to Iraq in 2009 with the military police. At that point I was a sergeant and responsible for an emergency medical response shift at a Theater Internment Facility where the Iraqi government held their detainees. In that role, we were training the Iraqis and their correction officers. Upon my return, I joined a medical unit, became a Staff Sergeant and got my own evacuation platoon.”
DURING YOUR NEARLY 11 YEARS OF SERVICE, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF OR BEING A COMBAT MEDIC THAT YOU MAYBE DIDN’T REALIZE PRIOR TO JOINING THE MILITARY?
“I didn’t know I wanted to be a medic when joining the military but I knew I wanted to do something that would translate into the civilian side. The recruiter recommended I go into military intelligence or become a medic. I absolutely ended up loving being a medic and am incredibly glad I chose that route. Of course, it could be a high stress job. I learned in very stressful situations that many people handle them differently and my way was becoming overly calm.”
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SEPARATE FROM THE MILITARY?
“I didn’t want to separate, I loved it. I was in line for promotion and didn’t feel ready to get out but I also wanted to do the research I’m doing now – which is very important to me, and I wouldn’t be able to do both at the time. If I were to stay in, another deployment would come up and I would have to stop my research and start all over again after I return from the deployment.”
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR CAREER PATH OF REGENERATIVE MEDICINE AND STEM CELL BIOLOGY?
“I always knew I was interested in discovery, research and science but never really realized I was interested in medicine until after joining the military as a combat medic. Early on in my training I did a brief clinical rotation at the Brooke Area Medical Center burn unit. That experience was where I first started getting the inkling of wanting to go into regenerative medicine. I was going in to see my very first patient whose hands and face were severely burned in combat. I had previously seen many pictures of burn victims in textbooks and thought I knew what to expect. When I walked into the room “the picture” sat up, started talking to me and I hesitated for a second. It taught me that you can’t prepare for everything. It was a very real, different experience for me as I would sit with him every morning for an hour to scrape the skin that was falling off. We would just talk. I also had the opportunity to watch some skin grafts and got to thinking, ‘couldn’t we just grow this?’
At the same time, stem cells became more popular in the news, although unfortunately sometimes as a huge political debate rather than an ethical or scientific debate. Throughout my military career, I’ve seen people that are in need of new kidneys or have partially destroyed lungs, but we’re able to keep them alive. In the future, I think we will be able to dramatically improve their condition.”
WHAT DOES YOUR FOCUS OR DAY TO DAY STUDIES AT STANFORD ENTAIL?
“It’s all research right now in the Nakauchi lab at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (PhD program at Stanford). My focus is on translational research as it is often hard to go from the research bench to the bedside. A primary focus of the Nakauchi lab is to make human organs in livestock animals like pigs and sheep. We’re essentially trying have the animals develop normally with a specific organ made out of human cells. It could then be transplanted back into a human.”
WHAT IS A DAY IN THE LAB LIKE FOR YOU?
“When I arrive in the lab I check on my many cells that I’m growing, they are like my children so I carefully feed and maintain them daily. Some days I get a shipment of sheep oocytes that require some preparation. After a few days of preparing and activating the sheep eggs, I inject the cells and check for engraftment in vitro (in a dish). This is just a generalization, as decades of developments in genetics, cellular and molecular biology have finally made this project feasible.”
WHAT IS THE HOPE FOR USING THESE STEM CELLS ON HUMANS AND THE END GOAL?
“Right now many people die while waiting for an organ on the transplant waiting list. Even if you do get an organ, it’s not guaranteed to be a perfect match, and you’re going to have to be on immune suppressants for the rest of your life, meaning you’ll have more infections and get sick more often. There’s also Graft vs. Host disease which can happen early on after an organ transplant where immune cells in the organ attack your own body. The organs we’re trying to make are a perfect genetic match made out of your own cells. You’d be getting an organ that would be nearly perfect.”
HOW LONG DOES THE REGENERATION PROCESS TAKE AND WHAT IS THE END GOAL?
“First we have to make the cells and then after about two months we start characterizing them. Then we have to inject them into a very small seven-day-old animal embryos. For sheep it takes about 150 days for them to give birth, so the whole thing could take more than six months. However, most people are on the organ transplant list for longer than six months, especially with kidneys.
The end goal would be, in the U.S., if we used one out of a thousand livestock for patient-specific organs instead of eating them, to eliminate the entire organ transplant waiting list. Since we consume a massive amount of meat, we would only need to use 0.1 percent of those animals to have no organ transplant waiting list.”
WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE GOAL UPON GRADUATING FROM STANFORD WITH YOUR PhD?
“I’m interested in academia, becoming a professor, having my own lab and doing research, however I never thought about the business side of science and research. At Stanford in Silicon Valley, we have some of the top professors in the world and some of them also have businesses, so you see a different side of things. I’m now open to going into business as well but at the moment I don’t have to make a decision. I mainly see myself becoming a professor and doing my own research in regenerative medicine.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE A TILLMAN SCHOLAR, KNOWING THAT YOU’RE ONE OF 400+ CHOSEN INDIVIDUALS CARRYING FORWARD THE LEGACY OF PAT TILLMAN AND WHAT HE STOOD FOR?
“I had heard about the Tillman Scholarship from a fellow Tillman Scholar as I was in the process of getting out of the military and was worried about losing that camaraderie and connection. After receiving the scholarship, I knew it was a big deal but didn’t know how much of a big deal until I came to the Leadership Summit where I was absolutely amazed by the incredible people who set and surpassed goals they set, doing it with such ease. It is humbling and an honor to be part of such a remarkable community.”
ASIDE FROM THE FINANCIAL ASPECT, WHAT HAS THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP PROVIDED YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD?
“It’s absolutely amazing seeing all the people and how diversified everyone is. I’ve only been a Tillman Scholar for one year but it’s easy for me to question myself, ‘why me?’ Through the Tillman community and seeing other people like me and how successful they are, I realize that diversification does not take away from any particular skill, but enhances what we do in each area.”