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Works in Progress: Quite a Force

by Howard Hewitt
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Jon O’Donnell ’10 wants to play backyard basketball again with Purdue point guard Chris Kramer.

O’Donnell wants to understand philosophers, music, and great wine.
He also wants to cure cancer.
“He’s serious in a way almost beyond his years,” says friend, mentor, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Mark Brouwer. “The first time you meet him he tells you he’s wanted to cure cancer since he was a young child. From most people, that would come off as a cute, endearing remark—from Jon, it’s real.”
O’Donnell, son of a Huntington University professor and cancer/heart transplant survivor, shouldn’t be underestimated. The chemistry major and philosophy minor has the academic credentials and self-discipline to do anything he decides is important.
He has impressed Wabash faculty and, at times, mesmerized classmates. “One of the things that makes Jon a special student is his passion,” says Professor of Chemistry Richard Dallinger. “He has been relentless in his pursuit of understanding all that needs to be considered to [cure cancer]. He lobbied for a special topics course on the chemistry of cancer [which Professor Ann Taylor taught] to fuel his need to study cancer.
“Jon can be quite a force when he focuses his energies on a particular subject.”
O’Donnell spent his first three years at Wabash adhering to a strict daily schedule. By his own admission, he was very reserved. Although that has changed since a study-abroad experience in Spain, he remains modest about his remarkable academic accomplishments. He was co-salutatorian at the Canterbury School in Fort Wayne. He graduated from Wabash with a 3.99 GPA. He scored a 40 on his MCAT. He was selected a Commencement speaker. His long list of medical school applications included interviews at Emory, Yale, Duke, Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, and Indiana among others. He has decided to begin his studies in medicine at Duke this fall.
O’Donnell’s abilities transcend test scores.
“Jon has an amazing mind,” Dallinger says. “He not only learns facts flawlessly, but he sees connections among seemingly disparate facts or concepts that few other students see. His work on the chemistry senior comprehensive exam really showed his abilities in that regard; he achieved one of the top, if not the top, score on the chemistry comps that I have seen in 26 years at the College.”
JON’S DRIVE, PASSION, AND WILL are inspired by his mother’s battle with cancer and heart failure. His mother, Liz, was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer when Jon was six years old. She underwent aggressive chemotherapy treatment that doctors believe led to her heart problems. She was not a good candidate for a heart transplant until a clinical trial was offered to only three hospitals in the U.S., including Lutheran Hospital in Ft. Wayne.
She got the transplant and—despite considerable pessimism from her doctors concerning her survival—is doing well.
“She has seemingly gotten better and better over the years,” Jon says. “She has passed milestones of 5 and 10 years and is on year 13 now. Once you get past those thresholds, you should be bound to live a normal-length life.”
His parents sheltered him from some of the harsh realities of his mother’s nearly three years in the hospital. But he observed closely the patients and doctors around him during his weekly visit. He knew then he wanted to be a doctor.
“It’s always been a part of my thinking. In middle school, I did science fair projects. Some people did theirs on plants or video games. I did mine on immunosuppression,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “Last year for medicinal chemistry, I wrote a research report on the same chemotherapy that killed my mom’s heart.
“I’ve consciously chosen these topics, but I think they’ve chosen me, too. It makes me feel content. It makes me feel I’m helping the world. I just feel it’s a natural calling. The number-one key to happiness is to do what you love, right? This is what I love to do.”
Jon’s father, Jim, realized early that Jon was academically gifted. He moved him to the expensive but much more challenging private Canterbury Schools in Fort Wayne. Jon is quick to say it was the best thing for his academic career, but at first he was miserable.
“Dad still recounts many times I’d come home from Canterbury and sit at the dinner table and cry because all I wanted to do was see my old friends, hang out, and play basketball.”
One of his old basketball buddies was a starting guard and Purdue Boilermakers’ Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer. “We used to play all the time in my backyard. And I beat him routinely,” Jon says with as much pride as any discussion of his academic achievements.
“But I’m glad Dad made the choice for me. I rose to the challenge and challenged myself. If there is one thing I know about myself, it is that I care about what I learn.”
Brouwer calls O’Donnell exceptional.
“It’s really a raw intellectual ability combined with a sincerity of intention and grounded with a moral center that is truly remarkable,” Brouwer says. “I don’t want to overstate the case, but I think he is about the best student I’ve met in terms of sheer cognitive abilities.
“But he has a reflective side. You see it in discussions of wine and discussions of music. One of his goals is to become more reflective politically and culturally. He wants to be able to employ philosophy.”
Brouwer has challenged Jon to consider a life of reflection, or research, and not just a life of service as a physician. O’Donnell insists those two pursuits aren’t necessarily at odds.
The 22-year-old worked last summer at a camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses and quickly realized he enjoyed working with people and not just the inanimate interactions of a laboratory. “It profoundly impacted my life working with those kids and seeing all the interesting psychology. I was a cabin counselor 24/7. I noticed a difference in between spring and fall [2009]. I have changed dramatically in my extroversion because of camp.”
If you ask Jon today, his academic path over the next 10 years would end as a pediatric oncologist.
Jon’s hard work and dedicated lifestyle allowed him to get all but a couple of labs completed in his first two years. Though, he does admit taking a lot of teasing his freshman year when he went to bed at 11 p.m. each night.
He studied in Spain the fall semester of his junior year and explored other areas of interest his senior year. He joined the Glee Club, took guitar lessons, and pondered theater with his friend Spencer Elliott ’10.
Brouwer nurtured Jon’s developing interest in wine. O’Donnell devoured an encyclopedic-type book on wine over Christmas break and realized he had maxed out until he could visit a vineyard. So he and buddies Elliott and Brandon Hirsch ’10 spent spring break as a guest of Stephen Pavy ’82 in Sonoma for a week. Pavy arranged vineyard and winery visits in Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
“The thing that makes Jon a special student is the breadth of his intellectual interests,” Dallinger says. “He has done outstanding work and impressed a great many faculty members in all sorts of academic disciplines. He would most likely have been the best student in his major no matter which subject he chose. I think his strong interest in both science and philosophy, for example, will give him tremendously interesting perspectives as a physician.”
He has the admiration of the faculty and his fellow students. He praises the way his parents sheltered him from a terrible three years, provided the best academic opportunity, and encouraged him in everything he has tried.
“I push myself,” Jon says of his parent’s direction. “Dad always would say, ‘I know you’ll do the right thing. I know you’ll do well,’ no matter what the challenge or decision I had to make. I’ve always wanted to live up to that bar.
“It was never anything like, ‘You’ve had this experience so you should give back and be a doctor.’ I have some talents and I have interests. Mom and Dad encourage me with that.
“I think they’re tickled with delight that it’s in oncology—that such good can come from such bad.”