May 19, 2006

Graduation 2006: VUSM Founder’s medalist ends winding, and surprising, journey

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Joshua Fessel is presented the Vanderbilt School of Medicine's Founder's Medal by Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Graduation 2006: VUSM Founder’s medalist ends winding, and surprising, journey

When Josh Fessel was accepted to Vanderbilt's M.D./Ph.D. program in 1999, he spent the next week hoping they hadn't made a mistake.

He was about to join a group of colleagues from top-tier schools including Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth and Vanderbilt; a far cry from the farm in Olney, Ill., where he grew up, a small town with a claim to fame as “Home of the White Squirrel.”

Today, he is the Founder's Medalist for the School of Medicine, an award presented to the top student in each of Vanderbilt's schools.

“He is an amazing student and will be a leader in medicine in the future,” said Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D. “Everything he has done he has done exceptionally well, as a medical student and as a great researcher. And he is very humble.”

Fessel, 28, will intern at Vanderbilt for a year studying internal medicine and then move to Boston to do his anesthesiology residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is a Beecher Scholarship recipient for his incoming class.

The University of Evansville, Ind., graduate said he probably wouldn't have applied to med school if he had known more about it; he thinks it would have been too intimidating.

And he certainly wouldn't be at the top of his Vanderbilt class, a school where he considered not coming to his interview for fear of rejection.

“I spent the first part of my life on a farm,” Fessel said. “My uncle raised hogs and my grandfather predominantly raised crops — corn, soybeans, that kind of thing — and about six other towns in the U.S. also claim to be the home of the white squirrel.”

Fessel found his love for research in Evansville while working on a summer project in a biochemistry lab.

“It wouldn't surprise me if Josh is one day shaking the hand of the King of Sweden during the Nobel Prize ceremonies,” said Vanderbilt clinical pharmacology mentor Jackson Roberts II, M.D., who presented Fessel with his Ph.D. diploma last Friday.

“He just has a knack for science. When Josh gets in the lab it's like he has been doing this for 20 years. He doesn't fumble around and do crazy, irrelevant experiments. He knows right where to look. And he's not just a successful scientist, he is a successful person.”

Medicine runs in the Fessel family; Josh's mother, Rebecca Fessel, is a nurse.

“Whatever success I have had up to this point is a combination of hard work, good luck, excellent mentors, and a supportive environment … being surrounded by colleagues that you respect and that you can rely on,” Fessel said.

“And all of that comes together at Vanderbilt, probably in a way that it doesn't anywhere else. The goal is never an award; the goal is to always be better at whatever it is that you do — take better care of patients, do more insightful research.

“Every day is a school day. What you did yesterday is great, but I’m more interested in what you are doing today and, more importantly, what are you doing tomorrow.”