Last Monday, David Fajgenbaum (MED’13, WG’15) stood before a hushed auditorium and told us a story about tragedy and hope. As a freshman in college with the brightest of futures—a quarterback, medical scholar, beloved son and brother—David’s mother was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away his sophomore year. Wracked by grief but determined to memorialize his mother, David dedicated his life to two things: building a national grief support network for college students by establishing the National Students of AMF Support Network and building a career focused on cancer research.
But, David’s exposure to deadly illness was far from over. During his third year of medical school at UPenn in 2010, David was struck with a lethal autoimmune disease called idiopathic multicentric Castleman’s disease. He spent months hospitalized, receiving countless courses of chemotherapies, and had his last rites read to him. Since then, Fajgenbaum’s body has become the site of a battle that almost almost claimed his life several times. Beleaguered doctors placed their faith in trial treatments that have all failed at times, but worked enough to keep him alive—just so.
Many ill young people struggle with incomprehensible pain and the confusion of dying young, but David’s journey did not end with his diagnosis; instead, it became his mission. David’s talk, “Leadership in Overtime,” focused not on the adversity he has endured, but the progress that has resulted from the ticking urgency he feels.
“I am constantly running at full speed to try to solve my disease,” he said. Having relapsed every 15 months since becoming ill in 2010, David’s speech comes at month 13 since his last relapse, and the urgency he feels is palpable.
In 2012, without a cure in sight, David decided to find one himself—he returned to medical school after yet another deadly relapse and teamed up with Arthur Rubenstein to advance research and treatment for Castleman disease. He set out with two goals : conduct paradigm-shifting research at UPenn that would upend conventional understanding of the disease, and establish a global research network to optimize the way biomedical research is performed.
In the current biomedical research system, diseases can take decades to solve. The biomedical research community is beset with administrative, funding, and political issues that often make progress in research and treatment opaque to other labs, forestalling fruitful collaborations that could cut down development by several years. Realizing he didn’t have time for different clinics to figure things out, David doubled down on his efforts—and degrees—by pursuing an MBA at Wharton: “I realized that problems in medical research are actually business problems. Strategy, collaboration, management, operations, and execution.”
David decided to ”change the game” of medical research so that it looked more like structured problem-solving than the current approach of letting individual researchers operate in silos, and “hoping for discovery.” David created the CDCN (Castleman Disease Collaborative Network) in 2012, a global network that seeks to accelerate research breakthroughs through global collaboration, strategic partnership, patient engagement, and investment in high-impact research. He has since enlisted several Wharton MBAs to work with him and had this message for those at Wharton who are unsure how or where to apply their skills: “I encourage all of you to realize that your business skills have real application, even in areas where you think you don’t know everything.”
This comes as a call to action for the Wharton community to get aware, and get involved. Several Wharton MBAs have joined together to run the Wharton Campaign to Knock Out Castleman Disease, to help raise funds needed to solve this disease. If David’s story has taught us anything, it is that time is precious, and we are capable of much more than we realize. Join us in supporting David’s work by:
1) Using your Wharton knowledge to volunteer for David’s CDCN leadership team. He has several projects that need you, and need you NOW! Email David (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sean Craig (email@example.com) to get involved.
2) Supporting the Knock Out Castleman Disease campaign’s goal of raising $40,000 to fund a high-impact study. Currently, there is a dollar-for-dollar match! More info at www.castlemannetwork.org/wharton
3) Participating in the Boot Camp 2 Beat Castleman’s led by David and Jonathan Sockol on March 19 (MBA Pub and Fight Night Weigh in). Rumor has it that Dean Howey, Dean Garrett, and Kembrel will be there! More info at www.castlemannetwork.org/wharton
A video recording of David’s lecture is available here: https://upenn.box.com/s/lj6jf7qneajz5zvaaxvsisp6qjbvpfce
If you are interested in nominating a classmate with a compelling story to speak for the Peer Perspectives on Leadership series, please contact Daphne Chen, (WG’16) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, like our Facebook page (Wharton Peer Perspectives on Leadership) to stay up-to-date on upcoming presentations.
Check out more from the Wharton Journal:
- WGA Executives – Letter to Wharton
- Why Professor Barbara Kahn Won Iron Prof
- One for the World: A Practical, Effective Approach to Meaningful Philanthropy