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The Accidental Biologist

Meet Dave Conway, circa 1998. Patchogue-Medford High School senior and self-described band geek. A music lover? You bet. Science and math? Not so much.

“I think I stopped taking sciences and math when they said ‘you don’t have to take it anymore,’” he says. “I was done. And I was happy with that. I was really happy with that.”

Flash-forward 13 years: Dave Conway graduates from St. Joseph’s College with a bachelor’s degree in … biology? He’s working as an adjunct professor, teaching in the genetics lab?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Dave Conway ’11 washed his hands of science as a teenager, but discovered an unexpected passion for biology after a few twists of fate.

“I graduated, I moved on. I was doing the whole music thing and I was really enjoying it,” he says, “and then my mother got sick. She came down with severe asthma out of nowhere.

“I wanted to know what was wrong with her,” Dave says; his quest for answers eventually led him to Manhattan where he began to work as an emergency medical technician — critical care (EMT-CC) and communication specialist for New York Presbyterian Hospital in 2001. That job put him on the front line for the terrorist attacks on September 11.

“I still have problems talking about it,” he says, yet still musters the courage to share a few words about his experience:

“I responded in. I was there for a couple of days and I did my job. I lost a bunch of good friends. It was tough. I think that’s really what pushed me to stop working out there and come out here.”

Dave transferred his skills as an EMT-CC back to his hometown North Patchogue Fire Department, where he worked full time as a paid first responder for several years. Eventually his wife, Trish, and several of his closest friends urged him to earn a college degree and become a science teacher.

“I always loved teaching,” he says. “I was a teacher for EMS for a couple of years, and I said, ‘I can do this; I can go back.’

“I did some college here and there,” he says, but in 2007, he landed at St. Joseph’s Long Island Campus.

Dave was already familiar with the College and its staff after years of coordinating community events for the fire department, such as CPR and automated external defibrillator training sessions. Its prime location was another selling point, but the biggest plus was SJC’s small class sizes.

“I did some classes in other places, and I was considered a number; I wasn’t considered a person,” he says. “What I’d heard from other people who went here was that everybody knew everybody. … I knew there were small classes, and I knew that if I needed help, I could go to somebody and they would be able to help me out.”

Dave had planned to become a science teacher, but as he progressed, he began to feel the medical field beckoning once again. He eventually shelved his teaching aspirations and switched his major to biology, intending to train as a physician assistant. He became so enamored with the science that he worked part time as a lab assistant, and later as a lab manager/technician, which he says was his favorite part about being at St. Joseph’s.

Working in the labs not only helped him gain deeper insight into the curriculum, but also strengthened his connections with the department’s faculty. Those connections became so strong that Dave was hired as an adjunct professor after he graduated; he taught two portions of genetics lab during the spring 2011 semester before being accepted to the B.S./M.S. in Physician Assistant Studies program at Touro College School of Health Sciences in Bay Shore; he expects to complete his studies by September 2013. He even discovered the cause of his mother’s unexplained asthma.

“Just recently, I kind of diagnosed her before she was diagnosed with this rare … deficiency in a protein,” he says. “I just learned about it in school.”

Dave lavishes praise on the biology professors who guided him through his years at St. Joseph’s, both as their student and colleague, including Moira Royston, Ph.D. (“She really taught me how to write. I thought I knew … but she showed me I didn’t know how to write with my first paper.”), Valerie Nappi-Giordano (“She really wanted you to understand science. … She was probably one of the hardest teachers, but I really learned a lot from her.”) and department chair Francis Antonawich, Ph.D. (“If Dr. A asked me to teach basket weaving, I’d learn how to basket weave … because he’s just so much fun to work with.”).

Now more than a year into his P.A. program, Dave is contemplating his future career, but with so many diverse interests to choose from, it looks like he’s facing a tough decision.

“I do enjoy pediatrics,” he says, “I think I’m going to stay out of emergency medicine, but I kind of want to go into either [gastroenterology], because I find it fascinating, and cardiology I’ve always found fascinating, and also pulmonology …”

Quite a change for the band geek who quit science at the first opportunity.

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