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Sister Patricia Grasso, CSJ

For almost 30 years, endocrine researchers have known that a hormone called leptin signals to the brain when we have eaten enough and no longer require calories to maintain energy. And while individuals who are obese have plenty of leptin, it cannot access the brain, effectively leaving them without an appetite “off” switch.

Sister Patricia Grasso, CSJ ’62, G’67, has researched leptin for the past 24 years. She has eight patents and 70 published articles on the hormone and how it might be harnessed to minimize effects of obesity, diabetes, and cognitive impairment.

“Obesity used to be considered just a lack of willpower – bad eating habits,” she said from her office at Albany Medical College. “But now we know that obesity is an actual disease. If your brain can’t tell you when you don’t need to eat anymore, you will continue to feel hungry and think you need food.

“Therein lies the challenge,” she added. “If leptin can’t get into the brain, let’s find something that can do what leptin does, and can get into the brain to do it!”

Grasso’s journey has taken her from Albany’s South End, to local Catholic schools, Saint Rose, and eventually, to Georgetown University. For the past 33 years, Albany Medical College has been her professional home.

As a professor in the departments of Medicine and Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics, she teaches graduate and first-year medical students. As a researcher, she develops synthetic molecules that safely mimic leptin and can get into the brain. With them, she hopes to develop medications that will help people lose weight, maintain healthy blood-sugar levels, and slow or prevent cognitive decline in persons with Alzheimer’s Disease or Down syndrome.

She graduated from Cardinal McCloskey Memorial High School, which Governor Nelson Rockefeller soon razed to make room for a pool and greenhouse on the executive mansion grounds. Her family lived on Eagle Street, now site of the Egg, among scores of homes Rockefeller eventually demolished to build the Empire State Plaza. She enrolled at Saint Rose in 1958, with plans to become a biology teacher.

Two generations later, Grasso recalls playing intramural half-court basketball in a converted garage, singing second soprano in the glee club, and socializing in the locker room she and other day-hops used in Saint Joseph Hall’s basement. Her professors, most of them Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, left their mark.

“I had a great time in college and I can remember being very impressed by the sisters I had been exposed to there, and for my whole life,” she recalled. “They were then, and still are, some of the most educated women on the face of the earth, and they were so very happy. After a while, I began to think that I could fit right in – and so I did.”

Sister Patricia Grasso, CSJ

After sophomore year, Grasso entered CSJ, along with 64 other women (seven from Saint Rose) and lived at 741 Madison Avenue for the next five years. As postulants for the first six months, they learned the history, customs, and charism of the community.

Next, as canonical novices, they received the habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and became versed in theology and philosophy. Those who came from Saint Rose already had taken most of these classes, so wound up working in the kitchen.

Novices were unable to visit campus, so they resumed their Saint Rose studies thanks to instructors who visited them. Grasso vividly recalls seeing her mother Madison Avenue when her class walked down the hill to rehearse for taking their vows at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Now a junior sister, she returned to Saint Rose to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, along with an undergraduate education minor. She was assigned to teach in a number of high schools in the Albany Diocese and spend a year at Saint Rose, teaching histology among some other courses. Eventually, she landed at Catholic Central High School in Troy for 10 years.

“You didn’t ask back then. Where there was a need, there you would go,” she said.

But her path veered dramatically when she went to Georgetown University School of Medicine to pursue her Ph.D. By then, she was 40, and had taught high school regents biology for 15 years. Despite years away from higher education she learned her GRE scores were the highest of all applicants. She was even offered a job at Georgetown teaching histology, the study of the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals.

“Here I am, sitting there concerned about being good enough to get into the Ph.D. program, and the department chairman offers me a teaching position,” she recalled. “He had noticed that one year at Saint Rose on my resume. Before graduating, I also wound up teaching medical histology at the neighboring George Washington University Medical School. Word got around.”

As a doctoral student in Georgetown’s anatomy department, she was aware she stood out. Sisters no longer wore the habit, but many still wore a short veil. So everyone knew that she was a Sister, as well as an anatomy major.

“I can remember as clear as day, those days in surface anatomy studying the musculoskeletal system with nude models when there were as many eyes on me as there were on the models – just to see my reaction. I never shifted my gaze.”

Grasso completed her doctoral studies in 1984. By then, the Sisters could choose their own ministries. For her, that meant pursuing scientific research and teaching medical students, whom she considers as God’s miracle workers.

Though analytical and pragmatic by nature, Grasso sees no conflict between science and her faith life.

“Faith deals with people, places, and things for which there is no logic or proof,” she notes. “Faith is an act of the heart rather than of the mind.”

Grasso came to Albany Medical College in 1986 as a post-doctoral research fellow, and was appointed to the faculty in 1988. Her research has moved from endocrinology to neuroendorinology, specifically unraveling the link between obesity, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

She is fond of saying that the only thing her Saint Rose classmates claimed she has ever failed is retirement.

“I think the Sisters have a way of doing things that makes an impression on people’s lives,” she said. “I know this because students I have taught have said to me ‘If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be who I am.’ I tell them ‘No, if it weren’t for YOU, you would not be who you are today.'”

By Jane Gottlieb