Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletMay 25, 2020

Sisters' Stories

Sister Patricia Grasso, CSJ


As a youngster growing up in Albany, Patricia Grasso, PhD, associate professor in the Center for Cell Biology and Cancer Research and the division of endocrinology and metabolism, knew that science was her calling. She just never imagined that while pursuing her dream, she would also be drawn to an even higher calling: that of a nun.
After graduating from high school, Sister Patricia went to The College of Saint Rose to major in biology and education, and had a so-called 'normal' social life, i.e. dating, etc. Then, by chance, in her sophomore year she attended a reception put on by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet.
"It hit me like a lightning bolt," Sister Pat explains. "I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a nun. So, when they say it's a calling, I certainly believe that's true."
Sister Patricia, who is a Sister of St. Joseph, left Saint Rose after her sophomore year to join the community. As a sister, she graduated from Saint Rose with a bachelor's degree and a master's degrees in biology, and taught high school science in area Catholic schools for 15 years until she was appointed an assistant professor of biology at The College of Saint Rose. All the while, Sister Pat balanced her career aspirations with her religious responsibilities.
"My role as a sister has been to be a religious presence in all of the schools in which I have studied or taught and in the parishes and communities in which I have lived and worked. I have tried to do this by being accessible, available, supportive, a 'pray-er' for special intentions, a mentor, and a role model of 'a simpler life' in these days of 'much wants more,' she says.
In 1981, Sister Patricia moved to Washington, D.C. to study at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She earned a PhD in anatomy and spent several years doing post-doctoral research in reproductive endocrinology. In 1987, she joined the faculty of the Albany Medical College as an assistant professor of biochemistry and taught medical gross anatomy and several graduate biochemistry courses.
Using scientific techniques she had learned while working in reproductive endocrinology, Sister Patricia started the research project that would define her careerCdeveloping an anti-obesity peptide that would also be effective in treating Type 2 diabetes. Through a series of studies in rodents, she and her colleagues identified a synthetic fragment of leptin that suppresses appetite and increases metabolism, resulting in significant weight loss and lower blood glucose levels in animal models.
Work is now underway to develop anti-diabetes and anti-obesity drugs for humans. Recently, the Medical College and Aegis Therapeutics of San Diego announced an agreement designed to speed the development and commercialization of the Albany Med-discovered synthetic leptin peptide. The agreement authorizes Aegis to develop a partnership with a pharmaceutical company with the goal of beginning clinical trials in humans.
When asked whether it is counter intuitive for a nun to be a scientist, Grasso is quick to respond, "Absolutely not!"
"Sisters are probably the most well-educated population of women in the world, no matter if they are contemplative nuns or active sisters (like me)," Grasso says. "Teaching science goes right along with doing science, i.e., exploring science in an effort to find answers and then working these answers into the medical miracles that we have today. My role as a scientist is no different from my role as a sister; to seek truth by exploring the world around me in order to unveil some of its mysteries, and hopefully improve the human condition by doing so."
Daniel Lee, MD, associate professor of medicine and co-investigator on the leptin peptide project, believes that being a nun has helped Sister Patricia to foster relationships with students that would have never occurred otherwise. "It is this unique blend of humaneness and scientific acumen that has allowed her to be successful in nurturing the growth of a number of students who have rotated through our laboratory. When these students came to our laboratory, they not only learned scientific skills but also found a friend who would listen to their problems and provide counseling so that they would mature into capable adults," Lee says. (Dr. Lee, a dear friend of Pat, died suddenly on August 26, 2011.)
This year (2011), Sister Patricia celebrated 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph at a liturgical and community celebration at Saint Joseph's Provincial House in Latham.
As for Albany Med. we will continue to be blessed by Sister Pat Grasso's scientific wonder!
(from Albany Med Today, August 2011; reprinted with permission)