May 11, 2010

A Degree of Tenacity

LeRoy Schwartz

Twenty-two years after he registered for classes at Case Western Reserve University, a biomedical engineering student will walk across the stage and receive his diploma at commencement on Sunday, May 16 in Veale Athletic Center.

LeRoy Schwartz, 57, pushed through bouts of cancer and treatments, changing faculty and changing technology.

“Thank God that in the last 10 years there have been great advances in treating non-Hodgkins lymphoma,” the soft-spoken Schwartz said. When he was first diagnosed, life expectancy was 11 years.

Back during his first round of chemotherapy, others asked what he cared about getting the degree.

“I said that even if I croak the day after, my tombstone will say I got a biomedical engineering degree from Case Western Reserve University.”

He credits Professors Gerald Saidel and Andrew Rollins and Associate Dean of Engineering Pat Crago with providing him dead-on guidance and the opportunity to succeed. They give Schwartz all the credit for his perseverance.

Schwartz had left the family business, Schwartz Furs, in the early 80s with the goal of earning a degree in biomedical engineering then going to medical school. But over the years as he had to deal with the disease and more roadblocks, Schwartz set his goal on taking extra classes in optical imaging and neurostimulation to give himself more breadth and depth than younger classmates he’d compete with for jobs.

For a decade, the cancer kept coming back, but, sometimes right after treatment, sometimes longer, Schwartz kept returning to school.

He applied to graduate and was in the midst of his senior project building a handheld optics probe in 1998 when cancer returned and he went through a series of treatments and relapses.

He was about to start work on the project again in late 2007; but during the next two years, he was sidelined again with hospitalizations, for pulmonary embolism and pneumonia.

Due to all the delays, “The project I had begun was now becoming obsolete,” Schwartz said. And, his project advisor had left CWRU for another position.

Schwartz thought he’d have to start over on another senior project but Crago, who was department chair then, referred him to Rollins, who was the new head of the biomedical optics group. Rollins agreed to evaluate the work.

Schwartz set out to write up his research in 2009. By this time, the hard drive on his old hand-me-down computer had died and his work was held on an old fashioned floppy disk. Rollins helped link Schwartz up with a compatible computer and software.

“I put the floppy in and I sat there just praying,” Schwartz said. “It could have been completely destroyed or erased. It sat for 10 years.

“It popped up – my paper on the monitor.” The paper was rough, not in the shape he’d allow himself to submit. During the next three months, Schwartz reread all 30-some works he’d cited, and began rewriting.

When it was finally in a shape, Rollins evaluated the paper, giving him an A. Miklos Gratzel, with whom started his senior project back in 1998, but who had left and later returned to the engineering school, graded the project: an A.

“This is the most gratifying thing I’ve done in my life, the most challenging thing I’ve done,” Schwartz said.

Friends and family questioned his choice to keep at it, asking, “Who would hire you, a guy in his 50s, even if he had the degree.”

“I wasn’t quitting, not with all the work I’d put in.,” he told them. “And, at a time when people are living longer, there’s still much left to do.”

For more information contact Kevin Mayhood, 216.368.4442.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, May 11, 2010 10:06 AM | News Topics: Case School of Engineering, Commencement, School of Medicine, Students, news

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