Victor Convertino: M.A., Physical Education, 1974; Ph.D., Physiology, 1981
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Betsy Towner Levine
Not many Ph.D.s will say that failing their oral exams was a good thing.
But physiologist and researcher Victor Convertino marks that moment at UC Davis as a positive turning point in his scientific career.
"Although I'd prepared myself adequately on my factual information about physiology, it was clear that I had not mastered the skill of integrating information and innovative thinking," said Convertino, the College of Biological Sciences' 2013 Outstanding Distinguished Graduate Alumni Award recipient.
After Convertino failed his exams, the chair of his committee, the late Dr. Ray Burger of Avian Science, met with him twice weekly for the next six months to challenge him with questions that, he said, "required me to go far beyond the textbook in my thinking."
Convertino credits his ability to think in innovative and novel ways—which have since led to the development of medical devices that save lives—to those training sessions Burger gave him at Davis.
"Ironically, as happens so often in life, I succeeded because of failure. The mentorship and support that Ray Burger and other Davis faculty provided me during this challenging period of my education was the defining moment that shaped my future path," he said.
And, of course, Convertino did pass on his second try—with flying colors. "They kicked me out of the room early," he said. "It was a world of difference."
After earning his Ph.D. in Physiology in 1981, Convertino embarked on a career marked by innovation and life-saving successes. He also married his girlfriend from UC Davis, Barbara; together the couple has four children and six grandchildren.
When the couple returned to campus for the weekend of the College Celebration, they enjoyed seeing that some things never change: "It was funny to walk the campus on the next day and see our old professor, Dr. John Horowitz, on the steps of Briggs Hall," Convertino said.
Today Convertino is the tactical combat casualty care research task area program manager at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) at Joint Base San Antonio—Fort Sam Houston.
Among the several combat casualty care research projects that Convertino has participated in since joining the USAISR in 1998 are development of the impedance threshold device (ITD) and compensatory reserve index (CRI) algorithm. The ITD increases low blood pressure in spontaneously breathing patients and the CRI algorithm utilizes the information obtained from a standard pulse oximeter and gauges whether a patient requires resuscitation or immediate medical attention.
Convertino feels the work he's done on these two innovations has been the most fulfilling of his career. Together, the ITD and the CRI algorithm can have a significant impact on the way emergency medical clinicians and medics will resuscitate and triage trauma patients in the pre-hospital setting. This is particularly important to pre-hospital care on the battlefield, where more than 90 percent of killed-in-action soldiers will die. "If we can get our casualties to a hospital alive, they have greater than 95 percent chance of surviving," Convertino said.
In his acceptance speech at the College Celebration, Convertino read an excerpt from an e-mail that he received from the chief of emergency medicine deployed at the 228th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq in June 2007.
The note stated that a soldier with a gunshot wound to the pelvis was brought to the emergency room. The patient was in shock with low blood pressure and the medical staff was having problems finding a vein to start an IV. After an injection with a medication to raise the blood pressure failed, the medical staff placed a breathing valve (the ITD), which raised the blood pressure allowing an IV to get started. The patient was stabilized and sent to the operating room for surgery.
"I couldn't think of anything that better defines the value of an education from the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California at Davis," Convertino said as he concluded reading the email.
Today, in addition to continuing his own research, Convertino mentors younger colleagues and stays busy with family and officiating in youth sports. But the bulk of his busy days are still spent in the lab.
"There is a brass sign at both entrances to the US Army Institute of Surgical Research main building with the following words: 'For Combat Wounded . . .' to remind every employee of our fundamental research mission. This is all the motivation I need," he said. "I am honored to serve our nation's military who defend the freedoms that we enjoy and am deeply grateful for such opportunities."