Fallen researcher's legacy lives on with creation of award

by Chuck Brown, UNMC public affairs | January 22, 2009

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Leon and Janice Jessen, with plaque, came to UNMC on Tuesday to formally announce the creation of The Shawn Jessen Memorial Cancer Research Award. The award is named for the Jessens' son, a research technician in the Eppley Institute who died in November from diabetes-related complications. With the Jessens are, from left, Angie Rizzino, Ph.D.; Vimla Band, Ph.D.; Mayumi Naramura, M.D.; graduate student Justin Chung; Hamid Band, M.D., Ph.D.; graduate student Robert Clubb; and Joyce Solheim, Ph.D.
When Shawn Jessen wanted to do something -- be it bass fishing, karaoke, school work or the research he did in the UNMC Eppley Cancer Center -- he plunged in with both feet.

Once while he told his mother about the work he did in the laboratory of Hamid Band, M.D., Ph.D., Jessen got on such a speaking roll that he didn't realize his mother wasn't on the other line for a chunk of the conversation.

"My phone battery had died and I had to search for another phone," Janice Jessen said. "Once I did, I picked up and he was still talking. He didn't even notice I was gone."

Shawn Jessen's enthusiasm was contagious, said Dr. Band, a professor in the Eppley Institute.

"You can tell when someone is really into something and those are the people we look for to work in our lab," Dr. Band said. "Shawn was obviously interested and excited about our work and others in the lab fed off his energy."

As such, Dr. Band and the rest of his staff were stung hard when news came in November about Jessen's untimely death from complications related to diabetes.

"It was not only a loss professionally, it hurt on a personal level, too, because we had developed great relationships with him," Dr. Band said.

Jessen had worked as a research technician in Dr. Band's laboratory for about nine months and was taking graduate courses at UNMC as part of his application for the Eppley Institute's Cancer Research Graduate Program.

His parents said working in Dr. Band's lab and toward a career in research served as sort of an academic rebirth for their son.

Jessen was a straight-A student at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City, Iowa, but uncharacteristically, he struggled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and left midway through his sophomore year.

"Shawn was very competitive and at Heelan he was surrounded by friends who pushed him in the classroom," Janice Jessen said. "He couldn't find that at UNL and he really lost direction for a while."

When he returned home to Dakota City, Neb., his parents laid down the law. They told him if he wanted to go back to school, he would have to prove himself by paying his own way for a while and keeping his grades up at a local community college.

Working with a new vigor, Jessen took classes at Western Iowa Technical College in Sioux City and upped his grade point average. He also worked full time and paid off his student loans.

With a clean slate, he reenrolled at UNL and got a degree in biology.

About a year ago, he applied for a technician's job in Dr. Band's laboratory. He was accepted after talking with laboratory staff who said Jessen's excitement for science was palpable, even over the phone.

"When I called to hire him, we talked for quite a while on the phone," said Mayumi Naramura, M.D., an assistant professor in the Eppley Institute and a member of Dr. Band's team. "I could tell he was very excited about science and happy to be coming to our lab."

His parents said Jessen literally jumped for joy when he got the job.

"He always loved science and he was very excited about pursuing a career in research," said Leon Jessen, Shawn's father.

In the lab, Shawn Jessen -- who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 20 -- would get so into his work that other researchers had to remind him to monitor his blood sugar levels.

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This plaque for The Shawn Jessen Memorial Award will hang outside the laboratory of Hamid Band, M.D., Ph.D. The award is for outstanding students in the UNMC Cancer Research Graduate Program.
"Shawn has always been obsessed with things and so it was with his work," Janice Jessen said.

Shortly after Jessen's death, his parents contacted the University of Nebraska Foundation to look into options to honor their son. Foundation officials and Dr. Band suggested setting up an award for Eppley Cancer Center graduate students in Jessen's name.

On Tuesday, Janice and Leon Jessen came to UNMC to formally announce the creation of The Shawn Jessen Memorial Cancer Research Award, which will be given annually to two outstanding graduate students in the Cancer Research Graduate Program. The award comes with a cash prize and commendation.

The award is a fitting tribute to their son, the Jessens said.

"Shawn does have a story to tell about his quest for a college degree," Janice Jessen said. "The opportunity to work in cancer research at UNMC was a dream come true for him."

Dr. Band thanked the Jessens for their support, noting that the award is a wonderful way of advancing their son's legacy.

"Those of us who do research are motivated by the idea of discovering things that help people," Dr. Band said. "Through this award, Shawn's memory can serve as an inspiration and motivation for others who are looking to careers in research.

"In that regard, Shawn is still working to help people."

Click here for more information about award and The Shawn Jessen Memorial Cancer Research Award Fund.