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As reported by the Hartford Courant, July 25, 2009.

Dr. Cato Laurencin a Can't Miss Prospect

Growing up in North Philadelphia in the 1960s, little Cato Thomas Laurencin remembers at age 5 making house calls with his mother and carrying her medical bag.

Dr. Helen Moorehead Laurencin was a physician with an office on the first floor of the family's three-story row house and a makeshift laboratory in the back room. Mom did it all delivered babies, staunched fevers, counseled patients and even conducted her own experiments.

She and her husband, Cyril Laurencin, a carpenter, were industrious. They preached education and community stewardship to their three children Grace, Cato and Lynne. At the forefront of racial integration in the 1960s, these middle-class parents had the resources to move out of their mostly black and impoverished neighborhood. Instead, they decided to stay and help out. That decision made an impression on the Laurencin kids all of whom went on to become physicians themselves.

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, now 50, is an internationally renowned orthopedic surgeon shoulders and knees are his specialty and one of the world's leading voices on regenerative tissue. On Aug. 1, he will complete his first full year as dean of the University of Connecticut Medical School and as vice president of health services. He was one of several doctors recognized this month by President Barack Obama for mentoring and excellence in science, math or engineering.

"Education was really highly stressed as a way to achieve," said Laurencin of his upbringing, sitting in his office at UConn's Farmington-based hospital. "There was a very strong work ethic of working hard to attain one's goal. ... I always was going to be a doctor. I knew that from the start. The influence of my mother was extremely strong in terms of medicine. She was a very big influence, and also seeing how my mother treated patients with lots of compassion."

UConn's latest Big Man On Campus is a tall, bald, black, bow tie-wearing, multidimensional administrator, acclaimed as a clinician, professor and researcher. Understand that his excellence in those areas, combined with a personality seen more as avuncular than arrogant, make him a bit of an oddity in academia and medicine.

He has the daunting task of leading an ambitious merger one that has yet to gain legislative approval between UConn's medical center and Hartford Hospital. It's a move that promises to transform the health care, medical research and economic climate in Connecticut and raise UConn's stature internationally.

While Laurencin's mission is fascinating, it is not nearly as captivating as his personal story and accomplishments.

This is a man with academic degrees from Harvard, MIT and Princeton. He actually worked on his medical degree at Harvard and his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering/biotechnology at MIT at the same time. He considers MIT's Robert Langer, one of the world's leading scientists, a mentor. Laurencin holds 20 patents and, before the White House recognition, was named the 2009 winner of the Pierre Galletti Award, medical and biological engineering's highest honor.

"He's a wonderful asset for the health center," said Dr. Mary Casey Jacob, a UConn professor and associate dean for faculty affairs in the school of medicine. "He's an old-fashioned triple threat as a faculty member he continues to practice, he sees patients, he operates, even as he manages all our missions. ... That is not easy."

UConn got itself a blue chipper when it signed Laurencin for $750,000 a year, plus perks. He is a guy who can elevate UConn, currently ranked 25th, to a top 10 national ranking for public medical schools.

His reputation alone is expected to bring in millions of dollars in research and grant money to the university. He is so influential that when he agreed to come to UConn last year from the University of Virginia, where he was orthopedic surgeon-in-chief and chairman of the school's department of orthopedic surgery, he convinced two dozen researchers and professors from UVA to join him in Connecticut. They brought $2.5 million in research grants and projects with them.

The challenge of merging UConn with Hartford Hospital will not be easy and it will cost hundreds of millions of public dollars to get rolling. Laurencin insists that the merger is one step in what would be a major collaboration with the region's hospitals. All would gain insight and access to UConn's already acclaimed work in genetics, stem cell research and "personalized medicine," in which people's DNA and genetic makeup are studied to determine what illnesses they may be predisposed to. A preventive plan would then be crafted to help ward off susceptibilities to such things as diabetes or heart disease.

"This is very important," Laurencin says of the proposed merger, which has received resistance from area hospitals, wondering if it will usurp their standing. "This is a very vibrant community and we'd be pursuing the highest level of clinical care, at the same time pursuing the highest level of research and the highest level of teaching."

Laurencin's life purpose is pretty simple: He wants to make people feel better. And give them access to the very latest research findings and best practices.

"He's a cutting-edge scientist, and he has a huge heart," said Dr. Judith Fifield, a professor in UConn's medical school who is engaged in several faith-based efforts to eliminate health care inequities in minority communities. "He wants to help with health disparities, and he connects with people very easily. You don't want to leave the room when he's around."

Laurencin's day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. There is not much free time. The little he has is spent with family wife, Cynthia, and their three children at their Avon home. Other interests include golf and an eclectic taste in music, ranging from old-school R&B to hip-hop performers such as Jay Z and T.I.

His North Philly upbringing has never left Laurencin, nor has the influence of his parents. Dad worked with his hands; Mom worked with her brain. No surprise that their only son became known for his handiwork (as a surgeon) and his gray matter.

Laurencin will launch another project next month. He and his wife are establishing the Helen I. Moorehead Laurencin Fellowship Program at UConn. It will fund medical research projects by UConn graduates and medical students.

There's one caveat, however: Every recipient must establish a mentor relationship with a child in the community and engage that student in science and research.