Meet Matt Cheney, PhD, DMS '10: Syversten Fellow

Matt Cheney, DMS’10 is the 2009-2010 Syvertsen Fellow. Among the six Syvertsen Scholars nominated each year by a group of faculty, the Syvertsen Memorial Alumni Committee selects one to be further honored as the year’s Syvertsen Fellow. The endowed awards honor the memory of Rolf C. Syvertsen, a former professor of anatomy, long-time dean, and beloved mentor of several generations of medical students at Dartmouth.

The Syvertsen awards recognize outstanding fourth-year students who are considered first among their peers in exemplifying the qualities that Dr. Syvertsen stood for: academic excellence and scientific rigor, a passion for learning, a love of medicine, a depth of human concern, and sense of community spirit and citizenship. Read our profile of Matt Cheney below and learn why he is so deserving of this special distinction.

Matt Cheney, PhD, DMS '10: Follow What You Love

When Matt Cheney graduates from DMS in June 2010, he will leave Dartmouth with three degrees – an AB, a PhD, and an MD. A member of the Dartmouth College Class of 2002, Cheney came to Dartmouth with eye toward medicine and buckled down to do his pre-med curriculum, majoring in biochemistry.

But along the way, he fell in love with the science.

“I had an opportunity to work in Alan Eastman’s lab, in pharmacology, my junior fall, and then with Paul Guyre in physiology the following summer,” he explains. “There’s something that’s just so captivating and exciting about research science. I loved to be able to find a question that I cared about and push it as far as I could. So I followed that.”

Cheney grew up in Watertown, New York, not far from the Canadian border, where he helped his father in the family-owned tire shop. “I don’t think I had ever met anyone with a Ph.D. when I was growing up – I didn’t really know what they were about,” he says. “But here I was applying to M.D./Ph/D. programs because I loved the science and I loved the idea of clinical medicine.”

Cheney chose to stay at Dartmouth and did his doctoral research under the guidance of Professor Nancy Speck, working on acute myeloid leukemia. “I love the people here,” he says of his decision to stay at Dartmouth. “It’s such a collegial group. I really felt welcomed and among friends here. Nancy was a phenomenal mentor.”

But during this time, his interest in cancer took a more personal turn. His father’s melanoma, diagnosed and treated years earlier, was found to have metastasized. Cheney brought his father to Norris Cotton Cancer Center for treatment and became deeply involved in his Dad’s care in the final months of his life. “I feel grateful to have been able to support him,” says Cheney. “Having been there as a family member of someone with a really advanced and difficult malignancy, I sense a deep fellowship with people confronting cancer. It’s a privilege to be involved in a person’s life at that challenging time. I’m continually inspired by the perspective and hope that oncology patients find in life.”

Though still a doctoral student, this experience affirmed Cheney’s interest in the clinical side of medicine and colored his subsequent decision to go into radiation oncology. “It’s a field that provides a lot of opportunity for science and encourages its faculty to be involved in research, but it can also balance that with clinical time,” explains Cheney. “I hope I can also be a source of hope and understanding for people when they need a compassionate physician who really cares about them as a person, not as a diagnosis.”

Reflecting on his selection as this year’s Syvertsen Fellow, Cheney says, “The values that Dr. Syvertsen cared so much about and the person that he was really are the things that mean so much to me about Dartmouth. Without knowing it, I’ve probably come to think the way that I do about medicine and science because of Dr. Syvertsen’s legacy here.

“It’s clear that Dr. Syvertsen and all of the alumni on the selection committee had such a deep love for Dartmouth and Dartmouth Medical School, and that’s definitely something that I share. To be part of this group really, really means a lot to me.”

Having been at Dartmouth for almost 12 years now, Cheney hopes that his DMS days will not be over when he graduates in June. “If I could end up teaching at DMS, that would be a dream. These are institutions and families that I’m committed to and I want to be as involved as I can.”

December 2009

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