IUP alumnus successfully lends skills to Fauci's team

Joe Rocco (above) helped the National Institutes of Health during his three-year fellowship there by doing lab work and working with both patients and Dr. Fauci himself.

An IUP student who used to excel on the courts has shifted his focus to excel in another field, one fronted by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Joe Rocco, a 2011 graduate of IUP, has been serving on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland since 2019. The organization, which was led by Dr. Fauci before his retirement last December, was ushered into the spotlight very suddenly during the COVID-19 pandemic, something has proved to be an interesting experience for Rocco.

“Looking back, you certainly feel like you contributed significantly from the research side and the clinical management side,” Rocco said in an interview with IUP. “I do sometimes think back to the early days and feel grateful for how far we’ve come and feel very appreciative that I was able to contribute a piece to the knowledge base.”

Rocco, who graduated summa cum laude from IUP, was a very successful student and athlete, making the dean’s list for every semester he was at IUP, as well as playing on IUP’s men’s basketball team for the 2009-10 season, in which they got a 33-3 overall record, setting a school record for victories at the time.

From there, Rocco earned his medical degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and subsequently served his residency at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). After finishing his residency, Rocco traveled to Maryland to join NIH, wherein clinical work took up most of his time.

Despite that, Rocco shifted his focus more to research when the pandemic took hold worldwide.

“The whole first year of this infectious disease fellowship, it’s all clinical training, learning how to manage and treat patients with complicated infectious diseases and immune disorders,” Rocco said. “Then in March 2020 the pandemic hit. I was still mostly taking care of patients, but almost 90 percent were now COVID patients. And it was incredibly frustrating because no one really knew what to do for them. You did whatever you could, providing supportive care and treating the complications. But this was before vaccines, before we had any treatments that we knew worked. You saw patients dying in front of you. It was very frustrating—and very scary.”

From there Rocco began spending more time in a lab environment, where he was looking over patient data and trying to find information that would help make more sense of the overall pandemic in a time where there was not a lot of information available. The pressure in these days was extreme, and mounted heavily on members of NIH, but that feeling was not one that Rocco felt was unwarranted.

“Pressure was not completely unfamiliar to me, but the stakes were much higher here,” Rocco said.

“There were lives on the line.”

Eventually the world began to shift, with vaccines starting to become more available, the pandemic moved more and more into the rear view, with only some surges caused by various strains coming up in the following years.

The question then becomes, what is the future for the IUP graduate? Rocco said that, despite finishing his fellowship at NIH, he plans to stay.

“I plan to stick around and continue my research and the career path that I’m on, which is—I guess the technical term is not just a physician or a doctor but a physician/scientist, someone who can not only manage patients but also do the research to help figure things out,” Rocco said. “There’s a massive shortage of physician/scientists in the world, and I think the pandemic highlighted how much they’re needed. So, I’m going to continue what I’m doing for now and start applying to the next position on the ladder and go from there.”

Rocco cites the leadership he gained at IUP from both sides of his college life, sports and academics, as being beneficial for his career and his goals for the future. According to Rocco, the ideas and principles he received during his time at IUP, as well as the research he took part in, drove him to pursue the field he is in now, and he is thankful for that experience.

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