Doctoral student balances bioengineering research, ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Posted on Sep 18, 2017 in Campus News and Career/Life

Mitch VeDepo puts both his body and brain to work by researching heart valve replacements and training for NBC’s hit reality TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” where contestants compete to finish an extreme obstacle course. We reached out to Mitch to ask him about his time on the show, his work in the labs, and his plans for the future.

Vedepo course

What is it actually like competing on the show?​

Competing on American Ninja Warrior is really interesting. The best thing about the whole experience is definitely the other people. The ‘Ninja’ community is awesome and full of amazing characters. It is a bunch of like-minded individuals who come together to try and take down the hardest obstacle course in the world. I really do mean we come together against the course. There is a real sense of camaraderie among the ninjas, and although the show likes to depict it as though we are competing against each other, we are really all competing against the same obstacle course. We cheer each other on when there is a finisher and are bummed when someone falls. My least favorite part of competing is the whole production of the show. It’s easy to forget but ANW is a reality TV show first, and a competition second. I definitely participate for the competition aspect and the interviews, lights, and cameras are not my favorite, but I suppose they are necessary. In the end the production aspect does help build up the excitement and hype of the competition so it is all worth it. But overall the show is just a ton of fun, which is why I have competed the last three years and will try again next year.

Mitch Vedepo in the labWhat have your classmates and professors said to you about your performance? Or is it all business once you get back into the labs?

It’s actually very much business, which I am okay with. Professors and advisers definitely know about me competing and we will talk and joke about the show and my performance but then it is back to the research. The show likes to call me the Science Ninja, and I definitely bring some science into my training, but I don’t bring any ninja into my science.

What are you researching at KU?

I’m in my fourth year of my doctorate in bioengineering at KU. My research is focused on creating tissue engineered heart valves for pediatric patients. There is a significant clinical need for an ideal heart valve replacement option, especially for pediatric patients, who must otherwise undergo multiple revision surgeries. My specific interest is in the recellularization of decellularized heart valve scaffolds by investigating different cell re-population mechanisms and leveraging bioreactor conditioning parameters. My research is being performed in collaboration with the Cardiac Regenerative Surgery Research Laboratories at the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

Were you training and researching at the same time? If so, how did you manage your time?

I was! And it is cool to see both those efforts pay off in the end. Time management has definitely been key. I’d like to think I do a good job of getting down to business and trying to be effective when it is time to work in the lab. But once I leave the lab I rarely take that work home with me so I can separate work and play. And by play I mean training. Probably five nights a week I end up training at the gym because it really does feel like playing around and having fun. Only after do you realize what a good workout it was.

What are your plans and goals for after graduation?​​

I’d definitely like to continue with my research. I’m currently looking for post-doc opportunities related to cardiac tissue engineering with a long-term goal of pursuing a career in academia. My short term goal, though, is really just to graduate, and somewhere in there, maybe compete on American Ninja Warrior again next year.

Watch the video below to see Mitch’s run in the Kansas City finals that sent him to the national finals in Las Vegas.

-Ryan Camenzind

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