Since he was a young boy, Ken Sirinek ’65, M.D., Ph.D., knew his vocational choice, and as an only child with a large extended family cheering him on, he’s been supported every step of the way.
One significant source of support came in the form of a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s, given to him by his Christian Brothers’ school, St. Mel High School in Chicago, as one of the top 10 graduating students. Grateful for the support he has received, Dr. Sirinek established a scholarship at Saint Mary’s for future medical students.
“The education I received at Saint Mary’s was invaluable,” Dr. Sirinek said. “I really liked the atmosphere of living in a dorm on campus and the camaraderie that it created,” he remembers. “Compared to friends who went to big state universities and lived in apartments, it was a different atmosphere and made for a great work and educational environment. You were actually taught by the professors.”
Dr. Sirinek recalls hearing about friends who chose bigger colleges where they were one in a classroom of 500 students and were being taught by teaching assistants compared to the hands-on education he received from the professors at Saint Mary’s. Brother George Pahl was not only chairman of the Biology Department, but he was right there instructing in the classroom, directing research and serving as a great friend and mentor, he said.
Now Dr. Sirinek is helping future doctors by establishing an endowed scholarship at Saint Mary’s that will be awarded annually to a junior or senior who has been admitted to or intends to apply to medical school.
“Medical students are graduating with $200,000 to $400,000 of debt. That’s what prompted me to set up a scholarship here at the medical school, and then I realized that the debt starts in college,” he said. “I have so valued my education at Saint Mary’s. I had been a recipient of a scholarship, so I thought it was payback time. My only regret is that I had not set it up sooner. And I wish it were more.”
Dr. Sirinek established the scholarship in recognition and appreciation of the excellent education he received at Saint Mary’s and to honor the memory of Brothers George Pahl ’36 and Charles Severin, outstanding biology teachers who stimulated in Dr. Sirinek a life-long interest in and love of physiology, medicine and scientific research.
Dr. Sirinek describes Brother George as “very bright,” “a great teacher” and “an innovator.” “You could tell he really knew the material. It wasn’t just something he had memorized. And he stimulated people to love biology,” he said. “Brother Charles was a little different, a little more quiet. He might have been 70 years old when I was a freshman but he could still beat all of us up that hill on campus on a botany field trip.”
Dr. Sirinek also reflects on the experience he received working on a national science foundation grant at the hydrobiology station at Saint Mary’s. “We were interested in whether we could use clams from the Mississippi River as a biologic marker of radioactive fallout in the river,” he said. “We spent two and a half years conducting research at the hydrobiology facility. As a result of this research we had an opportunity to pursue research and a doctorate in radiation biology at Oakridge National Laboratories in Tennessee.”
In the end, it was Brother Charles Severin who advised Dr. Sirinek that he could always continue his love of research while obtaining a medical degree but he couldn’t further his dream of helping patients if he pursued a career in just research.
Saint Mary’s, he said, prepared him for the next steps in his educational career, including a M.D. from Marquette University School of Medicine in Milwaukee. He then received an M.S. and Ph.D. in physiology during his General Surgery residency at Ohio State University in Columbus. Following three years as a Major in the Medical Corp at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Dr. Sirinek joined the faculty in the Surgery Department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
During the past 34 years, he has served as director of the General Surgery Residency, chief of the Division of General Surgery and presently is professor and vice chairman. He holds an endowed chair, the J. Bradley Aust, M.D., Ph.D. Chair in Surgery. He has published more than 200 chapters, abstracts, and journal articles and has been recognized as one of the “Best Doctors in America” for the past 20 years.
All of this has been possible, he said, because of the superb education and research experience he received at Saint Mary’s, as well as the unending love and support of his wife, Peggy; children, Steve and Erica; and his grandsons, Tyler, Hunter, Colten and Mason. His two oldest grandsons, Tyler and Hunter, are presently enrolled in a pre-medicine curriculum with the expectation of following in their grandfather’s footsteps by becoming physicians.