Dr. Gabriele DeLuca, DPhil, MD’06, took more than a few risks as he followed the path less travelled to becoming an award-winning clinician science educator and pursuing his passion
By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93
Spend a few minutes in one of Dr. Gabriele DeLuca’s medical school lectures at Oxford, and you’ll likely hear him bragging to his students about his failures. He believes that by sharing stories about his own education and career path, his students will become more self-reflective and be encouraged by their own failures. If you are failing, he says, then, you are likely bettering yourself.
A self-described risk taker, who admittedly didn’t always do things the easy way, Dr. DeLuca’s unorthodox path to success came with its own unique set of challenges. His life, however, has been marked by tremendous personal growth, as he pursued his passion for research and unexpectedly discovered a place for himself in the clinic laboratory and classroom.
Even in high school, Dr. DeLuca was challenging himself academically. In search of a more demanding academic environment, he decided to leave high school at the end of grade 12 and took a chance that CEGEP in Montreal could be the answer. The risk paid off, and he felt energized and challenged. Part-time jobs as a janitor and church organist gave him extra spending money, as he considered what was next for his education.
He received a full scholarship to McGill and that’s when, he says, he fell in love with the nervous system.
Medical school brought him back home to London and to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. Still searching for new challenges, Dr. DeLuca began to look for a summer research opportunity. He recalls the exact Saturday in February, when he emailed dozens of different researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom, inquiring about summer research positions. Although it was getting late, a friend encouraged him to send one more message to Professor Margaret Esiri, a world-renowned neuropathologist at Oxford, about a possible opportunity. By Monday morning, he was sending her references and by Wednesday, he had a position in her lab.
Once again, Dr. DeLuca took a risk and it paid off.
“This was the first time I really experienced the power of research,” he said. “The whole environment was intriguing and stimulating.”
It was all he had hoped for. So much so, he questioned whether or not to return to medical school.
That summer, Dr. DeLuca had the good fortune to meet Dr. George Ebers, who had practised in London and served as a professor in Clinical Neurological Sciences at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. He is known for founding the Canadian Collaborative Study on Genetic Susceptibility to Multiple Sclerosis. Dr. Ebers, along with Esiri, began to mentor Dr. DeLuca and convinced him to return to his undergraduate medical studies.
Shortly after his return, Dr. DeLuca applied for a PhD position at Oxford and began applying for every scholarship he could find to support his training. With the support of Dr. Jim Silcox, Dr. DeLuca received the permission to leave medical school for three years to pursue his doctorate, which was funded by a prestigious full scholarship from Oxford – with the promise to return and complete his studies.
The three years were nothing short of outstanding for Dr. Deluca. The collegiate systems made him look at things differently and he admits to maturing really quickly. He brought this new sense of himself back to Schulich Medicine and embraced his final two years of medical school.
“I loved my two clinical years,” he said. “I was exposed to amazing faculty who were invested in me and the hospital system offered fantastic clinical exposure. I had matured so significantly during my three years away that I truly began to understand the value of the people around me and appreciate the application of my knowledge to make a difference for patient care.”
Looking ahead to his residency, Dr. DeLuca once again decided to take the path least taken. With encouragement from Dr. Ebers, he applied to positions in the United States, including the Mayo Clinic.
It was another late evening when Dr. DeLuca found himself going out on a limb and speaking to the neurology program director at the Mayo Clinic. At the time, he hadn’t completed the American board examinations required for entry into U.S. training programs. After a whirlwind series of interviews, he accepted a position with Mayo and began his residency.
Once again, he found himself in an inspiring environment where he encountered top-notch, internationally renowned faculty, enabling him to soar in the neurology program, and winning several awards including the Woltman Award and the Robert J. Filberg Award.
“Research drives me. I have a passion to solve the riddles of this disease and I am motivated to discover a cure – that’s the long game. The ultimate hope is to rid people of the disease – and if we can’t cure it, then perhaps we can stop it in its tracks and provide a greater quality of life for people living with MS.”
—Dr. Gabriele DeLuca
He returned to Oxford in 2010, on a clinician-scientist fellowship award, where he set up his research program focused on the neuropathology of multiple sclerosis (MS) and neurodegenerative diseases. His research has made several discoveries about how genes influence clinical outcomes and pathological phenotypes in MS. He has also identified information about the landscape of MS pathology, which has provided important clues about why people may get MS.
“Research drives me,” he said. “I have a passion to solve the riddles of this disease and I am motivated to discover a cure – that’s the long game. The ultimate hope is to rid people of the disease – and if we can’t cure it, then perhaps we can stop it in its tracks and provide a greater quality of life for people living with MS.”
While waiting to be registered as a consultant neurologist in the U.K. – an unforgiving process that included an application with more than a thousand pages of supporting documentation – Dr. DeLuca was looking for a way to keep his clinical knowledge fresh.
He began teaching, and was inspired.
“I’m so thankful I began teaching,” he said. “It’s somewhat of a selfish outlet, as the students inspire me more than I could ever wish to inspire them.”
Today, Dr. DeLuca is an Associate Professor in clinical neurosciences and Director of Clinical Neurosciences Undergraduate Education at Oxford Medical School. He is also a principal investigator supervising an expanding group of award-winning graduate trainees and a consultant neurologist with subspecialty expertise providing the highest quality patient care.
As a clinician science educator, he hopes to inspire the next generation of physicians and neurologists to make a bigger impact than he could ever dream of.
His stories are just the first step to getting them there.