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Biology, Class of 1988
Neurosurgeon Dr. James Burke still remembers the first time he saw a human brain in person. Even today, after countless surgeries, he still finds the experience of seeing and operating on a brain “surreal.”
Burke’s journey to becoming a leading neurosurgeon is an inspiring tale of perseverance and achievement. Burke’s roots are in Hollidaysburg, PA, where he and his four younger siblings were raised with an emphasis on family. “Our house was headquarters for our extended family. The holidays and family events all happened at our house,” he says.
When doctors discovered that Burke’s mother had a brain tumor, the then 13 year-old’s life changed forever. “I was allowed to meet the surgeon, who let me see video of what they took out. From that point on, I knew I wanted to become a neurosurgeon; it was just a matter of how I was going to make it happen.”
In high school, Burke worked on a farm, telling his coworkers about his dreams of doing something completely different—being a brain surgeon. While his dreams were met with some laughs, he never wavered on his decision. During his senior year of high school, Burke was planning on attending Penn State when a co-worker on the farm approached him about choosing Saint Francis instead.
“I was familiar with the school; my mother had gone there, but I didn’t know enough about it,” he says. “I took the application home at lunch, filled it out, and handed it back to him that same day. From then on, that was it. I was going to Saint Francis.
While studying for a biology major and Chemistry minor at Saint Francis, Burke kept himself busy with intramural sports, biology club, and even performed in several theatre productions. “I was always busy,” he says.
The influence of faith on campus was undeniable. “Having the chapel, the faith-based environment, and priests who also taught, there’s no doubt that faith and family were very much a part of my time at Saint Francis.”
It was his advisor Dr. Wayne Takacs, then professor of biology, who introduced him to a graduate program at the University of Alabama. The program, which offered both an M.D. and a Ph. D., would take eight years to complete. Burke applied and was accepted. “In my class, there were 165 students, and 6 of us came to pursue the joint M.D.-Ph.D program.” For the first two years, Burke took both graduate and medical school classes. Then years three through six, he earned his Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics. Then, he completed his last two years of medical school.
With both degrees, academia would have been happy to have his experience, “But I realized that although I loved science, I loved working with patients more.” After his residency at the University of Pittsburgh, he and his wife, who have three children, decided that raising their family in his hometown of Hollidaysburg was right for them.
“I don’t know how much it factored into our decision, but our decision to move back was right around September 11,  and in Hollidaysburg, I can be within 15 minutes from my children at any time. There’s a sense of community here, shared values, and I have parents and siblings who are also there.”
In a twist of fate, the doctor who had operated on Burke’s mother years prior was still in business and looking to hire. “He operated on my mother and my sister, who had developed a tumor while I was in college, and here was an opportunity to work with him.” In 2003, Burke became a member of the team at Allegheny Brain and Spine Surgeons.
The group of physicians has become a resource for local high schools and Saint Francis regarding sports-related concussions. “A lot has been done in sports to minimize the risk of head injuries,” he says, “but it’s the angular motion that causes the damage – the side blow when you don’t expect it, not the linear, straight-on hits.” He explains that when players get spun, their brain’s neurons become stretched, resulting in injury.
Today, he now serves that same community that helped to shape him. “Living in a community like this, where there are shared values and where you know these families, you end up—not uncommonly—being a part of their prayers or their discussions with the chaplain. This would be a very difficult job for a person without faith.”
Burke and his wife continue that emphasis on family with their children. They own a farm that’s over 250 years old and that covers 75 acres. “It’s a playground for our family and relatives, and it’s just far enough away from town.” Even with his busy schedule, Burke makes time each Wednesday to take his family to his parent’s house for spaghetti dinner.
Dr. Wayne Takacs—He was my advisor and also the one who introduced me to the program at U of Alabama. I still play golf with Wayne. My wife, dad, and mom, and I were invited to his retirement dinner, which was quite an honor.
Jane Kimlin’s Physical Chemistry. She was tough. Whether it’s a favorite or not, it was just what you needed.
The liberal arts, the science, the people, you really receive a well-rounded education.
Learn more about Biology at SFU
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