Joanne Demchok grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, just inside the Washington D.C. beltway. Politics held no interest for her, however. The daughter of Palestinian immigrants decided early on that she wanted to be a doctor. Preferably a pediatrician, because she loved children.
Sometimes life doesn’t deal us the cards we want, though, and Demchok didn’t go to medical school. Instead, she got a Bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology from the University of Maryland at Baltimore (UMAB) and went to work in the clinical Microbiology Lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda. It was the early 1980s, and HIV was a new and frightening virus; people were suddenly contracting unusual infections that had been previously unknown in medical science.
Demchok went back to UMAB, studying biomedical research and earning a Master of Science degree. She then joined the National Cancer Institutes (NCI) Pediatric Oncology Laboratory and helped to implement new ways to treat and prevent fungal infections in pediatric cancer and AIDS patients. It was fascinating work that indirectly allowed her to help sick children.
After several years, Demchok knew she wanted more responsibility, but she wasn’t sure where to go. She got her big break when she was offered a temporary position at NCI’s Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimens Research (BBRB). There she had the unexpectedly wonderful experience of being mentored by highly competent professionals, many of whom were female – and 20 years younger than her.
At BBRB she was inspired with a new drive and ambition. Her co-workers generously taught her leadership skills and instilled confidence in her. She would often pause and watch how these women handled challenges. She marveled at their willingness to grow as well as their respectful treatment of co-workers despite personnel difficulties and budget cuts.
BBRB was a pivotal life experience. Demchok took everything she learned there to her current position as Program Director at NCI’s Cancer Diagnosis Program, where she now administers grants for the Cooperative Human Tissue Network and The Specimen Resource Locator. Managing cancer research grants for the federal government is a responsibility that she carries out with conviction and enthusiasm. She is clearly grateful for the opportunity to be a soldier in the war on cancer. You could even say her job fulfills her.
Demchok hasn’t stopped wanting to help children, though. She currently supports an educational scholarship group and opens her home as host for two international college students, both academically gifted and both from very limited means.
The service that seems to provide her the most gratification, however, is a kids’ winter coat drive that she started 15 years ago after learning that underprivileged children were trudging to school during the frigid D.C. winters without coats. Back then, she collected coats from anyone and everyone she knew. Now her coat drive recruits help from dozens of volunteers and businesses, and provides hundreds of school children – including middle and high school boys, she’s careful to note – with new coats to keep them warm all winter long.
Like many people, Joanne Demchok’s career did not follow the path that she’d originally planned. That didn’t stop her from serving humanity in her work and outside of it, and it didn’t stop her from writing her own definition of success.