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.
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.
What 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 resaerching 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.
The KU Alumni Association partnered with the University of Kansas, Kansas Athletics, Inc., and KU Endowment in support of a “Houston Strong” initiative. At the Sept. 2 KU football game, flyers were distributed to fans and a video featuring Chancellor Girod, Coach Bill Self and Coach David Beaty was shown:
Organizations featured as suggested donation options included:
Team Rubicon: Uniting the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.
A Gardner family is giving a KU twist to the classic tradition of taking their child’s picture before each first day of school.
Shirly Kleiner, g’89, wanted to remember her grandson’s growth with an eye on his future: continuing the family tradition of attending the University of Kansas. So every first day, Brecken will slide on, and maybe someday squeeze on, the adult medium KU shirt for a picture.
“I loved the DNA theme for KU being in our family’s blood,” Shirly said. She’s not exaggerating: Shirly, Brecken’s father Travis, f’05, and Brecken’s older brother Thomas Wilkinson, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, all share KU as their school.
Brecken is 3 years old and is aiming to arrive on campus in fall 2032. We hope to see you then, Brecken!
The photo on the left is from Brecken’s first day of pre-pre-school in 2016, and the photo on the right is this year’s first-day picture.
As KU’s construction of the new Central District continues, the anchor tenant is now ready for the public. On August 17, Cora Downs Residence Hall opened to welcome the newest generation of Jayhawks.
KU Student Housing’s biggest day of the year went off without a hitch, thanks to a small army of student volunteers helping direct traffic, unload cars, and move items up to new students’ rooms.
“I volunteered at Oliver Hall last year, nine floors with two elevators meant huge lines. Downs is a lot more efficient,” said junior Jayden Garetson. “We’re all here from various campus organizations to help out, and we even have some freshmen who moved in yesterday too.”
Volunteers appreciated the smooth-running system, and even the most move-in day experienced parents couldn’t help but be surprised. “We have moved six kids into college, and KU has the easiest, most efficient, and organized move-in we have ever done,” Sally Ahlgren said.
Beyond the move-in, The Ahlgrens knew they were leaving their daughter Maryclaire in good hands at Downs Hall. “We’ve certainly noticed the friendliness of the students here,” Bob Ahlgren said. “We’ve been to a lot of universities and can tell right away. This is a good group of people, we can feel that.”
Downs Hall is named for Dr. Cora Downs, c’15 g’20 PhD’24, a lifetime Jayhawk. Downs received her undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees from KU, and served as an instructor and faculty member until her retirement in 1963. The only break in her service to the University was to serve the country, when Downs spent World War II leading 40 scientists on secret biological warfare research. Honors given to Downs include a Distinguished Service Citation in 1962, induction into the KU Women’s Hall of Fame in 1970, and being named a Pioneer Woman by the Emily Taylor Center in 2008.
Located at 19th and Naismith, Downs Hall holds 545 residents and is directly west of Oliver Hall, with the new South Dining Commons connecting the two residence halls. Four different floor plans are offered, which can be viewed below. Floor plans courtesy of housing.ku.edu.
With move-in day fast approaching, the KU Memorial Union hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of KU’s newest dining option, South Dining Commons, on August 9.
Replacing Oliver Dining Hall, South Dining Commons is located at 18th and Naismith and is part of the Central District Plan. The 22,000 square-foot dining facility will primarily serve residents from Oliver and Downs residential halls, but is available for students, faculty, staff and the general public to enjoy.
Features of the facility include a variety of seating options, natural light from all directions, and the largest known game day flag presiding over the center. Director of KU Dining Mark Petrino described the dining hall as “a fun and unique design that will enhance the student experience for years to come.”
The facility houses 12 different food stations, offering a variety of options including Italian, Tex-Mex, homestyle, and the KYou zone, which offers vegan dishes and other options for dietary needs.
South Dining Commons will also have a grab-and-go grocery store, South Side, continuing the trend of offering quicker food options on campus, such as Jayhawk Grocer in Self Hall and the Studio Café in Hashinger Hall. A new commissary will also be hosted at South Dining Commons, where food will be stored and prepared for all KU Dining locations.
With a facility that feeds hundreds of students and distributes for thousands, a KU Dining’s large staff continues to grow. Over 200 employees are already on board, with around 150 of them students. Hiring will continue into the school year.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony featured Petrino; Tammara Durham, vice provost for student affairs; Sarah Waters, director of KU Housing; and Harneet Sanghera, KU Memorial Union Corporation Board President.
“I have no doubt that in two weeks time, we will have new and returning Jayhawks laughing, creating memories, and dining on the wonderful food here,” Sanghera said, and the ribbon gave way to a giant pair of scissors, officially welcoming all of KU inside.
The KU Alumni Association was invited to tour the new facility. Check out our pictures and video below:
Ashlyn Driskill, a current graduate student in the KU School of Business’ MBA program and a member of KU Volleyball’s 2015 Final Four team, made her television debut Saturday night when House Hunters documented her and her husband’s search for a Kansas City home. She sat down with us in February for a Q&A about the experience, but after the episode premiered we asked a couple more questions about the show and got an update on the house (pictures included!).
Did they let you see the final version before it premiered?
No, they did not let us see even a scene from the episode before it aired! That’s why we were so nervous to announce the air date, we had no clue what it was going to look like.
What did you think of the final cut of the episode?
I think the final cut was great! They did a really good job of making everything look smooth and natural because it definitely did not feel like that during the filming process. They did cut clips that I was hoping would make the episode. We filmed for six full days and it’s crazy to think they were able to cut it down to 30 minutes. We would retry a scene four to five times because the crew thought it would be great, but we never got to see it!
What did your friends and family say?
All our friends and family loved the episode! Our realtor had a watch party the night it was aired and invited many of his clients. Everyone thought we were going to pick house #3, which was actually our least favorite, so I guess you could say our acting skills aren’t too bad!
How is the MBA going?
My MBA is going great. I decided to choose a focus in Management and will be graduating in December.
How did the remodeling turn out?
The remodel turned out great! It took a little longer than we initially planned and still have plenty of more things to do. Right when we closed on the house we did a whole kitchen remodel and had a full remodel of the downstairs bathroom. We did the exterior work all ourselves! It was a blast to do it, but took a lot of manual labor. We painted, made shutters, put up the privacy fence and did all new landscaping.
Knowing all that you do now, would you do it again? Is a career in TV in your future?
I think it would be fun to do it again since I know how the process goes, but I definitely don’t have a future career in TV. I’m not a fan of a camera being six inches from my face all day and I do not have the personality for it. My realtor, Brett Budke, who is also a KU alumnus, would be perfect in a career in TV!
In case you missed it, search for “Young Couple Seeks Kansas City Starter Home” on your cable provider or on demand.
After walking down the Hill in May, Ryan Camenzind, j’17, promptly earned his first job and joined the KU Alumni Association staff in a new role as digital media coordinator. His first day on the job was July 10. As a member of the digital media team, Ryan will help increase the Association’s digital footprint by writing stories and contributing digital content for a wide range of alumni communications.
Ryan graduated from the J-School with a degree in strategic communications and a minor in business. As a KU student, he worked as an account executive with The Agency, assisted KU Media Productions on projects such as ‘Good Morning KU’ and served as a marketing specialist for the UDK. Most recently, he has worked as a communications assistant for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, writing stories for their blog, email and social media channels.
Originally from Wichita (East High School), Ryan’s interests include spending time with his family of four Jayhawk boys and two Husker parents, eating cereal, cheering on the Jayhawks in all sports (Ryan has been to basketball, football, volleyball, soccer and baseball games), habitually checking Twitter, and outdoorsy activities such as hiking and camping. We are thrilled to have Ryan join our team at the KU Alumni Association.
The pair of KU Alumni Association program staffers are looking at potential growth cities as part of their goal of unique and diverse programming across the nation. Their itinerary included visits to Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Phoenix, and New York City.
Kallail, d’04, l’07, and Woods, j’13, hosted a meeting at each stop to connect existing network leaders with new area volunteers. They introduced their plan for successful networks to the group, and then let the local alumni plan amongst themselves.
“We really want to empower all of the network leaders,” Woods said. “These leaders know their network way better than we ever could. We just want to give them the tools to build a successful network and let them run with it. This will ultimately help the network sustain and grow for years to come.”
One of the main goals of the network visits was to promote planning events in all of the five event buckets such as Rock Chalk Connect, which provides networking opportunities, and Rock Chalk Cultivate, which gives alumni the opportunity to learn a new skill—often from other Jayhawks.
“For our network moving forward, I would like to see the meeting’s enthusiasm to continue,” Brandon Snook, New York City network leader, said. “I want us to fully embrace the new event branding, which I love…especially KU Cares. It will be a great way for us to give back to the community, and strengthen our bonds in the process. I hope the new branding will be a springboard for our network board, and that everyone involved won’t be hesitant in popping out fresh new ideas for programming.”
Kallail and Woods also introduced a new structure for network leadership. Instead of traditional roles such as president, vice president, and treasurer, networks will have leaders who manage event buckets. “I like the concept of having a group with individuals focused on different areas of outreach for the Alumni Association,” Scott Lundgren, Portland network leader, said.
After the planning meeting, other local Jayhawks joined for a happy hour. Both Snook and fellow New York City network leader Kellie Johnson were pleased with their meeting. “We assembled a nice variety of people who seem enthusiastic to lead,” Snook said.
Wherever they went, Kallail and Woods were excited to see the networks’ turnout. Johnson has a theory why.
“I think KU alumni attend the events to keep that special connection alive. I’ve met several people from other schools who have noted that KU alumni are the most loyal they have ever met. One told me he doesn’t get involved with his alumni because he left nothing there – and when I asked him to clarify – he said it was clear all of us had left our hearts in Lawrence.”
More than 40 alumni and 15 current students met July 18 on Michigan Avenue to learn from some of the best and brightest Jayhawk alumni based in the Windy City.
The event, Chicago Innovation and Entrepreneurship Panel, featured a panel of business leaders who shared the stories of their journey with Chicago area alumni. A select number of KU Student-Alumni Network members also attended.
Bryce McMichael, d’08, Chicago Network leader, said “One of the main goals we have in Chicago is diversifying our event offering beyond watch parties for KU games and expand into the careers and lifelong learning space. This event definitely fit the bill in that regard.”
David Hoese, e’86, vice president at Goldman Sachs served as panel moderator, with Todd Holmes c’89, CEO at Liquidus Marketing and co-founder of Goose Island Beer Co., Sherry Scott j’91, president at Gagen MacDonald, and David Grossman j’89, president at Freshii comprising the panel.
“The panelists stemmed from a Presidents Club reception we had last year in which Todd Holmes suggested an event like this,” McMichael said. “David Grossman and Sherry Scott were also added due to their specific entrepreneurial experience, local ties, and fascinating life stories.”
The event was the first of a series highlighting business leaders and entrepreneurs in Chicago. The panel offered advice to students and young alumni on topics such as how to start a business and risk tolerance.
“With 15 current KU students who hail from the Chicago area in attendance, I believe they came away with inspiration and pointers on how to create your own destiny and do the work you truly love,” McMichael said. “I also hope that those who went also came away knowing that their Alumni Association can provide much, much more value than they had originally thought going into the event!”
Heath Peterson, d’04, g’09, president of the KU Alumni Association, echoed McMichael’s sentiments for the Alumni Association as a whole.
“We want to do more to directly connect students to industry leaders and showcase the power and reach of the KU degree,” Peterson said. “We must leverage the story of successful alumni to ensure current students have direct and constant access to a powerful network.”
Peterson’s goals were realized for Rebecca Hans, j’18, a Student-Alumni Network member who made an unexpected connection.
“I didn’t expect to know anyone [at the event] but I saw a family friend,” Hans said. “He introduced me to someone who has a connection to the military at KU. My dream job is a military psychologist where I could work with soldiers or their families and help them with mental health issues.”
“This event helped me realize that I can be successful in Chicago. Knowing that I am graduating in the spring, it is comforting to see that KU stays with you forever.”
Kate Feller McSwain faced a big challenge taking over as network leader for one of the largest University of Kansas alumni groups. Her hard work bringing Dallas Jayhawks together will be honored with the Dick Wintermote Network Volunteer of the Year Award, to be presented at a wine-tasting event July 26. The annual award recognizes volunteers who provided extraordinary leadership to their network.
McSwain, b’12, a fourth-generation Jayhawk, has four years experience volunteering with the Alumni Association, including serving as network leader for the past year. Fellow Dallas Network volunteer John Jacobs praised her leadership, saying she “consistently looks to empower members to lead their projects but is willing to help out herself where and when she can.”
McSwain’s work in establishing more frequent network gatherings year-round, such as the Jayhawks & Java breakfast, has impressed Nick Kallail, assistant vice president of alumni & career programs.
“The Dallas Jayhawks Network has led the way on providing compelling and diverse events that connect Jayhawks from all walks of life,” Kallail says. “Kate has been a huge part of our network growth in Dallas and was able to amplify programming even more in her first year as Network Leader. We are fortunate to have many great Jayhawk volunteers across the nation, but Kate is truly a star of stars.”
McSwain works at Match Group, a Dallas-based company that owns several online dating websites and apps including Match.com, OkCupid, and Tinder.
The award is named for Dick Wintermote, c’51, who served as the executive director of the Association from 1963 to 1983. His legacy represents the importance of building a strong volunteer network, the need for a dues-paying membership program and establishing the KU Alumni Association as one of the premier associations of graduates in the country.