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Undergrad Journey Leads Straight to School of Medicine for Commencement Speaker

Vladislav Zhitny, who came to Las Vegas from Ukraine in 2006, ends undergrad studies ready to become a member of UNLV School of Medicine's inaugural class.

People  |  May 12, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone

Guy Laliberte’s charity of choice is all about access to clean water, but it turns out Cirque du Soleil indirectly made a contribution to cancer research, too.

Graduating senior Vladislav Zhitny’s stepfather was working for O when he traveled to Ukraine and met Zhitny’s mother. She immigrated to Las Vegas in 2006 with Zhitny, Zhitny’s grandmother, and, naturally, the cat. Suddenly, the future biology major found himself in a new city, in a new country, dealing with a new language.

It’s a long way to go — from someone who doesn’t speak English to College of Southern Nevada High School valedictorian, to summa cum laude UNLV graduate and commencement speaker, to member of the inaugural School of Medicine class — but it’s been worth the trip.

That path to medicine was nearly always clear to him. When he was 6 years old, his grandfather died of brain cancer. That’s when he knew that working to solve the cancer riddle was going to be part of his future. He chose UNLV over St. John’s University in New York City after an Honors College luncheon convinced him that the smaller class sizes and undergraduate research opportunities here made it worthwhile to stick in Las Vegas.

He entered the biology program with a concentration in pre-professional studies. But still concerned about his English, Zhitny didn’t have an easy road in front of him. That didn’t stop him from getting into student government in his first semester as an undergrad.

Noticing the lack of adequate Wi-Fi in the Juanita Greer White Life Sciences and Chemistry buildings, Zhitny campaigned for Student Senate on a promise to expand coverage across campus. He notched that victory, and parlayed it into another, helping land $450,000 in funding to improve campus Wi-Fi.

That type of work allowed Zhitny to explore another area — entrepreneurship. While pre-professional biology students often pursue a minor in psychology, Zhitny opted for the Global Entrepreneurship Experience Program.

“I'm not the type of student that just likes to follow a certain path,” he said. “I like to build my own.”

Of course, blazing that trail by securing easier access to the internet and climbing the ladder to CSUN Student Senate president is a Sunday stroll next to landing prestigious internships at top universities doing cancer research.

Zhitny interned in 2014, 2015, and 2016 at the Stanford School of Medicine’s stem cell biology department, New York University’s department of immunology, and Harvard Medical School’s department of immunology, respectively.

He helped study things like how cancer cells can block a body’s T-cells from fighting back. But when he arrives as a member of UNLV School of Medicine’s inaugural class in July, Zhitny isn’t sure if his future lies in practicing medicine or focusing on research. A third path, incorporating entrepreneurship, may be his ultimate way forward.

“It’s one thing to do cancer research, it’s another thing to spend time with cancer patients,” he said. “You really need to have a certain type of personality for that. Before committing to oncology, I’ll spend time with oncology rotation or maybe a neurosurgery rotation. I see myself doing some sort of a startup, (maybe) a pharmaceutical company or my own practice. I think as a physician-entrepreneur, that would be the best way to describe what I'm looking for in my future.”

Zhitny looks around at a Las Vegas recasting its image in the wake of the NHL and NFL coming to town, of Tesla exploring the Hyperloop just outside the city, and of a medical district coming to fruition. He had multiple offers from other med schools, but he chose to stay here, where he sees a landscape that one day may include major companies, such as pharmaceutical giants, setting up shop.

If he’s correct, he chose to stay in a city with unlimited potential, just when it’s kicking into a new gear.