Life sciences graduate surpasses dream of being a surgeon

For School of Life Sciences alumnus Paul Larson, the path to his future was always present in his life. From a young age, he wanted to be a surgeon. He always enjoyed academics and he had two older siblings who attended Arizona State University before him. On the surface, his story seems like the makings of a successful ASU pre-med student — but what Larson did with his education goes beyond typical.

Today, Larson is chief of neurosurgery at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a teaching hospital associated with the University of California, San Francisco, where he is also a faculty member. In addition to teaching future doctors how to be great surgeons, Larson is constantly exploring new ways to combat neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s, with deep brain stimulation supplied by a type of pacemaker for the brain.

While he is deeply involved in research now, Larson did not discover his interest in research until late in his ASU career. While majoring in zoology at the university, he assisted with the first in-vitro fertilization procedures — and while Larson appreciated the opportunity, it didn’t spark his research passion at the time.

“I actually did not participate in much research as an undergraduate,” Larson said. “Back then, the research focus at ASU was not as strong as it is now, and the opportunities to get involved were less apparent.” It wasn’t until he took a neuroscience course during his last semester that Larson realized he wanted to do more research in a field that resonated with him.

“In a way, it was disruptive. I had always just planned on going on to medical school and becoming a trauma surgeon,” Larson said. “But it was at that moment I decided I wanted to study the brain and have a research component to my career.”

Before finding his love of research, Larson was also busy discovering other things as an undergraduate.

“My time at ASU really formed my personal and professional mindset,” Larson said. “Getting involved in student government and the Greek system made me realize that there was a lot more to life than just excelling in class. It made me realize that you need to partner with others to reach your full potential.”

Larson put that mentality to work as an undergrad by entering student government through the Associated Students of Arizona State University — even serving as president of the organization for a year. But being around so many people also put success in perspective, teaching him that talent alone wasn’t enough. He realized he needed to set goals and have the determination to meet them.

“I was never the brightest person on campus, but I saw plenty of very smart people go nowhere in their careers and never really make a contribution to the greater good,” Larson shared. “That seemed like a waste of talent and energy and I did not want to end up like that. I learned persistence and, even more importantly, patience during my time at ASU — and that is a personal achievement that has served me well.”

Now, Larson prides himself on his ability to form strong, successful teams — something that has proven essential for his work as a researcher and teacher.

“Teaching in surgery is very different than ‘traditional’ teaching,” Larson shared. “It’s much more one-on-one — an intense relationship between teacher and student. It’s absolutely the best part of my job.”

As a teacher himself, Larson tries to pass down the same lessons he learned from his own teachers in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

“My teachers in the School of Life Sciences taught me the most important lesson in my job, which is how to think critically,” Larson said. “How do you look at a medical problem and say, ‘why does this happen?’ The ability to analyze and interpret data in neuroscience and think critically is absolutely fundamental to what we do.”

ASU professor John Alcock (now Emeritus), a world leader in animal behavior, taught Larson the finer points of the scientific method — forming hypotheses, asking the right questions and coming up with new ways of trying to answer them.

Those basics, and everything else Larson learned at the university have carried him a long way. On Feb. 20, the ASU Alumni Association honored him with the Alumni Achievement Award during the 2014 Founder’s Day celebration. Even after receiving an award that recognizes his own achievements, Larson attributes his success to his experience at ASU.

“Above all, my fondest memories are of people and places around campus,” Larson said. “Friends that I still keep in touch with, the MU, the student section at Sun Devil Stadium and the professors who helped me along the way.”

Paul Larson is the chief of neurosurgery at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Larson also teaches students there, through the University of California, San Francisco.