Just weeks from defending her doctoral dissertation in mathematics last summer, Suzanne Crifo was getting ready for another big event: The Lace Up to Bring Lewy Down 5K Run that she started in memory of her father.
This year’s race, held June 8 in Cary, was the third that Crifo organized in support of Lewy body dementia, the disease that took her father’s life. She was an undergraduate student at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, in 2011 when her father, Dan Crifo of Glen Rock, NJ, was diagnosed with the disease.
When her father died in March 2017, Crifo was in the midst of her Ph.D. program. But she had already started planning to organize an event to recognize her father and raise awareness about LBD, which has many of the same symptoms as Parkinson’s disease.
Crifo said she was inspired by her father, who studied mathematics as a graduate student at Rutgers University and went on to use his math skills as an actuary.
“My father was a brilliant man,” Crifo said. “He’s the reason that I did math.”
Watching the disease take his mind was hard, and Crifo also found that it was a difficult topic to discuss with others. “Anytime there’s something to do with dementia, there’s sort of a stigma that goes along with it,” she said. “As humans, our minds are so important to our personality and our definition of being human.
“So I found myself telling people that my dad had Parkinson’s disease, just because I found it easier,” she said. “And I thought that maybe this was an issue I should help bring awareness to: Lewy body dementia.”
The national Lewy Body Dementia Association Inc. website suggested several fund-raising opportunities, and Crifo, who is a runner, liked the idea of organizing a 5K run. She began planning the 2017 run in the fall of 2016. Planning the first one took a lot of time and energy – finding a site, hiring vendors and getting out word about the run.
The first year, the race attracted 120 runners and brought in $12,500, thanks in part to memorial donations given for her father. Crifo had much support from family and friends, and even strangers who heard about the effort and wanted to help.
This year, the race got a nice boost – a $10,000 gift from a New York company where Crifo’s former roommate works. The employees there voted to support the race. Of the money raised for the Lewy Body Dementia Association, half will go to research on the disease and half will go to support families of LBD patients.
Bringing awareness and support to LBD also was personal for Vanessa Doriott Anderson, director of teaching and communication programs at the Graduate School, and Crifo’s mentor with the Graduate School’s professional development team. This year, Doriott Anderson offered to help coordinate volunteers for the 5K race, and one of her classes helped redesign a poster to promote the race.
“When a beloved family member started showing symptoms of LBD, I felt powerless,” Doriott Anderson said. “But Suzanne’s race has helped me redirect my emotions in a positive way.”
So I found myself telling people that my dad had Parkinson’s disease, just because I found it easier.
After completing her Ph.D. this summer, Crifo began a new job at Duke University’s Academic Resource Center, where half of her time is devoted to learning consultations, in which she works with students to navigate the demands of academic life, and the other half involves working with math study groups. For her, it was the perfect blend of supporting students, while maintaining her connection to mathematics.
As a graduate student at NC State, Crifo took advantage of many professional development opportunities offered through the Graduate School. She participated in Academic Packways, a summer program that helps students prepare for careers in academia. She also participated in Preparing the Professoriate and the Teaching and Communication Certificate programs. All these opportunities helped prepare her for her career, she said.
These programs helped her understand different types of positions available at a university. Through the workshops, she also developed a professional portfolio website and learned the art of salary negotiation. And most importantly, the training helped her improve her teaching skills.
“Professional development work led me to this career. Vanessa has been a valuable mentor to me in helping me find the career I wanted,” Crifo said. “As far as my own teaching is concerned, it actually has improved greatly due to the Teaching and Communication Certificate and all the workshops I took.”