Alumna’s gift supports research on neurodegenerative diseases

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Watching a parent rapidly deteriorate from an unexpected and mysterious illness can leave a person feeling devastated and helpless. For Penn State alumna Jennifer DiVittorio, her own experience observing both her parents’ declines has been no exception.

“Last December, I got a call from the assisted living facility in Philadelphia where my mother is living, saying that she had gone out into the parking lot at night to flag down cars to take her to her own wedding,” DiVittorio said. “She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease just two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 68.”

At that same time, DiVittorio’s father was diagnosed first with Parkinson’s disease and then with a rare form of Parkinson’s called multiple system atrophy. “In two years he went from being a 70-year-old, newly retired, very active man to someone who is completely bedridden,” she said. “The saddest part is that, unlike my mom, he is 100 percent sharp, mentally; he knows exactly what’s going on."

DiVittorio admits she has suffered from tremendous worry over the past few years, but rather than give in to her feelings of helplessness, she is doing something about them. Last year, she created an endowment, named the Mark and Sharon Robb Research Fund, in the Eberly College of Science to support research on these diseases and others. “I decided to partner with Penn State because I went there, my brother went there, and my dad went there,” she said. “I knew it would be meaningful to my dad to do it through Penn State.”

A 1996 graduate, with a bachelor’s degree in English and minors in Spanish and international studies, DiVittorio hopes to make a difference for future generations of people with neurodegenerative diseases.

“I feel like time is running out for myself and my generation,” she says, “but I hope to do something to at least help my son’s generation.” DiVittorio’s 12-year-old son is an avid hockey player and fan.

A former pharmaceutical representative for companies like Novartis, and a current owner of a Rodan + Fields business, DiVittorio says her career success has put her in a financial position to give to the Eberly College of Science. Her 2016 endowment directly supported research by Gong Chen, professor of biology and the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences in the Eberly College of Science. Chen’s work focuses on developing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Dr. Chen is pioneering some of the most exciting research in the field of brain repair research,” said Douglas Cavener, the Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “Jenn DiVittorio’s support is helping Dr. Chen and his team to accelerate research that may one day reverse the neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, that tragically afflict Jenn’s parents, as well as millions of other people around the world.” 

Now DiVittorio is creating another endowment, the Robb Family Graduate Fellowship, this time to fund research on neurodegenerative diseases taking place across the college. Her gift will support graduate students who exhibit academic excellence and whose research focuses on brain repair.

“A major contributor to the college’s success is the high quality of graduate students who conduct research alongside our faculty members,” said Cavener. “These extraordinary individuals frequently make scientific breakthroughs that garner international attention and even result in life-changing technologies. The Robb Family Graduate Fellowship will allow us to recruit and retain the most talented and dedicated researchers in the field of neurodegenerative diseases.”

DiVittorio’s fellowship will provide stipends to cover graduate students’ basic living expenses, conference support to enable graduate students to present papers and dissertations, seed funds for the pursuit of new research ideas, and opportunities to work with faculty members and researchers in their fields.

DiVittorio said she hopes to be able to add to her gift every year.

“My business has been an absolutely life-changing success, but when this all started with my mom and then my dad, I really came to understand that money can’t always buy happiness,” said DiVittorio. “Giving to Penn State so I can potentially help others with these diseases will be my real success.”

Gifts from Penn State's alumni and friends have been essential to the success of the University's historic land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives of a public university. Private support will keep the doors to higher education open and enable students to graduate on time and on track to success; create transformative experiences on Penn State campuses and around the globe that tap the full potential of Penn Staters to make a difference; and impact the world through discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

Last Updated November 22, 2017