Trumpeter Grant GianGrasso, who also dabbles in stand-up comedy, wants to conquer infectious disease. The Rhodes Scholarship Trust, a fully funded postgraduate award, is helping him work toward a doctorate at the University of Oxford.
GianGrasso, from Clarence, New York, who graduated from the University of Virginia in three years in 2023 as a double major in human biology and French, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at UVA’s School of Medicine. He plans to complete that degree in 2024 and then go to Oxford in the fall and study for a doctorate in clinical medicine. One of 32 Americans selected for the program, GianGrasso is the 56th Rhodes Scholar for UVA, the top Rhodes producing public university in the country.
“I would really like to help reduce our world’s significant health inequities and make a career of serving others,” GianGrasso said. “It’s a fact that most people don’t feel safe from all sorts of infectious diseases and experience a lack of health care access. Illnesses that don’t impact any of us in high-income countries often mean serious disability or death for small children in less wealthy regions.
“If it’s preventable, it’s unacceptable.”
As an undergraduate, GianGrasso worked in the lab of Chelsea Marie Braun, an associate professor of medicine whose work focuses on infectious diseases and international health.
“I study cryptosporidium, a diarrheal parasite that has a big impact on children in low- and middle-income countries,” he said. “My undergraduate thesis had to do with how a certain human protein might play a role in infection. It’s a leading killer of infants and young children, but unfortunately, this age group has no vaccine and few therapeutics available to treat the disease.”
GianGrasso said that while wealthier countries have become better at fighting these infections, low-and middle-income countries often get left behind. GianGrasso wants to be both a medical doctor and a researcher, a path that offers him the opportunity to become an expert in treating diseases while researching their cures.
Braun said two words that describe GianGrasso are “integrity” and “kindness.”
“Grant pursues excellence with the highest degree of integrity,” Braun said. “I have never seen him try to cut a corner, whether in a boring data analysis or in an arduous experiment. Grant is methodical and ensures his work is of the highest rigor and quality.
“He is also exceptionally kind. He brings birthday cards for other lab members; he is generous with compliments and cares for his colleagues.”
Braun said GianGrasso “will be an extraordinary ambassador for the U.S. at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He will represent UVA and our nation wonderfully.”
GianGrasso said his language fluency will help him better communicate with his patients. He majored in French, took a Spanish minor and received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Bengali, the sixth-most-spoken language in the world, in Kolkata, India.
“My lab work has been in partnership with the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and we frequently exchange personnel with them on visits,” said GianGrasso, whose love of language stems from his mother, a French teacher. He served as the resident adviser of La Maison Française, the University’s French House, and studied in France last summer.
“My Spanish improved significantly during UVA’s Valencia Program the summer after my first year, and I later used it a lot on a trip to the Dominican Republic with UVA’s Global Medical Training club,” he said. “Spanish also helps significantly during my volunteer work as a firefighter/EMT in Charlottesville, where I have to interpret for many Spanish-speaking patients in emergencies.”
“Grant’s work is at the level of a senior graduate student, so advanced is his thinking,” said Dr. William Petri, chief of UVA’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health. “He is rigorous as well as creative in his thinking, anticipates alternative hypotheses, works exceedingly well in a team with graduate and postdoctoral fellows, and is highly productive through a combination of a profound ability to work hard and manage time.
“He is also one of the kindest and most personable individuals that one could hope to know.”
GianGrasso came to UVA as a Jefferson Scholar through the Dr. Randolph Preston Pillow Jefferson Scholarship. He was also a College Science Scholar, a program designed to give each student individual attention and close interaction with research faculty. A National Merit Scholar and a U.S. Presidential Scholar, he is also founder and editor-in-chief of the Virginia Medical Review, an online student science and medical publication that aims to present new developments in science and medicine to a broad audience.
While intensely scientific in his academic pursuits, GianGrasso has his artistic side. He is lead trumpet of the UVA Jazz Ensemble under the direction of John D’earth, with whom he takes lessons, and has played trumpet in occasional duets with Petri at the Olivet Presbyterian Church.
“Grant is also a beautiful trumpet player,” Petri said. “He is as extraordinary a musician as he is a scientist.”
“I’m getting much better at finding my own voice and improvising,” he said. “I play my dad’s trumpet that he played in his college jazz band, and which he bought with money from his paper route in high school, so that connection means a lot to me.”
Pursuing music, GianGrasso said helps keep him balanced.
“Jazz helps me take a break from the rigidity of everyday responsibilities and let loose,” he noted. “When I’m in rehearsal, it takes my mind off everything else, and the band becomes singularly focused on the music. But while jazz can sound fluid, the music is very deliberately structured. It takes a lot of talent and drive to get good at, and I have a long road ahead.”
GianGrasso also performs as a stand-up comic.
“I truly enjoy how injecting humor and levity into difficult situations, and always being able to laugh at yourself can make hard times a bit easier,” he said. “My first crack at stand-up came in February 2022, when I entered UVA’s Comedy Knight competition and ended up winning. Since then, I’ve been invited to perform sets at different gigs like parties, and I’ve written and delivered 10 sets so far.
“I’ve been told I have a lot of energy when I perform and that I engage with the audience a lot. I like hearing that, because making people laugh feels like one of the most empowering things you can do.”
“Grant is one of the humblest students with whom I have been able to work,” Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, said. “He is always eager to learn and genuinely loves interacting with people distinctly different from himself. Those qualities make him a very effective servant, in addition to being a delight to be around. I am really excited to see how he grows as a Rhodes Scholar.”
The comedy sets, the jazz sessions and the biology studies have put GianGrasso in some interesting company, which is exactly where he wants to be.
“I like hanging around people who are hard-working, but don’t forget to keep a positive attitude and love what they do,” he said.