Chrissy DiCindio’s internship last summer connected her to Comron Saifi, the director of Clinical Spine Research at Penn Medicine.
DiCindio, a 2017 graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High North, won’t forget the first time that Saifi invited her into the operating room to observe spinal surgery.
Said DiCindio: “I was standing in the corner trying to make myself as small as possible, which was not easy.”
DiCindio doesn’t do small. She is a 6-foot-2 forward for the University of Pennsylvania women’s basketball team, which narrowly missed out on an automatic berth to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament after a 65–54 loss to Princeton on March 17 in the finals of the Ivy League Tournament.
They played in the National Invitational Tournament on the weekend of March 22, winning against American, 64-45, in the first round, and losing to Providence, 64-54, in the second.
Although her playing time on the team was minimal this season—she played a total of 28 minutes in the last 10 games— she said that she’s enjoyed being a member of the team.
“I’m playing with one of the best players, Eleah Parker, who’s second in shot blocks in the country,” DiCindio said. “I get to work out with her, play against her. We make each other better.”
DiCindio is a sophomore who had to use a medical redshirt last year while recovering from a herniated disc in her back. Although she doesn’t play a lot, she’s a valuable member of the Quakers.
“My role is different than high school,” said DiCindio, who was the the 2017 Colonial Valley Conference Player of the Year. “I’ve accepted my role of helping my teammates be the best they can be. If I’m not on the court, I’m cheering whoever’s on the court.”
Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin says that DiCindio has developed “a nice little role” on the team. “It just hasn’t been on the floor. But she’s important. She’s done her job. She’s accepted where she’s at now. Obviously she wants to get on the floor, but she has some work to do. She has some very good players ahead of her,” he said in an interview.
DiCindio got behind last year when she was sidelined with her back injury. She had to learn how to run properly, work out and move properly and rehabilitate into a stronger athlete.
“It’s tough for anyone,” McLaughlin said. “I ask everyone to embrace whatever their role is. You don’t want anyone accepting not playing. They’re all competitive athletes…Understanding how difficult that is, doing this sport at the college level for six, seven, eight months straight and not getting on the floor, I have a great deal of respect for anyone—particularly Chrissy—that gets it.”
DiCindio’s internship also had her finding a role after her first year of college studies. She found the opportunity through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program.
“It was my first experience establishing a relationship with a professional [who] was highly regarded,” DiCindio said. “It’s the first time I had a real boss. Knowing my place was fascinating. You’re at the bottom of the chain, you haven’t been there a while, and understanding my role in things, it wasn’t clear cut what I was supposed to do. I had to some searching about my responsibilities and I had to understand who to ask and what to ask and I had to take ownership of my own work that was going to be presented to a professional.”
DiCindio said she was pleased with the way it all worked out. She did not originally apply for the internship with Saifi. But when an internship she applied for did not receive funding, she jumped at the opportunity to work with him.
“He talked to me on the phone and we talked about sports, talked about my own back injury I had, and he opened up the floor to what I wanted to do,” DiCindio said. “I said I was open to learning and absorbing as much as possible. There are so many jobs and opportunities, I don’t know what I’m totally interested in. I’m interested in the body and how it works.”
DiCindio is majoring in biological basis of behavior, which focuses more on the brain and its functionality, but she found herself getting involved deeper in the orthopedic side of medicine. The operating room was only the tip of the iceberg for her and a fellow intern working with Saifi. They shadowed Saifi and observed how he interacted and used diagnostic tools with patients.
“Part of the job was observing in the clinic,” DiCindio said. “The other student and I wrote papers to be submitted to The Spine Journal. We looked at surgical trends and demographic trends for spinal surgeries. Eventually our plan is to submit to The Spine Journal. It’s a long process. We’re probably at the bottom of his list, but I have the opportunity to be the first author on two articles as an undergrad, which would be amazing.”
DiCindio penned one paper on the use of bone morphogenetic protein, which promotes bone growth. BMP can be placed directly into a spinal column that is being fused during surgery.
“The whole history of BMP is a little complicated because the company that made it had some falsifying of data,” DiCindio said. “There’s some controversy over the material. My paper included some of that drama, but it was mostly focused on what surgeries it was used in, and the people that received it—the demographics data.” Her other paper was on outpatient spinal fusion surgery and the trends associated with it.
DiCindio took the subway to Center City to her internship daily, then returned to work into shape for this basketball season. She lived in the same house that she shared with nine Penn basketball teammates during the academic year, and worked out with Kristen Daley, a 6-1 junior who was interning at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After work, they would play pick-up games with the Drexel Team.
Being able to have that summer opportunity is an important aspect of DiCindio’s schooling. It’s also meaningful to the basketball program.
“The Ivy League model, the Penn model, we don’t have summer access when it comes down to basketball,” McLaughlin said. “Our kids don’t have to go to summer school. The whole reason being is these kids can do internships around the country, around the world. The model has been a great fit. It’s a great system because it allows these kids to be a true student and an athlete.”
DiCindio chose to attend Penn following a standout career at North. She graduated after scoring 1,135 points, pulling down 934 rebounds and blocking 245 shots and helping the Knights win the 2017 Mercer County Tournament. She remains close to the Knights program now steered by head coach Frank Moore after her coach, Bob Boyce, retired.
“Jordan Brown, I talk to a lot,” DiCindio said of the Knights star player. “Frank, I’m in contact with a lot. All the girls, we do social media. Jordan’s 1,000th point, we were all congratulating her. I love those girls, and all of us when something big happens talk about it. Frank is such a good guy. We’re happy when he’s successful.”
The Knights are also proudly following their alumnae like DiCindio. DiCindio had just graduated and was in the midst of Penn’s summer workout plan when her back injury flared up.
“These things happen,” DiCindio said. “They (Penn) were forgiving and helpful and hooked me up with probably the best physical therapist I’ve met. I got steroid injections in my back. I worked my butt off to be able to run again with no pain.”
DiCindio rejoined Penn at the end of the season in practices last year and continued to build up her body while doing her internship. She came into this season at full strength, though she still gives up some size and strength to some of her fellow post players in college.
“What she gives away sometimes with her limitations, her athletic ability, her foot speed, her vertical, but she does compete,” McLaughlin said. “She’s coachable. If you tell her, ‘Don’t let this kid catch it within three feet of the box,’ she’ll do it. She’ll work to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
DiCindio is hoping to help the Quakers push toward an Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament berth in her third year.
“The 18 of us and the managers, we’re best friends,” DiCindio said. “We’d do anything for each other. That absolutely shows on the court.”
DiCindio is also currently looking into MindCORE, a program that connects intelligence and behavior-based research within different schools at Penn, and using her basketball connections to reach some of the team’s most ardent followers about summer internships.
“She’s done her part,” McLaughlin said. “It’s high level basketball. We’re a top-70 RPI team. She’s doing what she can do. We’re happy to have her.”