College of Human Ecology,
Division of Nutritional Sciences
Over nearly two decades as a practicing surgeon and scientist, Dr. Justin Sacks ’93 has advised his fair share of interns. In some cases, they received stipends through grant funding, but Sacks noticed that many struggled to pay for housing and other expenses. Currently chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University (WashU) School of Medicine in St. Louis and professor of surgery/Sidney M. Jr. and Robert H. Shoenberg Chair, Sacks wondered why many aspiring doctors never applied for internships … or didn’t know about them in the first place.
After joining the Dean’s Advisory Council in Cornell Human Ecology a year and a half ago, Sacks realized he had an opportunity to help. Along with his wife, Dr. Bethany Sacks, an associate professor of surgery at WashU, he established the Summer Pre-Health Internship Fund with a $125,000 gift. The fund will support one undergraduate student in Human Ecology on a pre-health track while they complete a summer internship in the medical field.
“A lot of young people don’t necessarily know what the next steps are in medicine at the undergraduate level,” Sacks said. “Getting them hooked up with good mentors can literally change their life.”
Sacks says his own mentors were critical in helping him achieve his dream career. He’s wanted to be a doctor ever since admiring his pediatrician as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. “I always thought it was a great fusion of science and humanity,” he said.
Sacks attended CHE as an undergraduate, receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology and society (now called human biology, health and society). He fondly recalls learning from luminaries in the field, including Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann, and studying topics beyond the core sciences, such as ergonomics and human development. He also credits the rigorous curriculum with preparing him for the challenges of the medical field. “It made me realize that you had to work for things — nothing was a given,” he said.
During his medical training at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Sacks came across a patient with gynecological cancer. After doctors removed her tumor, he watched as plastic surgeons repaired her body through an intricate operation. Sacks decided to focus on plastic and reconstructive surgery and went on to complete three specialized fellowships. Before joining WashU, he served on the faculty of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and spent a decade at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he was vice chair of clinical operations in the Department of Plastic Surgery and director of oncological reconstruction.
Sacks says people often assume he only does facelifts and breast augmentation, but cosmetic plastic surgery is only a small part of his practice. Most of the 10,000-plus operations he’s performed have restored “form and function” following cancer or trauma, such as a jaw reconstruction for a cancer patient. At Johns Hopkins, he was part of the team that performed arm and hand transplants and even a penis transplant for a wounded veteran. A single operation can last more than 12 hours and for the transplants, 24 hours.
“I put people back together,” Sacks said. “The operations are hard, but when you make a person whole again, you establish this lifelong bond.”
Sacks finds it rewarding to combine clinical practice with research that will ultimately make operations safer and more effective. In 2015, he cofounded LifeSprout, a biotech startup based on technology he and his team at Johns Hopkins developed to reconstruct soft tissues using synthetic scaffolds. The company closed a $28.5-million Series A funding round in 2020. His other research focuses on patches to prevent pressure sores and a device to connect blood vessels without sutures. He has received funding for his research from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense. “Everything we do is to reduce morbidity and mortality of patients and make them whole faster with fewer side effects,” he said.
In 2016, Sacks also completed an MBA in Medical Service Management by taking night classes at Johns Hopkins. “It helped me evolve into a more self-aware leader and allowed me to understand the finance and business of medicine better,” he said.
In addition to his other responsibilities, Sacks is continuing to teach the next generation of doctors by training medical students, residents and fellows. “I’m a busy guy,” he jokes. But not too busy, he emphasizes, to mentor undergrads who happen to use the fund he established to intern with his team.
Sacks sees his gift as a way to make a lasting impact beyond serving on the Dean’s Advisory Committee. “I wanted to do something more substantial than just give advice — it was important for me to create some kind of legacy,” Sacks said. “This allows me to give something back to the university that gave me so much and create an opportunity for others who have needs so they find great mentors and focus on a career in medicine.”
He hopes for a domino effect: “Maybe the intern decides to go to medical school, gets grants in research and winds up all those years later giving back in the same way. That’s a legacy!”