Hayden’s ‘Science Ninja’ star defends doctoral thesis with honors
February 18, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A Routt County scholar who tackles televised obstacle course competitions in his free time now goes by Dr. Mitchell VeDepo.
The 2009 Hayden High School graduate presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas on Friday and passed with honors.
"Ideally, I'm going to be pursuing a career in academia," VeDepo said. "I enjoy teaching other people, and it also gives me an opportunity to pursue research."
When not training and competing in the NBC TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” the 27-year-old Colorado School of Mines graduate was doing research in the bioengineering program at Kansas. His work focused on helping engineer a pediatric heart valve made from a patient's own cells.
"There is not an ideal heart valve substitute for pediatric patients," VeDepo said. "The main focus was on young children."
Before VeDepo, others worked on developing the heart valve.
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"I went back and filled in a lot of holes that remained," VeDepo said. "Unfortunately, it still hasn't seen clinical use because there are a lot of challenges that still need to be overcome."
While attending school in Hayden, VeDepo competed in wrestling and played football. He then got into rock climbing, and in Kansas, that progressed into training for “American Ninja Warrior.”
The competition tests the strength and endurance of even the best elite athletes during a grueling series of obstacles.
VeDepo made his “American Ninja Warrior” debut in June 2015. This past August, he camped for 19 days to secure a spot as a walk-on competitor.
During that broadcast, the show featured VeDepo's doctoral work and gave him the nickname Science Ninja.
"They came up with that, but I've kind of ran with it ever since," VeDepo said.
VeDepo is still training and submitted his audition video to be a part of the show's 10th season.
"So, fingers crossed," said VeDepo, who should learn whether he made the cut in March.
Until then, VeDepo plans to travel to Thailand and spend a month rock climbing.
He will then return to Colorado to be closer to his girlfriend and do post-doctoral work at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Based on some words of wisdom offered to him by a college advisor, VeDepo is looking forward to a career in research and academia.
"A medical doctor may save thousands of patients in their lifetime, but a bioengineer has the ability to save hundreds of thousands or millions of people with a product that really helps," VeDepo said.