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Boston Community’s Rising Star Giovanni Abbadessa

Giovanni Abbadessa

Giovanni Abbadessa

“You have to look five years ahead.”

Giovanni Abbadessa repeats this motto as a mantra and seems to apply it to the many tasks and roles he juggles in his busy, intense, on-the-verge-of-overbooked daily life. His phone rings, beeps or vibrates relentlessly during the two hours we spend in the gorgeous, elegantly and somewhat minimally furnished house in a western suburb of Boston he bought a couple of years ago. The results from the local COMITES election, in which he was a candidate, are just coming in that day, while kitchen renovation contractors in need of quotes and measures continuously interrupt our conversation. I have the feeling it would have been the same regardless of what day it was.

After all, since he came to Boston in 2007, Abbadessa has climbed all the way to the rare and coveted position of vice president of Clinical Development and Translational Medicine at Arqule. His role at the relatively small but publicly owned biotech company is to oversee the passage from cells to FDA approval for promising experimental anti-cancer drugs. At the same time, the 38-year-old oncologist from Naples, Italy, still leads the growing group of Italian expats gathered under PIB (Professionisti Italiani a Boston), after having founded the group with several other Boston area Italian professionals in 2009. Claiming over 1,300 members, the organization has filled a longstanding void in town, becoming the main point of reference for the Italian community of “recent immigrants” in search of interesting events and networking opportunities. In the meantime, Abbadessa got married to Cynthia, also a doctor and Ph.D., apparently as busy and successful as her husband. The two met in Philadelphia in 2005, where both were doing research, and then finally settled in Boston two years later, where they are raising two boys.

PIB members at the organization's second annual sailing contest

PIB members at the organization’s second annual sailing contest

Even though he doesn’t explicitly tell me, I have the feeling the expectations from his pre-Boston “five-year-plan” might have been somehow exceeded. Or maybe not: Abbadessa is as ambitious as he is zealous in everything he does. And that sometimes puts him and his organization at odds with Boston’s larger and more established Italian-American community.

“A lot of the tension and incomprehension between the two waves of Italian immigrants may have to do with social differences, with coming from and living in different worlds, and it might have been the same if we were in Italy,” he reflects as seriousness sets in his eyes and tone of voice, temporarily overshadowing the otherwise positive and enthusiastic vibe he transmits. The subject obviously – and understandably — upsets and saddens him. “However, everyone should understand that suspicion on one side and snobbish attitudes on the other have really no reason for being: we all have more in common than we think — first and foremost the fact that we left our beloved homeland to make our dreams come true.”

As Abbadessa seems to get slightly teary-eyed, he says his dreams included and still include helping others: first and foremost in his professional life, by prolonging the life expectancy of cancer patients. He shows me graphs and charts on the laptop that is always by his side, pointing out gaps between what, to an untrained eye like mine, are just colored lines. As it turns out, the lines — published in prestigious international journals such as Lancet Oncology and Hepatic Oncology — refer to the latest liver cancer treatment his company is currently developing and Abbadessa proposes in person to various medical centers around the world working with him.

“See this yellow line?” he indicates on the chart from the randomized phase 2 study. “This shows survival while taking the drug. See this blue one? This is survival without. This space, between the yellow and the blue line, are months, in some cases almost two years… it is the difference between seeing your kids get married or not, or the business you solidly built for your entire life handed to the right person and headed in the right direction. We might not be curing cancer – yet – but we hope to dramatically improve people’s lives,” he says.

Giovanni Abbadessa in 2011, receiving the "Giovane Promessa" (Promising Youth) Award from the Italian Consulate General of Italy in Boston.

Giovanni Abbadessa in 2011, receiving the “Giovane Promessa” (Promising Youth) Award from the Italian Consulate General of Italy in Boston.

Abbadessa’s phone rings again. He has to take this one. He dashes to the under-renovation kitchen where he made sure — as all good born and bred Neapolitans — a can of Italian ground coffee was left out of the sealed cabinets, along with the espresso maker. In the meantime, through the ceiling I hear his younger child cry as he awakes from a nap. “Don’t worry,” he says as he reemerges, phone in one hand, cup of steaming coffee in the other. “The babysitter will take care of him.” He puts down the phone, takes a sip, and says: “We made it! We got elected. All three of us!”

The electoral contest in question is the one for COMITES, a group of local representatives in charge of facilitating communication between the Consulate General of Italy and the community as a whole. The “three” Giovanni is referring to are himself, Nadia Di Carlo and Andrea Boggio, all members of PIB’s de-facto board, who successfully ran to be part of this elected body in order to further strengthen the synergy between generations and roles. For PIB, which already boasts a consolidated reputation for organizing quality events with prestigious speakers and widely attended classy networking gatherings, this is a valuable opportunity to shed some growing criticisms of a purportedly “elitist” attitude — a reality that Abbadessa, despite his attempt to play it down with his usual positive attitude, knows all too well.

“When we started back in 2009, we called ourselves ‘Italian professionals’ because we needed to have an identity,” he says, “and most of all, because nothing like PIB existed yet among the rich and varied panorama of Italian associations. Over time, however, we opened our doors to everyone: entrepreneurs, artists, Italian and non-Italian speakers. Believe me, we do not want to keep anybody out. On the contrary we are designing activities (from Italian language courses to soccer tournaments for young children) that will include as many people as possible.”

I leave wondering what could be in Abbadessa’s next five-year plan: a cure for liver cancer? A real bridge between the many souls of Italian immigration, in Boston and beyond? Probably both. In that case, let’s hope for his ambition not to fade away so that reality can exceed, once again, his expectations.

About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.