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Cairnbrook native named Carlow University laureate

January 22, 2019

Helping people overcome health challenges has been the focal point of Diana Lynn Pakstis’ nursing and administrative career.

For more than 20 years, she has worked in the field of clinical research, where health care professionals study how to better diagnose, treat and prevent disease. During the last 14 years, she has been the administrative leader of research efforts to prevent and treat infectious diseases, especially in organ transplant patients, at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Medicine.

On Jan. 8, Pakstis was promoted to associate division administrator for endocrinology, geriatrics and infectious diseases. Her administrative leadership is going to include the university’s medical research in the endocrinology and geriatrics divisions as well.

She is also one of five Carlow University alumni who received the 2018 Carlow Laureate award for distinguished alumni last May.

The Cairnbrook native said her Somerset County upbringing provided a solid background for her future success.

“Back home if someone needed help, there was always someone willing to help,” she said. “It taught me a strong work ethic, spirituality and honesty . . . it helped me stay grounded and maintained my foundation. (Moving away) it’s easy to get lost and lose your way, but I had a solid foundation and people who influenced me. I took those values and held on to them.”

Parents Stanley J. and Diana Pakstis instilled those values in the younger Diana, her four brothers and two sisters.

“My father often said, ‘When you look in the mirror, you better like what you’re seeing,’” Pakstis said, meaning that personal integrity is more important than physical appearance. She has taken that advice to heart in her own life and career.

“I always treat my patients like (they are) a family member who was sick,” she said.

Pakstis graduated from Shade High School in 1984, then moved to Pittsburgh to study business at Carlow College, now Carlow University, where she graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in business management.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she said. “They really promoted women and made me believe in myself. The biggest thing I took from that (time) was that as a woman, you can be a leader. Carlow provided me with the foundation that allowed me to excel in my career.

“I was a small-town girl that came to the city for the first time, and Carlow helped shape who I am today. It was a wonderful place to go to school, and it was wonderful what they were able to do for me.”

After graduation, she worked for about a year as a business analyst until she decided to change careers.

“I was working in a doctor’s office, and I realized by being a nurse, I could do much more to help people,” she said. “I went back (to school), got (my nursing degree) and never looked back.”

Pakstis earned an associate degree in nursing in 1992 from the Community College of Allegheny County and a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1998 from Carlow. After working four years as an intensive care nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, she joined the hospital’s cardiovascular research unit as a senior clinical research nurse coordinator.

In 2000, she was hired by the University of Pittsburgh to manage the daily operations of its Institutional Review Board, which oversees the work of all research projects being done at the university.

She moved to the Division of Infectious Diseases in 2004 to organize a translational research program for the division’s transplant program.

“We added four full-time research coordinators and three research labs,” she said. “There’s a lot we did here because of getting the program up and running.”

Her responsibilities grew as the program grew, and eventually she was named administrative director for the Division of Infectious Diseases’ entire research program. She also earned a master of business administration degree in 2009 from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Business School.

The division’s efforts in medical research have saved lives, Pakstis said.

“We offer treatments that are sometimes not available in smaller community facilities,” she said. “That gives our patients a step up. We’ve been able to save lives . . . people have walked out of this hospital that I never thought were going to.

“I wanted to make an impact on people, and I think we’ve done that here.”

In addition to her contributions as a medical professional, Pakstis is a volunteer in the Pittsburgh community for Project Bundle-Up, Toys for Tots and the U.S. Transplant Games. She also enjoys traveling; she’s been to Europe several times and is taking a trip to Jamaica this year for her birthday. She also wants to take a “dream vacation” to Australia someday.

These and other opportunities she’s received, she said, were possible because she was always willing to learn and try something new.

“I would encourage (young adults) to go outside of their comfort zone like I did,” she said. “Take the values you got growing up, hold tight to them but step out of your comfort zone and show the world what a small-town girl or guy can do.

“(At the beginning,) I never thought I would be here. I’ve enjoyed the ride, and I hope it’s a longer ride yet.”

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