A path that had humble beginnings has taken many turns in the career of CU-Boulder alum Dan Peterson
Like many students, Dan Peterson, neurosurgeon, car buff and University of Colorado Boulder alum, started his career path at the bottom of the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Boulder.
As a CU student, Peterson lived in a 400-square-foot condo on 22nd and Arapahoe. To get to class, he had to walk the infamous “Ho Chi Minh Trail” that climbs from Boulder Creek, up the Hill and onto campus.“I would marvel every day at the disparate and unique experiences in Boulder,” Peterson says. “I would walk past the Naropa Institute with all the Buddhists and the hippies, and then past the CU football practice field and then cross the bridge over Boulder Creek to get onto campus.”
Having grown up in Littleton, he decided to attend CU-Boulder because it was just far away enough to seem like another world.
While Boulder’s distinct culture and natural beauty originally lured Peterson to Boulder, he also found a welcoming home in the biochemistry department. One of his mentors was Marvin H. Caruthers, distinguished professor, co-founder of the biopharmaceutical giant Amgen, Guggenheim Fellow and National Medal of Science winner. Working with world-class researchers like Caruthers helped stoke Peterson’s drive to study the natural sciences.
Peterson graduated from CU-Boulder in 1984 with a double major in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and biochemistry. In 1988, he received an M.D. from the CU Health Science Center School of Medicine.
The years I spent in Boulder were some of the best years ever.”
However, Peterson’s interest in medical arts started long before he came to CU. “I always felt like part of my destiny was going to be in medicine,” he remarks.
His mother was an X-ray technician, and one of her colleagues was Homer McClintock, one of Colorado’s first neurosurgeons. McClintock was influential in Peterson’s decision to pursue a medical career.
“Homer took me under his arm and took me into the operating room and let me assist him in some procedures,” Peterson remembers. “As a 16-year-old, it was a pretty bright exposure for a young person.”
After Peterson completed his internship and residency in neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, he went into private practice. In 1994, he established Austin Brain and Spine, a private clinic specializing in brain surgery and the treatment of degenerative spinal disorders.
However, Peterson had always had a passion for classic cars. He purchased his first as a teenager for $750. “It was a four-door that I bought with snow-shoveling and baby-sitting money,” he recalls. “I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in my high school with a ‘55 Chevy.”In 2005, he seized the opportunity to pursue his passion and co-founded Austin Speed Shop, a business that builds hot rods and restores custom cars. The shop has become an iconic institution in Austin and has grown to achieve national recognition for its quality and workmanship.
One of Peterson’s favorite classic cars, another 1955 Chevy that he named “El Gringo Loco,” sports the CU colors of black and gold. It was restored by the Austin Speed Shop and painted by Pete “Hot Dog” Finlan in California. According to Peterson, Finlan “went to town” on the car, using gold leaf accents on the black body to create a true work of art. He hopes to bring “El Gringo Loco” back to Boulder some day to participate in a homecoming parade or other alumni event.
Neurosurgey may not seem to have a lot in common with the classic car business, but Peterson explains the connection:
“People that work with classic cars are artisans, they work with their hands, they create. Just like restoring classic cars, when you perform surgery, you are creating and fabricating. That kind of craftsmanship is what I like to do.”
In 2011, Peterson refocused his attention on medicine and formed Alafair Biosciences. He obtained an exclusive license from the University of Texas at Austin to employ a revolutionary new technology to develop biocompatible medical products that can speed wound healing and prevent scarring.
Alafair’s initial product, called VersaWrap®, is a hydrogel membrane that is used in the repair of tendons in the hands and feet. During surgery, the material is wrapped around the tendon to add support and reduce unwanted scar tissue that can form in the area after surgery. After three weeks, the material dissolves.
“The goal is to get people back to work sooner and reduce the physical therapy required after surgery,” says Peterson.
Peterson is excited about the new technology. Similar products on the market are very expensive, costing from $3,000 to $5,000 for a 2-inch by 2-inch strip. VersaWrap® will be “dramatically less expensive.” It is also much thinner than its competition, allowing it to be placed in more narrow areas, and it doesn’t need to be sutured in place. Peterson is submitting the product for FDA approval by the end of this year and hopes to begin marketing the product next year.
Perhaps aspiring to follow the advice of the late Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Peterson’s career has taken many paths, starting from his humble beginnings as a young CU student walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail to class, to becoming a skilled neurosurgeon, the CEO of a revolutionary medical equipment company and the co-owner of a classic-car business.
For current CU students, Peterson’s advice is two-fold: “Don’t get hung up on the hoops you have to jump through to get to the career that you want. Appreciate the stage of your life you are in, and don’t get too anxious about where you are going to be in the future.”
He also advises students to expand their horizons and broaden their education. “People tend to hyper-focus on the prerequisites for a career and not really try to round out their education,” he explains. “Appreciating liberal arts if you are a scientist or engineer, or if you are an artist, taking a business or science class, is really important.”
Lauren White, associate director of development for CU’s Office of Advancement, is grateful for Dan’s enthusiasm for his alma mater. “Dan is a strong CU advocate in the Austin community. He’s an exemplary alum and a true role model for our students,” she notes.
Peterson’s travels still take him back to Boulder three to four times a year. Peterson may be a Texas resident now, but part of his heart is still in Boulder.
“The years I spent in Boulder were some of the best years ever,” he says.
Laura Kriho is web and publications coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences.