David Christianson seems to operate on a motto of going all in or all out, particularly with academics.

He a senior at the University of South Dakota (USD) Sanford School of Medicine, where he is a member of the Gold Humanism Society and president of the South Dakota Chapter of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

He exercised this drive to achieve in his early years by graduating from high school at age 17 due to skipping a grade. However, he later dropped out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts a year shy of graduation because he decided he didn’t want to be an engineer.

After working in automobile restoration for a few years, both in his hometown of Long Island, New York and then California, he got his first taste of South Dakota life after marrying his wife, Melissa, a Chester, South Dakota native, and moving to the state shortly thereafter. After residing by Brookings for a time, they decided to return to California.

“When I was in my 20s, I was largely trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a career while also trying to make enough money to support myself,” Christianson said.

It was when he was finally at a place of financial security that he received news that changed his direction in life. A friend’s toddler daughter was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a brain tumor that typically ends a life within 10 months of diagnosis.

Having had two children himself by that time, this news affected Christianson deeply.

“I pictured having to live through some of the things they were going through, and it was very sad to me,” he said.

Upon looking into the disease, he discovered that there hadn’t been much research done on it in the last few decades.

A problem solver at heart, Christianson decided to make a drastic life change.

“I wanted to go into a field that would allow me to work on (DIPG), if possible,” he said.

With his wife’s support, Christianson looked into schools that would best help him accomplish his goal. Knowing he would have to finish an undergraduate degree, and that living in South Dakota would be easier on his family than staying in California, the family relocated to Yankton in 2012.

“USD is the only medical school in South Dakota, and we really liked Yankton as a town to live in,” he said. “It has a great school district, great neighbors and is the perfect size for us.”

Christianson became a student at USD at that time and graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry in 2014. He entered the Sanford School of Medicine that same year to specialize in neurologic surgery.

His experience at USD has been a good one, he said.


“The school is relatively small compared to a lot of other medical schools, and I think that’s a huge asset,” he said. “The professors are smart and approachable and I’m very fond of all my classmates I’ve gotten to know. I’ll be sorry to leave.”

Though USD doesn’t have a neurological surgery program, it has given him a “leg up” in preparing to apply for a surgical specialty, he said.

“There are a lot of opportunities to do hands-on work,” he said.

In the last four years, he has done rotations at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital and Yankton Medical Clinic. He is currently undergoing a Rural Family Medicine rotation at the Vermillion Medical Clinic.

Though he manages a full schedule with school-related activities, Christianson is able to find time for his family.

He enjoys going for runs on the Yankton trails as his kids bike beside him and taking walks with his wife on the Meridian Bridge. He also makes an effort to play the guitar each day and occasionally cook.

“I try to stay mindful of all the things that are important to me and use that as a guide for how I divide my time,” he said.

He studies at times when his three children — Carl, Oscar and Margaret — are otherwise occupied, attends their sporting events and school conferences and uses technology like Skype and Google Drive to keep in touch with them throughout the day.

He also involves them in his volunteer work at Servant Hearts Clinic in Yankton. Every week, they go there to clean the place up to teach them about service, Christianson said.

“I think that service for the community, especially for healthcare, is as important as ever, and I want to be a part of it,” he said.

He also did some remodeling work on the clinic, which his kids were also involved with.

“I’d been a longtime carpenter, so it was a blessing to be able to take some time out and teach the kids about that,” he said.

While his friend’s daughter has defied the odds and is still living years after her diagnosis, Christianson’s drive to learn more about treating DIPG is still going strong.

On March 26, known as “Match Day” for medical students, he will find out where his yearlong residency training will take place. He hopes to remain in the Midwest.

“This is a nice area,” he said. “I have no complaints about the place.”