Community Enthusiasm Helps Propel Research Couple’s Ride

Jerneja Tomsic, PhD, and her husband Enrico Caserta, PhD, came to Ohio State from Italy in 2005 to work as postdoctoral researchers in Ohio State’s Department of Microbiology. In 2008, they accepted research positions at the OSUCCC – James.

Tomsic, who is originally from Slovenia, works in the laboratory of Albert de la Chapelle, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine and the Leonard J. Immke Jr. and Charlotte L. Immke Chair in Cancer Research, and co-leader of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program. She studies genetic factors that predispose people to cancer, particularly colorectal and thyroid cancers.

Her journey to Pelotonia began with the Livestrong Summit at The Ohio State University in summer 2008. “That made me realize how many people are affected by cancer,” she says. “When Pelotonia started in 2009, I had to be a part of it.”

She volunteered the entire weekend at the inaugural event. “I saw the community that came together, and it was an awesome experience,” she says.

She teamed up with a friend the second year and rode 50 miles. In 2011, she signed up for the 100-mile route, but circumstances prevented her from riding, so she volunteered again. In 2012, she tackled the 100-mile ride, and she plans to challenge herself with it again this year.

Riding is an emotional experience, she says. “Yes, you need to train for the ride,” she acknowledges, “but the encouragement of all riders around you, and the people along the road holding signs and cheering you on, carries you through to finish.”

As she rode last year, Tomsic kept in mind two people she’d never met who’d died of cancer and who she’d followed on social networking sites. One was a 12-year-old girl who died in January after a long battle with brain cancer. The other was a young woman who never smoked but died of lung cancer at age 37.

“I knew that the OSUCCC – James had recruited Dr. David Carbone, an important lung cancer scientist, with the help of Pelotonia funds (see page 19),” Tomsic says. “A lot is not known about lung cancer that develops in people who have never smoked.”

Tomsic describes Pelotonia as a “very important” event because it brings badly needed funds to the OSUCCC – James for cancer research, and for the way it brings the community together.

“People who participate include doctors and researchers, but also people who are not in research, people who are battling cancer or have relatives who battled cancer, and people in the community who have never had cancer. We’ve seen it grow from 2,000 riders in 2009 to 6,212 last year, they’re expecting 7,000 this year. ”

Tomsic especially enjoys the final day of the event and meeting the people who finish the two-day ride. “I have been meeting the oldest Pelotonia rider, Leland, an 83-year-old rider and his wife Martha at the 180-mile finish every year, and he’s now a good friend,” she says.

While riding in 2012 she met a man who was riding in memory of his brother, who’d died of colon cancer.

“It was an emotional discussion,” Tomsic says. He was riding the 180-mile ride, and when they parted, Tomsic told him she would be there to greet him at the end. “We said a kind of goodbye,” she recounted. The next day she was at the finish line. “He was thrilled to see me, and I was thrilled to see him,” she says.

Enrico Caserta, Tomsic’s husband, got involved in the bike event after seeing Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, at a Pelotonia celebration.

“Professor Caligiuri arrived dressed in spandex,” Caserta says. “It was a very funny moment because I could not imagine ever seeing Michael Caligiuri, such an important person, such a dedicated person to science, coming to an important talk dressed in spandex.

“Seeing Dr. Caligiuri’s dedication to the event was my ‘ah-ha’ moment,” he says. “I realized that Pelotonia could succeed.”

Caserta worked as a volunteer during Pelotonia 10, rode 100 miles in Pelotonia 11 and rode 180 miles in Pelotonia 12. He plans to ride 180 miles again in Pelotonia 13.

Caserta is a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Gustavo Leone, PhD, professor of Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics, and associate director for basic research at the OSUCCC – James, where he is also a member of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program.

In 2010, Caserta received a two-year Pelotonia postdoctoral fellowship to study the role of a gene that protects against the development of cancer in the body. “I am grateful to Pelotonia because that grant was really important for my research,” he says.

Riding in Pelotonia is an extraordinary experience, he says. “The enthusiasm of the people pushes you forward. You may be out of energy. You may be hungry and thirsty. Then you reach a rest point, and you feel it. It’s also there along the road, and it enables you to keep going.

“That was especially true for me when I rode 100 miles for the first time in Pelotonia 11. I was exhausted, but when I got to the finish line and there was this row of people cheering, I got emotional. It was something. It was really something.”

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