Researcher Rider Has Passion for Discovery

Researcher Rider Has Passion for DiscoveryGraduate student Emily McWilliams works in the laboratory of OSUCCC – James physician-researcher John C. Byrd, MD, and Raj Muthusamy, DVM, PhD. She is passionate about her work.

“I think about science discovery even when I’m not in the lab,” McWilliams says, “and I’m passionate about cancer research.”

She’s equally fervent about Pelotonia. She first rode in Pelotonia 13, completing the 100-mile route. In 2014, she rode the 180-mile route and plans to tackle that one again this year.

“Pelotonia is a way for me to be passionate about cancer research and also to be part of my community in Columbus,” she says. “I can’t talk with many people about my research because most people won’t understand it. But we can talk about bikes and training rides.

“It’s a way to connect with nearly anyone because nearly everyone has been affected in some way by cancer.”

McWilliams’ Pelotonia training rides often include cancer survivors, some of whom are Byrd’s patients, and many of those were treated with drugs that have been studied in the Byrd lab.

“That is so encouraging,” she says. “Those Saturday morning training rides make me all the more excited to be back in the lab on Monday.”

The Byrd lab focuses mainly on developing new treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and other forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and for acute myeloid leukemia. McWilliams is a member of the lab’s “antibody group,” led by Muthusamy. She studies antibody therapeutics. “Antibody therapeutics use the patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells,” she says.

Specifically, McWilliams is studying ways to combine antibodies with drugs to boost an immune response and home in on the cancer cells. She looks at how the antibodies affect cancer cells, on the one hand, and how they affect the ability of immune cells to destroy cancer cells on the other.

McWilliams did her undergraduate work at North Park University in Chicago, earning a degree in chemistry with a minor in business. During her sophomore year, a close friend died at age 18 of a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.

“Danielle and I grew up together, and we did everything together,” McWilliams says. “She grew sick very quickly, and I wasn’t able to see her once she was diagnosed. I couldn’t do anything for her.

“When Mom called to tell me she had passed, I found myself staring blankly at a wall in my apartment wondering what I could do,” she says. She decided then that she would do cancer research. “I wanted to be part of the cure.”

The following summer, McWilliams did a research-experience program at Loyola Medical School and came to love biological science. She graduated from North Park and entered Ohio State’s Biomedical Science Graduate Program to study with Byrd and Muthusamy.

She learned of Pelotonia during orientation. “I knew right away that Pelotonia was something I wanted to do,” she says. The Byrd laboratory riding group, or peloton, is called Hope Highway, and in 2014 it had more than 50 members, McWilliams says. “Everyone in the lab pitches in, and we help each other raise money.”

Her fundraising efforts carry a personal touch. For example, she plays soccer year round, and during the transition between the indoor and outdoor seasons, she paired up with an indoor gym that gave her a discounted field rental. Her teammates pay $10 for two hours of play. “After 10 people come, the remainder goes toward Pelotonia,” she says.

McWilliams is also a member of the executive board of Team Buckeye Student Riders, which works to increase the number of undergraduate and graduate student riders.

“Pelotonia is not just a one- or two-day event,” McWilliams says. “It’s year round because people become passionate about it. Outside the lab, we come together to help each other reach our Pelotonia fundraising goal; inside the lab, we help each other to find the next great drug.

“The great thing about Columbus and Ohio State is that everybody wants to work together to fight this disease.”

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