Pelotonia Fellow Finds Connection Between Law and Cancer Research at Ohio State

Ben Hemmelgarn

Opportunity is everywhere at The Ohio State University.

Ben Hemmelgarn found it in an elevator a few weeks into his freshman year, back in 2010.

The molecular genetics major from Ross, Ohio, was impressed by Gustavo Leone, PhD, a guest lecturer in his introduction to molecular genetics class.

“Gustavo was different,” Hemmelgarn, 24, said of the director of the solid tumor biology program at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Center (OSUCCC – James). “He was a questioner. Rather than tell us what he learned from his research, he gave us the results and asked us what conclusions we had, and then he told us what he found.”

Soon after the class, Hemmelgarn walked into an elevator in the Biomedical Research Tower.

“Gustavo was in the elevator,” Hemmelgarn said. “I told him I really liked his lecture, and he suggested I come and work in his lab. And I did.”

Hemmelgarn graduated in three years, spending all of them working in Leone’s lab, with the help of a Pelotonia Fellowship his final year.

Now, Hemmelgarn is in his first year at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law and knows the type of law he wants to practice: Patent law and intellectual property rights, with the goal of guiding cancer researchers through the complicated approval process for new drugs. Cancer research, Leone and Pelotonia have served as the roadmap — and inspiration — for Hemmelgarn’s future.

“I liked the idea of learning about a wide range of cancers, rather than focusing in on one specific area, which you have to do if you’re a researcher,” Hemmelgarn said, though he enjoyed his time working in Leone’s lab. “I saw how incredibly focused and dedicated everyone in the lab is and I admire their commitment.”

This need to learn about a wide range of cancer research, combined with his interest in public policy and law, led Hemmelgarn to law school. “It’s the chance to interact with a lot of researchers and learn how to get these life-saving drugs to patients,” he said of patent law and intellectual property rights law.

And, once again, opportunity is knocking at Ohio State.

Hemmelgarn has spoken to attorneys at Ohio State’s Technology Commercialization Office and the Drug Development Institute of the OSUCCC – James about internship opportunities.

“The Drug Development Institute acts as the liaison between researchers at Ohio State and the large pharmaceutical companies they would work with to bring new drugs through the FDA approval process and to patients,” Hemmelgarn said.

Working in Leone’s lab helped him learn how much he didn’t know, Hemmelgarn said.

“My first year, I was assigned to a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher,” he said. “I did the most basic experiments so they could do the more complex research.”

His research in Leone’s lab focused on how the balance of Rb, E2f and Myc proteins control cell cycles. Disrupting this balance can lead to cancer.

“I graduated from doing simple experiments my first year, to long and complicated experiments and began to design my own experiments,” Hemmelgarn said. “By my third year I went from doing to thinking.”

Ben Hemmelgarn Pelotonia

He also learned about the importance of Pelotonia, through riding, volunteering and his fellowships.

“Pelotonia is such an amazing event,” Hemmelgarn said. “One hundred percent of every dollar goes to cancer research at Ohio State. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The amount of research Pelotonia funds gives us such a bright future.”

Pelotonia funds have supported 353 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral Fellowships to date at Ohio State. All Ohio State undergrads with an interest in cancer research are eligible to apply. Undergraduate fellows receive a one-year $12,000 stipend to fund their cancer research and study under the direction of an Ohio State mentor.

“Thanks to the Pelotonia Fellowship, I could work in Gustavo’s lab the summer before my final year,” said Hemmelgarn, who – like many other students – initially worked on a voluntary basis. “The summer before, I had to go home and make some money to defray school costs.”

While everything is falling into place, and he has a clear vision for his future, it wasn’t always so simple for Hemmelgarn.

“I struggled for the longest time,” he said, adding that he was overwhelmed by all the different educational and career options he discovered at Ohio State.

“But now I’ve settled on a career path and I’m very excited,” Hemmelgarn said.