Pelotonia Fellows Experience the Ride that Funds Their Research
The excitement level grew and grew as Pelotonia 2017 neared, and the emotions became downright palpable in labs across The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
“Everyone was talking about it, and Sameek was talking about it all the time, and he organized so many Pelotonia fundraising events for us as a team,” said new Pelotonia Fellow Allie Lenyo, who does research in Sameek Roychowdhury's, MD, PhD, laboratory.
New Pelotonia Fellow Raisa Amin had been hearing about Pelotonia since her first day at Ohio State in the fall of 2015. “It was orientation night and my roommate started talking about Pelotonia, and I was like, ‘What is Pelotonia?’” said Amin, who was born in Bangladesh and moved with her family to the Cincinnati area four years ago. She’s starting her junior year and does research in the lab of Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD.
While Lenyo and Amin knew a lot about Pelotonia by the time they rode on August 5, nothing could prepare them for all the emotions and enthusiasm they became part of.
“Everyone talks about it, but I think it’s impossible to put it into words,” said Lenyo, who then made a valiant attempt to do just that. “To be at McFerson Park (in downtown Columbus) and go across the starting line and have so many people cheering is amazing. For this one weekend, so many people come together for one goal, and everyone has a story, like I have a story, about how cancer has impacted our family and life. We’re all there to represent our loved ones and get us to the next step of research.”
Lenyo, Amin and their families have all been impacted by cancer. It’s one of the reasons these two outstanding students became interested in science, came to Ohio State and decided to devote their studies and careers to cancer research.
Building Bridges to Better Cancer Care
Amin learned at an early age the importance of spreading information about public health. She joined the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center at 14 and her team’s project was to spread health-related – and life-saving – information to impoverished and uneducated families. Her cancer connection is her grandfather, who lost his battle with lung cancer.
“He did not get the best care,” Amin said of the treatment options available in Bangladesh, then and now. “What’s available here in the United States is not available in Bangladesh. Even people who have a lot of money won’t get good care.”
Amin said her parents immigrated to the United States in part to make sure two of their daughters (a third had recently married and remains in Bangladesh) would get top-notch educations. Amin is a neuroscience major and plans to apply to medical school with an eye on a joint MD & PhD program that would allow her to see patients and do cancer-related research. Her younger sister, Mayesha, is starting her senior year at Ohio State as a public management, leadership and policy major.
The research Amin is doing in the lab of Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser is focused on how pain and depression can impact breast cancer patients. Dr. Keicolt-Glaser is the Director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
Amin rode with Jass Kaur, another new Pelotonia Fellow. The pair had only met once before the ride, but quickly bonded, sharing the emotions of the event.
“There was this one little boy on the road, he was maybe 7,” Amin said of a young child accompanying his grandmother, a cancer survivor who had been treated at The James. “They were handing out water and were all geared up in Pelotonia stuff, and this little boy was running around and shouting, ‘You should be so proud of yourself, you saved my grandma.’ It was so heart-touching, and he gave me a high five.”
Amin’s mother, Shamia, and Mayesha were waiting for her at the finish line in Pickerington at the end of the her 25-mile ride. Her father, Mohamma Osman, was visiting relatives in Bangladesh. “He said he was proud of me, and said he didn’t know I could ride 25 miles,” Amin said.
A Brother’s Battle, a Sister’s Calling
Lenyo grew up in Huron, Ohio. During her sophomore year of high school, her younger brother, Nick, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his lower left leg. After 18 weeks of chemotherapy, his lower leg was amputated.
“It was really shocking and tough,” Lenyo said. “And then we had to regroup and figure out how to deal with it and what we could do to be there for Nick and help him.”
Nick is doing well, Lenyo reported. About to begin high school, he has a prosthesis that allows him to be quite active and continue to play sports.
Lenyo was inspired by her brother, and came to Ohio State with a love for research and a determination to help beat cancer. She found the ideal match in the lab of Dr. Roychowdhury, where genomic testing is used to target the specific mutations that cause cancer and then find the best targeted treatments for these mutations. This is known as precision cancer medicine.
“Sameek believes a lab is a team, and we all work together for one goal,” Lenyo said, adding that her direct mentor is Melanie Krook, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab. “She’s amazing, and I’m so lucky to have them as my mentors.” Lenyo’s Pelotonia Fellowship research is focused on a specific genetic mutation and how it seems to become resistant to treatment over time.
She rode the 45-mile Pelotonia route to New Albany along with several other members of the Roychowdhury lab.
“At the finish, I was speechless,” Lenyo said. “I was proud of myself that I’d mustered the strength to ride that far and maybe next year I’ll ride 100 miles. Or further.”
Going further is what the Pelotonia Fellowship Program is all about.
It began in 2010 and is funded by Pelotonia. The program has awarded 433 fellowships to the most promising undergraduate, graduate, medical school and postgraduate students from any discipline at Ohio State who have the potential to become independent cancer researchers.
The goal is to create the next generation of cancer researchers. Amin and Lenyo are all in, and plan to devote their careers to ending cancer.
“The torch will be passed to us soon,” Lenyo said. “And it’s up to us to continue to make discoveries and progress in the lab and clinic… so, like so many of the older docs here who mentor us, we can look back in 30 or 40 years and say we made a lot of progress and helped a lot of people.”