07 November 2009

A Reflection.

As I finally set out last week to officially declare my majors, I started thinking about how I got to this point- why I chose to major in molecular biology, and why I have (at least for now) decided that my aspiration is to do research in the field of cancer.

I entered high school thinking that I would eventually become an English teacher, trying to figure out how many years I would have to wait before being allowed to take English electives, and dreading the fact that I needed to take 3 years of science and math courses. During middle school and the early years of high school, I spent "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" with my aunt, a 5th grade math teacher. Although I never envisioned myself teaching math, I loved the days when she would let me teach a lesson to her students, and really thought that one day, I would be the one in front of a classroom.

My freshman year biology teacher was the person who initially got me interested in science, although I'm pretty sure she had no idea at the time. At my high school, bio is a class normally taken by sophomores, so I was one of few freshman in the class and by all means the most overwhelmed with the transition to a high school workload. As difficult as I found the class initially, however, the material we covered in there and the way it was presented to us made me realize that science was something I could actually see myself doing in the future. (As somewhat of a side note, this particular teacher dropped out of college her first time around, and then returned to complete her degree. A large part of her teaching platform was making sure her students reached their full potential in every aspect of education. She was definitely the most influential teacher I had in high school.)

After gaining a lot more interest in science after my freshman year, I proceeded to take AP Bio and genetics the following two years. I had the same teacher for genetics as I'd had for "baby bio" as a freshman, and it was due in large part to conversations with this teacher and assignments from her class that made me realize I would be happy pursuing a career in research. In particular, our final project was to design a hypothetical experiment using genetic processes we had discussed throughout the year in order to attain a product that would somehow benefit people. I loved the entire process of designing this experiment, from researching various genes and lab techniques to writing up the protocol.

But there are so many different areas of research in genetics- why cancer?

Since the summer before my freshman year of high school, I have worked as a counselor at a local day camp. It's a very small camp- less than 30 staff members, most of whom return year after year. Everyone knows each other, and everyone knows the camp directors, who are very involved in the daily activities of the camp. At one point during my third summer there as a CIT (counselor in training), I saw the director sitting by the lake with another woman and a little girl, who was about 2 years old at the time. I noticed that the little girl had no hair and a feeding tube in her nose, but didn't think much of it and continued on with the rest of my summer.

The following summer, my first year as a "real" counselor, the camp directors hired my younger sister, then a CIT, to babysit their daughter. The summer after that (summer 2008), the camp directors' daughter was old enough to be a camper, and it was also the summer when I learned about Gracie. Since my sister was no longer babysitting the camp directors' kid, she spent a lot of her time that summer playing with Gracie, the directors' niece.

In 2008, Gracie was a beautiful 4 year old girl who loved to come to camp and play with her sister, cousins, and their friends. Although there are campers as young as 3 years old at this camp, Gracie's mom felt that she wasn't yet ready to be a camper. Gracie had some physical and developmental delays- and was in remission from a malignant brain tumor that she was diagnosed with at the age of 2. In spite of all this, she was a giggly, enthusiastic little girl who could always put a smile on your face. Even though she couldn't always keep up with the rest of the campers her age, she enjoyed the summer just the same.

In winter 2008, Gracie's cancer relapsed.

She spent much of the summer getting treatment and finally returned to camp a little more than halfway through the season. Even after going through a month of radiation and chemotherapy, she was still very outgoing and loved music and arts and crafts- but you could tell how her battle with cancer was taking its toll. She got tired out much more easily than even the previous summer, and spent significantly less time at camp. While other kids would draw pictures of their families or flowers during arts and crafts, the first picture Gracie drew with me last summer was of "Proton"- the facility that delivered her radiation treatment.

She'll be on chemotherapy for almost another year. However, the statistical 5-year survival rate for her type of cancer is only between 65-80%; somewhat less because of her young age at diagnosis as well as another medical condition that predisposes her to tumors. As far advanced as science is, there are still many cancers that lack sufficient treatment options.

And it's because of Gracie that I've decided to go in to cancer research. I'm tired of hearing how certain treatments- more advanced ones- are only available in certain areas of the country. I'm upset that she has to suffer through years of cancer treatments that at some point will no longer do any good. She's only five; she's spent more than half of her life battling this disease.

I'm hoping to get a lab position at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey starting this spring or summer. Hopefully something I do can help save someone's life.

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