Tara Stremalau gets choked up when she talks about spending her summer researching cancer. The 17-year-old girl from Jacksonville, Ill., learned she was accepted into the American Cancer Society's summer research program one week before her grandfather, Robert Fisher, died of the disease in May.


 

Tara Stremalau gets choked up when she talks about spending her summer researching cancer.


The 17-year-old girl from Jacksonville, Ill., learned she was accepted into the American Cancer Society's summer research program one week before her grandfather, Robert Fisher, died of the disease in May.


Stremlau's participation was largely because of her grandfather's insistence that she get involved in helping find a cure.


"The week before he died was when I got the emails from up in Chicago about being a part of it," she said. "I remember telling him, and tears rolling down his face."


Tara is one of 34 high school seniors-to-be chosen to intern this summer with American Cancer Society-funded researchers at the Simmons Cancer Institute in Springfield, Ill.


During the research program, students are assigned an individual, achievable project to research four days per week, according to Shayne Squires, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. They attend lectures and present research updates on the fifth day.


At the end of the summer, the students present a collective report on their findings.


Finding a cure


Tara Stremlau said her grandfather, Robert Fisher, became extremely sick from bone and prostate cancer while she was applying for the internship.


Initially, the teen wasn't sure if she wanted to trade summer vacation and swimming for a lab coat and test tubes.


“My grandpa and I, we talked about it,” she said. “He said, ‘I know it's your whole summer, but you're smart. You can do it.’”


Fisher died May 27. Since then, Stremlau has spent her summer researching breast cancer with Dr. Richard Woo, assistant professor of surgery at Simmons Cancer Institute at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.


"Specifically, we're interested in obesity and its relation to breast cancer," Woo said. "Obesity is a risk factor of breast cancer. We're looking at the molecular aspect of why obesity affects development and progression of breast cancer."


Pensabene said he, too, was inspired to pursue cancer research after seeing others suffer from the disease. His research involves looking for a drug that would block breast cancer metastasis, which is when the disease spreads to other organs.


"I've known people who have dealt with cancer, so I thought it would be a good way to help and spend my summer," he said. "And the experience will be good."


Passing the torch


It's always been Tara Stremlau's dream to go into medicine.


"I plan on going pre-med in college," she said. "This is determining whether or not I want to be a part of the research aspect of medicine or the clinical aspect."


The internship experience is designed to do just that, according to Woo.


"The American Cancer Society internship is a terrific opportunity for Tara to learn some skills and techniques used every day in a state-of-the-art cancer research laboratory," he said. "It will foster her interest in biomedical research, and possibly encourage her to pursue a career in this exciting and challenging field."


Stremlau said the internship will help her decide a career path earlier than students who don't have the opportunity to conduct cancer research until graduate school.


"So having the privilege to see what it's like is kind of helping me look more towards the research part, more so than the clinical," she said. "But I've always dreamed of being a doctor, a pediatrician or a dermatologist, so it's kind of reeling me away from what I've always wanted to do at the same time."


But in her mind, it always comes back to her grandpa.


"I know that he would be really proud," Stremlau said. "I basically did it just for him, to show him that he meant so much to me, and I'd do anything to help."


Rhys Saunders can be reached at 217-788-1539.


-- Be Healthy Springfield (Ill.)