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Harper Institute allows professors, students to conduct cancer research, promote awareness

| Thursday, January 16, 2020

At the corner of Angela Boulevard and Notre Dame Avenue lies a building unknown to many Notre Dame students: the Harper Cancer Research Institute (HCRI). Established in 2011 as a division of Notre Dame Research, the institute serves as a hub of collaboration between cancer researchers, professors and students. 

Photo courtesy of Jess Hatfield

The Harper Cancer Research Institute facilitates collaboration between students and faculty. The Harper Society is an organization affiliated with the institute that aims to engage students and promote cancer awareness.

Siyuan Zhang, an associate professor for cancer research, began his lab in 2012, making him one of the first researchers at the institute. Zhang said his lab centers around the study of breast cancer, particularly its response to drug treatments and its spread to other organs of the body. 

“The problem with cancer in general is when some tumors metastasize, which means to disseminate to different parts of the body, … they become a new tumor in a different organ and then at that point the surgeon cannot remove them and it’s very difficult to treat,” Zhang said. 

The close proximity of the HCRI allows students to explore and gain experience in cancer research. This semester, Zhang has enlisted two postdoctoral students, five graduate students and a handful of undergraduates to assist him in his research.

Zhang also teaches a course in the department of biological sciences at Notre Dame, allowing him to work with undergraduates both in the lab and in the classroom. Zhang describes his current position in academia as his dream job.

“Through teaching the classes and interacting with the students, both graduate [and] undergraduate, you can literally see that what you do every day is really making a mark on their career trajectory and interests,” Zhang said. 

In an effort to connect more students with the HCRI, the Harper Society was founded. The society is a student-led club that seeks to promote cancer awareness and bridge the gap between professors in the field of cancer research and Notre Dame students. 

Junior Alex Thomas, president of the Harper Society, spoke to the club’s professional relationship with HCRI researchers. 

“This isn’t a direct goal of our club, but a lot of students are able to do research at Harper through the Harper Society,” Thomas said. “It’s not something that we directly advertise, but it’s a great way for students to get connected with the institute, and being in the society, they’re able to meet with different researchers at the institute and then be research assistants or apprentices for semesters.”

Thomas hopes the society can continue to help students interested in research feel less anxiety when searching for opportunities.

“Research is one thing students are always super intimidated to start, so we try to make that process a little bit easier and give people the courage to send an email to a principal investigator that they’ve never heard of because you never know what’s gonna happen,” Thomas said. 

Although a large aspect of the society is getting involved in cancer research, Thomas explained that the club is open to all regardless of academic interests. He said he would encourage any student looking for a community to join. 

“Most people know someone [who] is affected by cancer. So, along with raising awareness about the institute and the research component of it, … we also want to be a club where people are able to come together and unite in the fight against cancer,” Thomas said. 

Senior Jess Hatfield, vice president of the Harper Society, was inspired to join the club after he witnessed his godmother struggle with breast cancer. 

“I feel like everyone has their own story where cancer has been there,” Hatfield said. 

To promote cancer awareness, the Harper Society holds numerous events around campus. Hatfield said his favorite event the society has hosted so far was a research roundtable where cancer researchers shared their work with students. 

“We brought in five professors that had research labs, either in Harper or on campus, and we invited the society members to come and just talk with these professors and ask about their research,” Hatfield said. “We had about 40 students come and be engaged, which was really cool to see.”

In addition to speakers from the cancer research field, the society hosted a talk with Paqui Kelly — a breast cancer survivor and wife of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. Thomas explained how Kelly’s story and influence aligns with the society’s overarching goals. 

“She shared a couple of stories with us about when she was a patient, and then also how she’s used that as motivation to help promote the Kelly Cares Foundation, … highlighting the positive aspect of how she’s been able to do a lot of cancer awareness,” Thomas said. 

This semester the club is tentatively planning to sponsor a variety of events including blood drives, a charity run, spiritual events, another research roundtable and an activity for students to participate in for cancer awareness day, Hatfield said. 

Thomas said he realized the importance of the club’s support system during a reflective event at the Grotto. 

“Last semester we had a ‘Light the Night’ spiritual event at the Grotto where everyone offered candles. Then, we let members offer up intentions, and it was really amazing to see,” Thomas said. “[We had] about six to 10 students speak up about family members and friends who had been affected by some sort of cancer, and they were able to offer up their intentions and they felt comfortable with doing that which was awesome.”

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