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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Smiling, swimming and saving lives

Published: September 5, 2014
Section: Features, Top Stories

Edan Zitelny, a sophomore majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, had the chance this summer to intern as a research assistant for pediatric oncologist, Dr. Ken Onel. The Hoot caught up with Edan to talk about how he was presented with such an opportunity and also to discuss what compelled him to become involved in cancer research.

A few years ago, Edan’s best friend’s brother was diagnosed with leukemia. When Edan heard, he earnestly wanted to support his friend’s brother and family. Before long, he figured out how he could not only support his friend’s family, but hundreds of families across the country, as well as the field of cancer research as a whole.

While walking through the mall one day he noticed a mother with her son. The son’s head was shaved and in his hands was a plush bear. Edan could tell that even though the boy was struggling with cancer, his toy brought him comfort. The scene inspired Edan to establish the non-profit charity foundation “Toys for Smiles,” an organization to assist children and families battling cancer by donating toys, games and other activity sets. Not only does the foundation donate toys, it also raises money for pediatric cancer research through fundraisers, door-to-door donations and many phone calls. Edan’s dedication to supporting the cause doesn’t end there. He found that after coming to Brandeis, he was able to take his passion even further through an unexpected outlet: his love for swimming.

Edan is a part of the Brandeis University Swimming and Diving team. Each year, the team participates in the “Ted Mullin Leave it in the Pool: Hour of Power” relay. Ted Mullin was a student from Carleton College who lost his battle with a rare form of cancer called sarcoma. He was on the swim team at Carleton, so to honor his life, the team created an annual fundraising event. Today, dozens of schools’ swim teams across the country hold this event in their own pools. This energetic and emotional event is dedicated to raising awareness and funding for sarcoma research. All swimmers who participate in the event become eligible to apply for the Ted Mullin Scholars Program, a unique program that selects four applicants to spend 10 weeks working in a laboratory under the mentorship of an esteemed pediatric cancer researcher within the Section of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the University of Chicago. Edan applied for the program and was selected as one of the students to participate in this experience.

When he arrived, Edan was introduced to the people he’d be working with in the lab. His fellow lab mates were five University of Chicago undergraduates, an undergraduate from Cornell University, two graduate students and two post-doctorates. The entire lab was overseen by Dr. Ken Onel M.D., Ph.D., a world-renowned cancer researcher. Edan was warmly welcomed by the staff, who gave him insight into the field of work and how things were run. This insight allowed Edan to conceptualize a new perspective on the laborious nature of cancer research, which he described as countless hours working, numerous late nights pipetting and running gels and endless uses of the phrase “you learn through your mistakes.”

“It taught me to value achievements and constructively evaluate my work. It was a truly humbling and incredibly rewarding experience,” said Edan, reflecting on the breadth of his work in the lab. Dr. Onel’s lab specifically investigates cancer and its relation to genetics. The project Edan worked on as a research assistant investigated the evolution of cancer within a patient and how preexisting mutations in cancer cells could eventually lead to relapses. During the project, he worked with bacteria and DNA. Edan’s goals for the summer project were to clone a specific protein sequence into a plasmid and then perform site-directed mutagenesis, which he successfully accomplished three days before he had to leave.

Other than being in the lab, Edan had the chance to experience other aspects of cancer research. Every Wednesday, as part of a Summer Student Lecture Series, a different researcher from the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center would give a talk on the research they were doing. In these talks, they explained the direction they were going with their work and the future of cancer research. For Edan, these lectures inspired him all the more to pursue a career in pediatric oncology. “My future goal is to become a member of an oncological team, working to further understand and treat this debilitating disease.”

He also had a chance to get a taste of what it is like to work as a pediatric oncologist by shadowing Onel in Comer Children’s Hospital. Edan sat in on various consultations and even witnessed a bone marrow biopsy, an experience he described as uplifting since its results can tell a patient that he is in remission.

After going through the whole program, Edan is even more motivated to strive for success and remain determined through tough failures. He has gained a new appreciation for medical research and also a newfound interest in a potential M.D./Ph.D. program. One never knows where their pursuits and passions will take them. For Edan, his involvement in swimming landed him the fantastic opportunity to explore his aspirations to work in the medical field.