Harvard GSAS Bulletin: From the Bench to the Berkshires

WHITNEY SILKWORTH TACKLES CANCER AT THE BENCH AND IN THE WORLD
STORY BY LUSIA ZAITSEVA

When Whitney Silkworth decided to take a week off last summer from her lab work with Professor David Fisher, a cancer researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, it wasn’t for vacation. Silkworth, a PhD candidate in biological and biomedical sciences who is studying the causes of melanoma, had made a commitment to Camp Casco, a summer camp for children with cancer that she established with fellow graduate student Erin Fletcher, AM ’15.

Though Silkworth had devoted her spare time to nonprofit organizations before coming to Harvard, she never expected that in her second year of graduate school she would help found one. Receiving an e-mail from Fletcher, then a fellow graduate student in her department, eventually led to a deeper involvement with a project that became Camp Casco.

◗ A New Venture
Fletcher had worked at a camp for children with cancer in her native California, and when she couldn’t find a similar organization in Massachusetts, she decided to start one. After sending an e-mail to members of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program asking for donations to help get it off the ground, Silkworth responded. “I can’t donate much money,” she said, “but I can donate all of my spare time.”

In the months that followed, she made good on her promise. As Fletcher explains, Silkworth was instrumental in seeking out pro-bono legal resources to help Camp Casco attain non-profit status and working to raise the necessary funding. In summer 2015, Camp Casco offered its first, highly-successful week in the Berkshires for pediatric cancer patients and survivors. Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center recently honored it as a “top one hundred,” a distinction awarded to organizations making an impact on cancer research and patients.

According to Silkworth, the challenges of serving as director of corporate relations for Camp Casco have provided her with a new and unexpected skillset. “In science, I lead with the data and culminate in a conclusion, but in fundraising I have 30 seconds to grab the donor’s attention,” Silkworth explains. “Instead, I lead with impact and emotion.” The experience has definitely benefited her graduate studies. “The skills I’ve developed really complement my research work.”

Her philanthropic efforts are also providing much needed balance inside the lab. “Research can be hard, and its benefits aren’t always immediately apparent,” she shares. Although Silkworth knows her work in the lab will ultimately pay dividends, she’s realistic about the slow timeframe involved in bringing the innovations of research to patients. “I wanted to have an impact, not only in 15 years, but today as well,” she says. “I can’t cure our campers and I can’t treat them at the moment, but at least I can give them a week of fun.”

◗ Research Inspiration
Silkworth has long wanted to use her scientific skills to impact people in a positive way. As a biomedical engineering major at the University of Rochester, she enjoyed her studies but loved the biology component most of all. After graduating, Silkworth wanted to broaden her experience with biological research. That impulse led her to the laboratory of Professor Todd R. Golub at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she worked on helping develop treatments for cancers with mutations in the K-Ras oncogene, a type of cancer described as “undruggable.”

Silkworth thrived at the Broad Institute. “The stars aligned for me in Professor Golub’s lab,” she says. “It was so high-energy, high-focus, and everyone was so driven—it was an extremely inspiring environment.” It also motivated her to apply for graduate school. “I wanted to be on par with these incredible people and the conversations they were having,” she says, citing her mentor, postdoc Kristina Masson, as a particular influence.

Although drug discovery had ignited Silkworth’s conviction to pursue graduate studies, after arriving at Harvard, she was determined to challenge herself yet again—this time, by pursuing basic research. Gaining basic biology experience, she believes, is an important first step in seeking a career in drug discovery. “I wanted to complement the research I had already done and solidify my foundation in basic research.”

Today, Silkworth is trying to understand the role of beta-endorphin, a hormone responsible for pain suppression and positive feelings associated with the skin’s response to UV exposure. “Our lab recently discovered that beta-endorphin likely mediates addiction to tanning, which may underlie sun-seeking behavior, despite the known association of sun exposure with skin cancer,” she explains.

◗ From Research to Application
While committed to basic biological research, Silkworth continues to investigate medical applications. Since her first year at Harvard, she has participated in the Leder Human Biology and Translational Medicine Program (LHB), which provides graduate students exposure to a wider range of biology and disease-oriented courses while facilitating future collaboration with medical professionals—bridging the gap between the lab bench and the clinic. 

Silkworth has benefited tremendously from her involvement in LHB. “It really helps to understand the thought process by which clinicians approach a patient,” she says, acknowledging that greater communication between doctors and researchers could help improve the kinds of treatments available to patients. Her work at Camp Casco is emblematic of this approach. When one camper admitted that the color of the chemotherapy fluid scared her, Silkworth realized how easily this fear could be addressed. “It’s such a little thing,” she says, “but if we could change the color of the liquid in the intravenous drip to something less scary, it could reduce anxiety during an already difficult experience for these kids.”

Before her volunteer work, Silkworth assumed she would pursue a career in the sciences, but Camp Casco has broadened her perspective. “Becoming involved with Camp Casco has opened my eyes to a career that is not necessarily bench-based,” she says. At the same time, she remains energized by the feeling lab breakthroughs instill in her. “If I left biology research, I know I would miss it,” she shares. “What drew me to grad school was the intricacy of the human body. I want to understand how and why things go wrong, so that we can find novel ways to fix those problems.”