Harvard Colloquy: GSAS Students Give Back

WRITTEN BY LUSIA ZAITSEVA | PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN GEBO

The image of graduate study is often a solitary one, filled with long hours of work in the library, the archive, or at the lab bench—and often that’s the reality, as well. And yet, all across GSAS, students are finding ways to connect their scholarly interests and creative passions with communities beyond Harvard’s gates. Whether they are founding nonprofits, demystifying the latest advances in science for the public, or sharing classical music with new audiences, GSAS students are discovering that what they do outside the classroom provides as much opportunity for learning—about themselves and their community—as what they do in it. 

From the Lab to the Great Outdoors

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For Erin Fletcher, AM ’15, biological and biomedical sciences, a part-time commitment to service became a full-time career. As an undergraduate in California, Fletcher volunteered at a camp for pediatric cancer patients and survivors. The experience inspired her to study microbiology and devote herself to cancer research—a decision that, in turn, brought her to Harvard. When she arrived in Cambridge in 2013, she went looking for a way to continue her volunteer work, expecting to find a similar camp in Massachusetts. 

“I wanted to stay involved and thought a similar camp must exist on the East Coast,” Fletcher explains. To her surprise, it didn’t. For most people, that would be the end of the story, but Fletcher wasn’t interested in giving up. “I thought, if no camp for kids battling cancer exists, we could start one.” Today, Camp Casco is gearing up for its second summer session. 

Laying the groundwork for Camp Casco turned out to be just as much an education for Fletcher as her courses in biology, as she faced the challenges of starting and funding a non-profit organization from scratch. She had an ambitious vision in mind: a no-cost, sleep-away camp that would foster friendships among children who shared similar experiences, capable of offering medical care and support, and at the same time providing a place where kids could be kids and do all the typical camp things—from archery, swimming, and canoeing to gathering around a campfire. 

The first challenge for Fletcher and the team of fellow graduate students who helped her launch Camp Casco was to raise the $50,000 needed to send 13 campers and a team of 22 counselors and medical professionals to camp in the Berkshires. She started locally, asking members of her department for donations.

Whitney Silkworth, a PhD candidate in biological and biomedical sciences, was among the first to sign on. “I couldn’t donate much money, but I told Erin she could have all of my spare time,” Silkworth says. Together with Yi-Jang Lin, another doctoral student in biological and biomedical sciences, they secured pro-bono legal services to set up the non-profit, and then Silkworth turned her eye towards helping Fletcher raise money. 

According to Silkworth, who now serves as Camp Casco’s Chief Operating Officer, 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.”

Needless to say, the experience of starting Camp Casco has been a life-changing one for both Fletcher and Silkworth. “I had never done anything quite like this before, and it was the best and most significant week of my life,” Silkworth says. Fletcher has translated her part-time commitment to Camp Casco into a career—she left her program in spring 2015 to run Camp Casco as CEO.