Anthony Alfonso

For third-year medical student Anthony Alfonso, cancer research began during his bachelor’s degree pursuit. 

“I was looking at chemoresistance and small cell lung cancer, which is very deadly. I fell in love with cancer research then. We were required to be in the lab 15 hours a week, and I was in there 40. I’d found my passion,” Alfonso said. 

After exploring various types of cancer research, he currently studies pediatric brain cancer with Karen E. Pollok, Ph.D., At the same time, he’s on a medical rotation at Riley Hospital for Children, which treats about 350 children with cancer each year. 

“I see a lot of childhood cancer and cancer in general, and I firmly believe cancer treatment needs to be approached holistically,” Alfonso said. “There’s data now that shows certain habits, such as smoking, can cause cancer. Yet, despite all the information that’s out there, people still do those things. So, we need to take a more preventative approach rather than just treating cancer when it occurs.” 

In his scholarship application, Alfonso said he volunteers with nonprofits in the community to “better understand the art of humanism through medicine” and because “teaching people simple prevention methods can leave a lasting impact not only on their cancer risk profile but their overall health.” 

Since cancer can’t always be prevented, Alfonso’s primary focus is to develop a treatment pathway using pharmacology to target cancer’s growth system.  

Cancer cells have ways of growing, replicating and surviving in different environments. I’m using specific medicines to target specific pathways to get the best effect. This is very targeted and protein-based work.

“Cancer cells have ways of growing, replicating and surviving in different environments. I’m using specific medicines to target specific pathways to get the best effect. This is very targeted and protein-based work,” Alfonso explained. 

The aim is to customize treatment for each cancer patient, improving the patient’s quality of life and improving survival. 

“The ultimate goal is personalized medicine. We sequence a tumor and see that this protein with this DNA will be susceptible to this type of drug. That’s the goal: Charting the many different pathways of a tumor’s survivability so we know exactly what to do,” he said. 

This approach is a growing field in cancer research, he added, saying that breast cancer and many hematology cancer treatments already benefit. For his part, he plans to focus on brain cancer by being a neurosurgeon and researcher. 

“I want to work on the clinical component and on my own research to have a balance. For me personally, research changes how I think about things,” he said. 

The Wright Scholarship will help fund Alfonso’s research, travel and expenses for two conferences where he will present his research findings. Sharing knowledge like this is vital to ending cancer, he said. 

“Cancer is an unrelenting disease that will never remit unless educators and students devote their time and energy to cancer research and education of future generations. Most of my career goals have been inspired by my professors—not just the medical knowledge they have but who they are as people. Education can inspire students to enter this field, and we’re breaking the boundaries of science because new people are coming in,” he said.

Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson began his scholarship application with these words: “I am drawn to care for cancer patients because of the unique and important intersection between humanism and hard science that it naturally provides.” 

Those words could be the introduction to his manifesto. 

“That really boils down why I ultimately chose medicine over any other career path. I have always been fascinated by science and human physiology but wanted a career that entailed more meaningful human interactions,” he said. “In my view, you need more than a lot of published papers and letters behind your name to be a great physician taking care of cancer patients. 

To fully care for these patients, you need to show empathy, patience, kindness and confidence after they have heard one of the scariest words in the healthcare field, ‘cancer.’

“To fully care for these patients, you need to show empathy, patience, kindness and confidence after they have heard one of the scariest words in the healthcare field, ‘cancer.’ So, treating cancer patients allows me to be on the cutting edge of medical progress, knowledge and research while also allowing me to have deep, meaningful human connections.” 

Much like the other two awardees, Johnson’s interest in medicine started early—in his case, during high school. He interned with Dr. Gregg Sassmannshausen of Fort Wayne Orthopedics as a high school senior, then became a knee surgery patient. 

“I loved how orthopedic surgery quickly improved a patient’s quality of life and gave athletes the ability to compete again after difficult injuries. Dr. Sassmannshausen actually did two of my knee surgeries during my first and second year of college soccer.”

Cancer specifically grabbed his attention during the IU School of Medicine’s Indiana University Medical Student Program for Research and Scholarship (IMPRS) Summer Program, which connects students with mentors and research opportunities at nine regional campuses. Johnson worked in research labs in which he investigated how damage to the liver, such as cancer, can lead to wasting of other tissues. 

Johnson earned the Best Student Poster award for this work during the cancer center’s Cancer Research Day. The experience led to working with Drs. Chris Collier, Spencer Richardson and L. Daniel Wurtz on documenting primary bone sarcomas of the hand. 

“My IMPRS project sparked my interest more specifically in orthopedic oncology. Dr. Collier allowed me to shadow him during a soft-tissue sarcoma removal, which I thought was an amazing operation. I realized I would be able to combine my interest in caring for cancer patients with my love for orthopedic surgery if I chose to pursue a career in orthopedic oncology,” Johnson said. 

The Wright Scholarship will help Johnson “breathe a little easier” when he thinks about repaying his student loans, he said, especially since he plans to marry another third-year IU School of Medicine student before they both graduate.

“The scholarship also gives me an opportunity to continue my research during medical school with a new project with Dr. Collier. I want to continue sharpening my medical knowledge and contributing to the scientific community through research throughout my career,” he said.

Christopher Schorr

When Christopher Schorr was 9 years old, his younger sister was diagnosed pediatric nephrotic syndrome and placed on life-stabilizing dialysis. One of his earliest memories was watching a team of medical staff attempt to fix her kidneys and get her disease under control.  

“My sister’s hospitalization is what first made me appreciate medicine,” Schorr said. “I wanted her to get better. The biggest takeaway for me was seeing just how much the physicians and medical staff cared and how hard they worked to figure out exactly what was happening to her.” 

In 2016, Schorr attended Purdue University dual majoring in chemical engineering and biochemistry. Among his accomplishments, he performed research in two cancer laboratories,  served as founder of Purdue’s Cancer Prevention Initiative, and was involved in the  international Genetic Engineering Machine (iGEM) competition.

During his freshman year at Purdue, Schorr worked on an iGEM team to create a novel bacterial proof-of-concept for clinical use. The team accepted his idea to genetically alter E. coli to break down carcinogens in the lungs of smokers, firefighters and victims of accidental inhalations. Commensal bacteria such as E. coli are found everywhere—on desks, in food and even on our skin, he said. Schorr wanted to use these abundant organisms for something good: a way to break down benzene, a common carcinogen in cigarettes and tobacco products.

“My mother made sure I grew up knowing the consequences of smoking. ‘Don’t start,’ she’d say. ‘I regret it.’ I wanted to help. I wanted to do something about cancer,” he said. 

His team designed a nine-enzyme benzene-degrading genetic circuit for incorporation into a strain of E. coli. He was the primary contributor to the Java-based mathematical population model that could predict the benzene degradation kinetics in a patient’s lung microbiome. Along with his team, he designed an inexpensive nebulizer to deliver this strain to lungs.

“We presented our results at MIT. That was extremely inspiring, and I thought, ‘Maybe I have a knack for this. Maybe I could use my expertise and knowledge in a good way.’ It’s about the impact I have on others,” he said. “Engineering is extremely impactful because it helps a lot of people in a small way, such as the road you drive on or the shampoo you use. Medicine is the inverse. Physicians interact with fewer people but in a more direct, significant way, helping them feel better.”

Schorr’s aim is to do both as a physician-scientist.

“Our goal should be to maximize the area under the curve that impacts the most people in the most significant way.”

Schorr has made scientific progress in the laboratory during his undergraduate studies. In the Lelièvre laboratory, he worked to better understand chemotherapy resistance in patients with triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive type of breast cancer. In the Won laboratory, he optimized nanoparticle manufacturing and delivery for head and neck cancers; the results were published in peer-reviewed journals. His lab experience was amplified by his nightly visits volunteering in the hospital.

I’ll never forget the cancer patients I assisted in the clinic and how they desperately held onto hope for new therapies to restore their strength, relieve their distress and give them back the lives they once knew.

“I’ll never forget the cancer patients I assisted and how they desperately held onto hope for new therapies to restore their strength, relieve their distress and give them back the lives they once knew,” he said. “Cancer is not just one disease. There are over 200 different cell types in the body, and each can form one or more types of cancer. Normally, our bodies fight off abnormal invaders like parasites, viruses or bacteria. But cancer is an abnormal growth of our own cells, so our immune system’s response is not to attack them.” 

Schorr believes one key to fighting cancer is reducing exposure to elements known to increase risk. He describes himself today as “incredibly optimistic” about the future for cancer patients. 

About the Author

Cindy Dashnaw Jackson finds and tells nonprofit stories that inspire audiences to share, show up and support. She honed her ability to craft a message that fits an audience during 20 years in nonprofit PR and communications. Now a freelancer and founder of Cause Communications LLC, she's a copywriter and storyteller for nonprofits across the United States. And she earned her degree at IUPUI.

Learn more about the Wright Scholarship

For more information about the William J. Wright Scholarship Fund at IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, contact Elizabeth Parsons at eparsons@iupui.edu.


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