The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Breast Cancer

October 1, 2012

Windber Research Institute connecting with community

WINDBER — Windber Research Institute is expanding its community-based programs, at the same time it is offering new opportunities for the community to support its breast cancer research and other programs.

Later this month, Windber Research Institute will launch its own foundation with a grant from the Whalley Charitable Trust, Windber Chief Executive Officer Tom Kurtz said.

“Its sole purpose is to solicit grants, public and private, to supplement the revenue stream,” Kurtz said, explaining that restrictions on much of Windber’s federal research funding have hampered additional programs.

The new foundation is an opportunity for benefactors to support cancer research being done close to home, Kurtz said.

“We want to invest in education, special projects and capital equipment,” he said. “We never had the ability to do that and the accounting system to do that.”

All the donations will remain in the local area, Kurtz pledged.

“The selling message we are trying to get to the community: Your money can have a double benefit by supporting research, but also keeping it in the community.”

A new partnership with Pitt-Johns-town highlights the research institute’s expansive educational offerings that local donors will be supporting.

By creating internship opportunities, putting the institute’s researchers in campus classrooms and launching an annual science symposium, the collaboration is designed to boost student participation in science curriculum by exposing students to real science applications and research opportunities.

“This country is lagging way behind in science,” Kurtz said. “This could put them on a career path to select science. Science is hard. If they don’t get some encouragement, they may not choose it.”

Announced in July, the Pitt-Johns-town partnership brings another dimension to Windber’s work with area schools. From its elementary field trips to its summer intern program, Windber Research Institute provides hands-on learning.

Elementary students extract DNA from strawberries and build DNA models with marshmallows and toothpicks during field trips to Windber. In other schools, Windber’s experts guest host science classes with interactive lessons.

This year, Bishop McCort Catholic High School students will be getting an up-close look at the institute’s work.

“It’s hands-on biology,” Kurtz said. “We will take them through from the pathology of the tumor through the DNA analysis.”

College interns aren’t relegated to paperwork and observation positions at Windber, said Rachel Ellsworth, director of the Clinical Breast Care Project.

The interns complete their own research projects during the summer, presenting the results to Windber’s senior leadership.

One intern’s project this summer showed disparities between breast cancer patients in the Windber area’s rural population, compared with more urban areas.

Smoking, obesity and poor diet were all more prevalent in the rural population. Since these are all risk factors for breast cancer, it is valuable information, Ellsworth said.

“Internships add value to the institute,” Kurtz said. “They generate ideas that take us into different areas of research.”

Kurtz admits all of the education outreach “is a little self-serving” because Windber’s leaders hope to recruit future researchers from the local area.

“Two full-time employees came out of the internship program,” Kurtz said.

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