In a weird twist of fate, Timmy Samec, 26, found himself on both sides of the equation when it came to cancer — as a patient and researcher.
While he was considering elective chemotherapy for testicular cancer, he also learned he had received an especially impressive distinction: The Clemson University doctoral student had been selected as Hollings Cancer Center’s first LOWVELO graduate fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina.
LOWVELO’s leadoff event was held last year, with cyclists raising funds for cancer research.
Hollings Cancer Center researcher Mike Ostrowski, Ph.D., who serves as the scientific co-director of the Hollings Fellowship Program, said the panel was pleased to give this special inaugural honor to such a deserving candidate. He’s also pleased to see LOWVELO become another funding resource for the program, which supports Hollings’ mission of educating the next generation of exceptional cancer scientists who are focused on research relevant to the state’s population.
“Timmy’s proposal was chosen for funding after rigorous peer review by a panel of Hollings members, and we're excited about this type of multidisciplinary collaboration between the strong bioengineering programs at Clemson and experimental therapeutics and cancer biology at the cancer center,” Ostrowski said.
“This award will facilitate interactions between our institutions specifically for this project, and we hope it will serve as a model for increasing scientific interactions for these two flagship South Carolina institutions.”
Samec also is excited to be part of the program. Last year, before his cancer diagnosis, he participated in the 100-mile Jerry Zucker route with the Clemson Nanobiotechnology Lab group.
“I’m extremely honored and very proud to be selected as a LOWVELO Hollings Cancer Center fellow at MUSC,” Samec said. “Participating in LOWVELO last year afforded me the opportunity to do something I enjoy, cycling, but it also helped to contribute to the funding of cancer research.”
A doctoral student in Clemson’s Department of Bioengineering Nanobiotechnology Lab, Samec is passionate about athletics and cancer research. Little did he know how soon cancer would personally affect him. An athlete who has participated in triathlons throughout his life, Samec found himself facing a new challenge earlier this year when he was diagnosed with stage 1A testicular cancer. Thankfully, shortly after being diagnosed, Samec was able to receive the surgery he needed to have the cancerous lump removed.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking, but the good news was that the cancer was very small and contained, and everything was extracted,” Samec said. “Every positive that could have come out of that situation came out of it.”
Due to the possibility of exposure to COVID-19, his doctors advised against undergoing elective chemotherapy. Samec’s cancer is being monitored through medical tests such as blood work and CAT scans to check his tumor markers, which are currently normal.
In the meantime, he has become even more committed to his career path — cancer research. Samec met his mentor, Angela Alexander-Bryant, Ph.D., during his official visit to the Clemson Department of Bioengineering in spring of 2017. They both started at Clemson at the same time and immediately bonded. Samec and Alexander-Bryant enjoyed discussing research, future plans and sports.
Alexander-Bryant said he is an integral part of her research team. “Timmy contributes to the atmosphere of the lab with his positive attitude, ambition and deep motivation to succeed,” she said. “I am happy to be Timmy’s mentor because he continually strives to be and do his best. He understands that his achievement is not just a win for him, but for the team.”
Samec credits Alexander-Bryant as being a role model and excellent advisor during his time at Clemson.
“I can't picture myself in another lab. We just fit so well,” Samec said. “She has always been there for anything I have ever faced both in and out of the lab.”
Samec’s research focuses on developing new delivery methods for gene therapy for ovarian cancer treatment and assessing the efficacy of drug therapies in brain cancer. He finds this field interesting because he enjoys discovering and addressing the complexities of these disease models in order to address more comprehensively the need for therapeutic advancements and treatment options.
“Ovarian and brain cancers are incredibly difficult to diagnose and treat effectively in advanced stages,” Samec said. “If there is something that I can contribute, no matter how big or small, to help improve the outlook for advanced-stage cancer patients, I am very happy and honored to do so.”
Now, Samec also will have the support of the Hollings Fellowship Program, which focuses on developing highly promising graduates with the potential to become independent research scientists. Funding helps the graduate fellows become more immersed in cancer research as they develop their own research projects.
“I’m excited for myself and the Clemson Bioengineering Department, and I believe the fellowship with Hollings will bolster our lab’s reputation,” Samec said. “I was already motivated by cancer research, but this Hollings LOWVELO fellowship will keep me accountable and inspired.”
Samec, originally from Drums, a city he describes as “a beautiful part of Pennsylvania with plenty of hills and fields,” said he sometimes misses the changing of the seasons, especially the cool weather and fall foliage. Still, he loves living in South Carolina. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a medical science liaison in oncology in an effort to help clinicians and hospital systems make the best and most informed decisions for treating cancer patients.
“I feel that my personality type, and ability to present complex scientific information, and my passion for improving treatments and the quality of life for cancer patients is a great match for this career path,” Samec said. “I'm very excited to pursue this and can't wait to see what the future holds.”
He is also excited to participate in the next LOWVELO event. Samec now knows he will be riding for many reasons that are near and dear to his heart.
“My main focus is to participate in LOWVELO to ride for others experiencing cancer,” Samec said. “It’s also going to be in the back of my mind that I am riding for myself, but I think I primarily will ride for those who have it a lot worse with this disease.”