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South Carolina State University And Hollings Connection Continues To Grow With LOWVELO

ciera miller

Around 60 South Carolina State University students and faculty join together to cure cancer.

As Ciera Miller logs 50 miles Nov. 2 as part of an outdoor bike ride raising money for cancer research, she’ll have one person in mind: Her mother, Yolandra Dotson. At 41 years old, Dotson recently lost her life to cancer. She had already survived breast cancer once before facing yet another battle with cancer this year.

Despite what she was going through, Miller says her mother did everything with a smile. Dotson was always sure to ask about her kids — Miller has one younger brother — and stay involved in their everyday lives ever since getting diagnosed again back in February. Proof of Dotson’s determination can be found in no better place than her daughter. “I am still very proud of the fight my mother put up, and how far she made it,” Miller says. “Knowing that she has taught my brother and myself so much as a strong young woman and man gives me relief and honor to have such a mother.

“I am not sad that she is physically gone,” she continues, “more of relief knowing she is in no pain and I received the greatest gift anyone could ask for: a permanent angel.”

Miller signed up to ride LOWVELO for her mother weeks before she passed, and she’s even more resolute on that commitment now. “I’m still riding and fighting for a cure,” she says.

It’s a lot for Miller, who’s a 22-year-old biology major at South Carolina State University (SCSU) preparing to graduate next summer. For weeks, she has balanced a full class schedule and LOWVELO training with traveling to the Upstate to care for her mother.

While the weight of it all can take its toll, Miller says that her SCSU studies, like the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Seminar course she’s currently taking, helps. She’s thankful, she says, to do anything that can enhance her knowledge of cancer and cancer research.

“I want to know more about it,” she says. “In case something happens again to another relative, to even myself, I want to be more educated.”

Miller is part of a large group at SCSU supporting the bike ride, with 30 faculty and staff signing up to ride and 30 offering to volunteer. Someone who is thrilled by their participation is MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher Marvella Ford, Ph.D., whose mission is to inspire the next generation of cancer researchers.

Ford, associate director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparities at Hollings, and Judith Salley-Guydon, Ph.D., chair of SCSU’s Department of Biological and Physical Sciences, have partnered in that cause for a decade. Ford, who was awarded a SmartState endowed chair in prostate cancer disparities research at SCSU in 2017, says the partnership continues to grow.

With grants funded by the Department of Defense and the National Cancer Institute, MUSC has been able to bring students from SCSU and other HBCUs to do research with MUSC research faculty every summer since 2009. For the past four summers, 16 to18 students have participated in the cancer research training program. More recently, the universities worked together, and with other institutions, to get awarded a $12.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute that funds an additional four SCSU students to participate in the 10-week summer cancer research program at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. The cancer health equity research curriculum includes a weekly graduate exam preparation course by Princeton or Kaplan as well as 30 to 35 hours of lab research each week. The participating students have gone on to receive advanced graduate and professional degrees in the biomedical sciences.

“They’re doing all kinds of amazing things, from bioinformatics research, developing a program to help guide patients through the primary care process, to doing basic science lab research,” says Ford, adding that students have opportunities to get their research results published as well. “As often as possible, we include the contributing students as co-authors on resulting manuscripts. It’s just been very exciting to work with the students in this way and to see their end capacity.”

The program is an example of what the funds from LOWVELO will be used for: supporting the summer cancer disparities research program as well as other cancer research programs.

James B. Stukes, Ph.D., SCSU biology professor and biology area program coordinator, says that’s why they were excited about getting involved with LOWVELO. “We’re excited because we know that even here in Orangeburg, as well as in Charleston, the incidence of cancer is extremely high, and we wanted to do something to try to generate funds to investigate, through research, a possible cure.”

Stukes also is Miller’s advisor and the Research Education Core Director for the U 54 grant funded under Salley and Ford. “Being involved with LOWVELO will also bring publicity and light to the Orangeburg community dealing with finding a cure for cancer,” he says. “And there’s also the benefit of getting students excited about doing something to help the community.”

The SCSU students volunteering their time and energy for the cause agree. “I’m riding to bring the community together, to be with my peers and for all of us to be able to do something together,” says SCSU junior and biology major Elijah Medina-Brady.

Medina-Brady, along with his classmate Christyan Norman, are also riding for loved ones lost to cancer. Norman says, “I have relatives that have passed away from cancer as well, so this ride is also going to bring awareness to how serious it is to our community. And also, how impactful something as small as a bike ride can be to bring awareness. So, I’m riding for teachers, classmates, family and friends as well.”

As for Miller, she’ll be smiling as she rides because she’ll be thinking of her mother, her hero and her permeant angel. “What I’m doing is nothing compared to what my mom has been doing every day,” she says. “I’m not riding for myself. I’m doing it for my mother. I’m riding for a cure. That’s what I’m riding for.”

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