‘This is much bigger than me’
Cancer took Khara’s mother. Now, Khara is taking on cancer.
Khara Walker arrived on campus with the goal of becoming a doctor. She also was a track athlete, and she planned to run professionally after college to earn money for medical school. Her approach: one step at a time, always forward.
An exercise science major, Walker kept her grades high and commanded the 200- and 400-meter dash. She had grown up running beside her mother, Carmen, a former track and field star. Carmen and Khara. Two peas in a pod. Bright, bold, beautiful.
Then, in 2014, Carmen had a recurrence of cervical cancer. She died at 44, leaving her daughter heartbroken. Not long after that, Walker sustained an injury, ending her plans to run as a pro. “I had no idea what I was going to do next,” she says.
The girl on the move no longer knew which way to go.
But a serendipitous meeting on the track shortly after her mother’s death changed everything. It put Walker back in the driver’s seat or, more appropriately, on the bicycle seat.
In August, Walker will honor her mother by supporting Pelotonia, the annual bike tour through central Ohio that Ohio State established in 2008 to raise money for cancer research. Walker is participating as a virtual rider, which gives participants an opportunity to fundraise wherever they are. That same month, she will finish a cancer research fellowship that Pelotonia awarded her to conduct eye cancer research.
For Walker, that step was deciding to join the thousands of people who took part in Pelotonia last summer as members of Team Buckeye, the annual tour’s official super-peloton of Ohio State students, faculty, staff and alumni. She rode with cancer survivors and loved ones of people lost to the disease as well as with doctors, researchers and fellow students. She raised $2,505, a contribution that rolled into the $24.1 million collected overall in 2016, bringing the organization’s eight-year total to $130.1 million.
The money funds research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.
Last year, Walker earned a prestigious $12,000 Pelotonia fellowship to research ocular melanoma, making her one of 399 students who have earned funding through the program since 2009.
She works in the lab of Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, where she studies the immune systems of eye cancer patients in hopes of boosting their chances for survival.
Cancer research wasn’t a path Walker would have predicted back in 2014. She was able to envision the way forward thanks to that encounter at the track.
Walker was warming up when she met Dr. Paul Weber, a professor emeritus of ophthalmology. He was a track and field athlete for Ohio State in the late ’60s and still worked out daily. As a student, Weber met a dean who mentored him and encouraged him to go to medical school. It inspired him to pay forward.
“I introduced myself to Khara and found that she had an interest in medicine,” he says. “She struck me as a motivated and caring individual, so I encouraged her to come talk to me and shadow me in my clinic. I was extremely impressed with her drive and compassion.”
Weber introduced her to two other doctors — bold, smart, strong women, like her mother. Drs. Gloria Fleming and Colleen Cebulla ’00 PhD, ’02 MD, took Walker under their wings and urged her to apply for a Pelotonia grant.
Now in the final stages of her research fellowship, Walker often spends 12-hour days in the lab processing samples and studying data. It’s grueling, but she pushes on.
"Witnessing what my mom went through and hearing the stories of cancer survivors drives me on a daily basis when I’m in the lab."
She calls her fellowship a blessing, work that will potentially save lives and prepare her for medical school.
August will be a big month for Walker. She will graduate from Ohio State and start applying for med school. Her future is wide open. And she knows she’s not alone.
“I realized this is much bigger than me,” she says. “When I rode in Pelotonia, I saw how many lives I’d touched and how many lives touched me. I’m very grateful.”