After losing his mother to endometrial cancer in 2010, MacLean C. Sellars, 31, began running marathons for cancer. As part of the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon, Sellars raised $3,000 for the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) and finished in 51st place among 23,518 entrants. But his ties to CRI don’t stop at the finish line: From 2009-2012, Sellars, who received his Ph.D. in molecular biology in 2008 from the University of Strasbourg, was a CRI Postdoctoral Fellow and received funding to support his research at NYU Langone Medical Center. There, he examines the behavior of Th17 cells, a type of immune cell whose activity has been linked to gastrointestinal cancers, such as colon cancer. Having completed his CRI fellowship in January, Sellars is preparing for a challenge even greater than a 26-mile race. “I’m going back to medical school to get my clinical training,” he says.
Why cancer immunology research?
Obviously, cancer affects a ton of people. I knew abstractly it was a horrible disease. But my academic interest in cancer immunology took a personal turn in 2010 when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV endometrial cancer. She was divorced, I was her only child, and I ended up being her main caretaker through the last 9 months of her life. We did what we could with the drugs that were on the market, but we were hitting the cancer with indiscriminate hammers. There wasn’t anything that we could do as far as doing a targeted therapy or trying to boost her [immune] defenses against the cancer.
CRI: How did this experience affect your career choices?
Dr. Sellars: I’ve done my Ph.D. and four years of postdoc, [but this experience] made me realize that I want to be able to work with patients. Seeing my mom interact with her physicians and with the nurses—I realized that if I could do that for some part of every day, no matter what I could go home really happy.
CRI: How will your research background shape your perspective as a physician?
Dr. Sellars: I see myself as a physician-scientist, as someone who splits time between the clinic and the lab. Being at that interface, I hope I would be able to translate some of the basic biology research into clinical treatments. I think there’s a really important function there of bringing the two worlds together so that you can find some synergy.
CRI: How many marathons have you run?
Dr. Sellars: The first marathon I ever did was the 2010 Philadelphia Marathon. My mother passed away during my training for the New York Marathon in 2011, and that was when I decided that I would get involved with CRI for the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon.
CRI: Is running a marathon to raise money for cancer a different experience than doing it for yourself?
Dr. Sellars: Absolutely. Finishing a marathon is an amazing feeling. But to be able to get there, you have to have a lot of motivation, and sometimes it’s really hard to come up with that motivation on your own. But when you’re doing it for an organization like CRI or a cause like fighting cancer, I think that makes it easier to get up every morning and do it.
CRI: When you get to a tough point in a race, what do you think about for motivation?
Dr. Sellars: Because the race is so long, it’s amazing how many things can go through your head. I’ll go from “I can’t let myself down” to “just focus on the next quarter-mile” to “I’m doing this in honor of my mom, so I need to run hard and make her proud.” I’ll tell myself, “She suffered through way worse than this, so I can do it.”