Inspired by Dad’s Battle,
Student Turns Activist in Fight Against Cancer
Jamie Leonard '15 helps to found Camp Kesem chapter at Stony Brook
When Father’s Day rolls around every year, Stony Brook senior James (Jamie) Leonard has a real reason to celebrate that holiday. His father, a retired middle school science teacher who had prostate cancer, has been cancer-free since 2008. The experience had such an impact on Jamie that when he was given the opportunity to pay his good fortune forward, he leapt at the chance.
In the spring of his sophomore year (2013) graduating student leaders Sam Rosner and Maggie Knight contacted him about starting a chapter of the national nonprofit organization Camp Kesem at Stony Brook. The camp, which operates through more than 60 schools nationwide, is completely student run. Its mission is to recognize and support children affected by a parent’s cancer. The students work to develop peer support communities through free, weeklong summer camps and yearlong programming.
“It gives these children in our community a chance to just be kids and helps them know they are not alone,” said Jamie.
Every year the Livestrong Foundation selects organizations with which to partner, and in 2013 it selected Camp Kesem.
Jamie, along with 11 other Stony Brook undergraduates, was tasked with helping to found the chapter at Stony Brook and secure a series of grants and business partnerships to help establish the camp and keep it operational.
Jamie Leonard discusses Camp Kesem
This year, fellow student Tobin George and Jamie served as the camp’s directors. “We’re beyond thrilled to open our arms to 50 campers, from August 10 to 15, in New Fairfield, Connecticut,” said Jamie.
“After the proposal was accepted, there was a national online vote to establish need and community support,” said Jamie. “We were lucky to receive the most votes for Camp Kesem of any school in the Northeast and our charter was born.”
“Kesem,” is Hebrew for magic, and Jamie discovered his own “kesem” when he was child at West Meadow Beach in Stony Brook. During those carefree days he would fish there with seine nets and study the marine life he found. “My father was a driving force for me to get involved in science,” said Jamie. “He brought home microscopes for my brother and me and would say ‘Check out the paramecium!’”
That love for microbiology later helped prepare Jamie to understand the disease that nearly took his father’s life. In his laboratory research as a freshman he investigated cancers caused by Epstein-Barr virus.
In later research he mapped neuronal pathways, studying endosomal signaling associated with proteins. “I was working to map a few endosomal signaling proteins in time and space. I worked to see if these proteins were related to a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
In his junior year, Jamie’s research took place in the Emergency Department of Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was an academic associate. One of his tasks was to determine if patients were eligible for clinical studies, such as sleep apnea, and then enroll them. One program near and dear to his heart was to determine a more effective way for children to communicate their level of pain. Jamie said he is leaning toward pediatrics as a medical specialty.
As a senior Jamie will be embarking on his own clinical study to determine whether male patients are aware of the screening guidelines for prostate cancer.
His Honors College thesis will focus on whether current college students are aware of screening recommendations for testicular cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, almost half of all of the cases of testicular cancer occur in men aged 20–34.
Every year he also takes part in Movember, the global charity to raise awareness and money in the fight against men’s prostate and testicular cancer. Millions of men and women sport moustaches during the month of November to educate the public about various men’s health issues and ultimately reduce the number of preventable deaths.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” said Jamie. “It strikes the young and the old and we have to do everything we can to find it early. Talk to your doctors. It’s important that someone who knows your medical history can help you navigate the guidelines and determine what’s best for you.”
When asked what the most life-changing experience he has had at Stony Brook, Jamie doesn’t hesitate. “Camp Kesem, without a doubt. “It’s helped me to grow in ways I never thought I would.”
— By Glenn Jochum; photo by John Griffin