Funding ‘Her’ Next Breakthrough
The American Cancer Society’s ResearcHERS campaign raises funds and awareness for the most innovative cancer research—by women, for women.

Following the success of the “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign, the American Cancer Society’s newest initiative switches the focus to women or, rather, women researchers. ResearcHERs was unveiled to the public on March 8, International Women’s Day, and on April 29, ACS gathered a veritable army of philanthropists, scientists, businesswomen, and other powerful women in leadership roles for a breakfast benefit preceding the campaign’s official launch on May 1. ResearcHERs will run through the month of May to celebrate National Cancer Research Month.

ResearcHERs is a national campaign but was devised in ACS’ Chicago office by Suzanne Elder, the senior director of State Health Systems at ACS. According to Peter Steele, executive director of ACS Illinois, Elder’s motivation wasn’t about creating just another benefit or fundraiser. “It’s about creating a movement, a collaboration,” says Steele. “[It’s] about empowering women to support women in the cancer space.”

What is most innovative about ResearcHERs, according to Steele, is the emphasis on the  campaign’s co-chairs and ambassadors. “I think really the power of this is built around the volunteers and the leaders in this community who can drive this force,” says Steele. ResearcHERs aims to recruit 150 women to help reach the campaign’s fundraising goal of $250,000. The campaign’s co-chairs, Michelle Le Beau, director of the University of Chicago’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Cheryle Jackson, a senior aviation executive at AAR, and Connie Lindsey, the executive vice president of Northern Trust, will draw on their personal and professional connections to bolster the campaign’s reach. “The whole goal is to use our social contacts, our professional contacts, and to serve as advocates to advance the goals of engaging women to raise funds that will directly support women cancer researchers,” says Le Beau.

The campaign’s three co-chairs were chosen because of their shared commitment to saving lives and helping sustain women-led cancer research. “Like many people, I have an affinity with the American Cancer Society because they have launched the careers of many scientists, many of whom are women,” says Le Beau. “My very first grant supporting my research [came] from the American Cancer Society.”

The opportunity to fuel women’s careers and to inspire the next generation to choose science is part of that motivation.

-Peter Steele, executive director of ACS Illinois

According to Steele, ACS is the largest, private nonprofit funder of cancer research in the United States, and have made a habit of funding cancer researchers early in their career, when they don’t yet have the credibility to receive substantial grants. “It was these awards that […] made me competitive to apply for funding,” says Le Beau. “They launched my career.”

This is a long-term goal of the campaign—to raise awareness of women-led research in the hopes of inspiring more young women to seek STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) opportunities. ResearcHERs will engage the next generation with their heroes in the STEM field, according to Steele. “[We hope to] engage them in a mentor relationship [to] get them interested, and to connect them with someone who’s already going through some of the challenges that may exist for women and girls trying to enter [the] research field,” he says.

“Only about 20 percent of faculty across most institutions are women,” begins Le Beau. “This is a wonderful time to raise the profile of women in science, and create new opportunities to launch the careers of women in science,” she says. According to Le Beau, the push to educate young women about STEM opportunities is gaining prominence in academia and across the medical field. “We now have a whole cadre [of] individuals coming through the pipeline, very talented young scientists, who are completing their training and entering the scientific workforce, so this is a wonderful time to recognize their potential and contributions,” she says.

Steele notes a startling statistic—ACS has funded the research of 47 nobel laureates, but none of them have been women. “When we saw that statistic, we knew we needed to create awareness around this and solve that gap,” Steele says, pointing out the parallels in the underrepresentation of women across careers—from the corporate world to academia—that’s why the funds raised by ResearcHERS will go to sustaining women-led research for cancers that affect both men and women. “The opportunity to fuel women’s careers and to inspire the next generation to choose science is part of that motivation,” says Steele.

“One thing to remember is that the young women who are training in science now are armed with the latest technology, so they are bringing some of the newest ideas, the newest technologies to cancer research,” says Le Beau. Such innovation is only possible when a variety of voices are being heard and represented, says Jackson. “There’s a global understanding [that] if you really want to drive innovation, if you really want to solve problems, then you’ve got to [include] women, people of color, [people] from different disparate geographic regions,” she says. “ResearcHERs is a part of that movement and that understanding that balance is better and it’s better for solutions, it’s better for innovation, it’s better in reaching our collective goals.”

It’s about creating a movement, a collaboration. [It’s] about empowering women to support women in the cancer space.

-Peter Steele, executive director of ACS Illinois

On the campaign’s social media, under the hashtags #ACSResearcHERs, #cancerresearch, and #womenfightingcancer, ResearcHERs will spotlight the discoveries women researchers have made as a spark to promote the sort of innovation that may very well one day cure cancer. “[Women have made] many breakthroughs that are literally transforming the way that cancer is not only treated and diagnosed but [made] survivable,” says Steele. “[This campaign] is so powerful, so relevant. [Funding] that research earlier in the curve is what leads to these wonderful breakthroughs.”

It will be a collaborative effort from the men and women of the American Cancer Society and ResearcHERs ambassadors. “My personal motto is that one can do anything, and many together can do everything,” says Maryann Rasmussen, account manager of community development at ACS. “With this initiative, we’re ensuring that ACS continues to fund a balance of male and female researchers.”


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