It started with a little pain in his back that bothered him when he practiced his gymnastics; later that pain became a knot.When it didn’t go away, the then 11-year-old’s parents took him to the doctor and the lump was biopsied. It was cancer; a rare kind, it turned out.
Now 16, Will Broomhead is cancer-free and an avid student at the Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology. In the special half-day program he attends, Will explores the biomedical sciences and dreams of the day he can join the ranks of cancer researchers looking for a cure for the disease that so devastated his young life.
“Because of the cancer, and even more specifically, because of all the amazing doctors that I had — they really changed my entire life and it really drove me to be like them and do exactly what they do,” he said.
With the encouragement of his school’s staff, Will applied for the Emperor Science Award, a program designed to empower high-school students to become the next generation of scientists by exploring careers in cancer research and care through a mentoring opportunity. Sponsored by PBS and Stand Up to Cancer, the award was created following the broadcast of Ken Burns’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.
“As soon as I heard about the mentoring opportunity, I knew the program was exactly what I was looking for,” said Will. “I wanted to start understanding the science behind cancer and know just what researchers were doing in their labs.”
Will was one of 100 students chosen for the 2018 award, and one of four overall in Kentucky, including Kristi Mullins of Lick Creek, Shivani Nellore of Prospect, and Taylor Stumbo of East Point. The program received nearly 600 applications from 10th and 11th graders in 44 states. This is the second year in a row Will has received the award.
“I am determined to become a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher so other children won’t have to go through the pain and disappointment that I did,” he continued. “We can’t prevent cancer until we understand how and why it attacks. This is what motivates me to keep learning and discovering.”
An enthusiastic competitor in national and international science fairs, Will learned of a device called a foldscope, invented by one of the speakers at the 2017 international science fair. He decided he would use the $1,500 stipend from the Emperor Science Award to purchase 700 of the affordable, origami-type microscopes — which boast optical quality similar to a research microscope — for other Northern Kentucky schools.
“I realized that $1,500 could go a long way in helping students in my state,” he said. “Kentucky was one of the best states — if not the best state winning the most awards — at the International Science Fair. However, overall, there’s a gap. So if there was any way I could get youth involved in science and have them passionate about it early in their lives, it would definitely be amazing to be able to inspire those kids.”
Dr. Francis O’Hara, the academy’s principal, applauds the goals of the Emperor Science Award program and what it is able to do for students like Will.
“In the PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies that was shown on KET, you are able to see the history of cancer and cancer research. But more important, it has led to this award for high school scholars. We’re so fortunate that Will has won this award twice,” he said.
“The reason why he’s into it, is that he’s a cancer survivor,” O’Hara continued. “And to me, you’ve got two ways you can go: you can give up, or you can change the world. And Will is one of the types of scholars who will change the world.”