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20 Years of Generosity | Vanderbilt University Cancer Biology Student Association

For over 20 years, Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee has been the beneficiary of the Vanderbilt University Cancer Biology Student Association’s (CBSA) silent auction. While the obvious cancer research connection to Gilda’s Club is important and necessary, many don’t know the true origin behind this well-established relationship.  

When Gilda’s Club Founder, Sandy Towers, found herself lost in the parking lot at St. Thomas Hospital in 1996, she ran into Pam Martin.  Sandy was on her way to attend an event while she was fact-finding to launch Gilda’s Club. Sandy asked Pam if she knew where to find the event, and a friendship was born. 

Pam was living with metastatic breast cancer and did so for 27 years.  She was on of the first people with cancer Sandy met with to discuss the goals and mission of Gilda’s Club and was on board from the beginning. 

Pam Martin

Gilda’s Club grew and Pam staffed the front desk as a volunteer and staff member for five years before leaving to work at the Cancer Biology Research lab headed by Dr. Al Reynolds at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.  

Pam served as Lab Manager or more affectionately, “Lab Mom”, to the students. She encouraged the student researchers through her own cancer experience by letting the students know that while their research may be slow and frustrating at times, it would save lives like hers. 

So, in 2003, the relationship between VUCBSA and Gilda’s Club began.  

We had the opportunity to speak with Amanda Hesterberg, current Philanthropy Chair of the CBSA to learn more about the student association, and what this partnership means to her and her peers twenty years after its beginning.  

Tell us a bit about the Vanderbilt University Cancer Biology Student Association? 

The CBSA is a volunteer organization comprised of current Cancer Biology PhD students whose goal is to help and advocate for students and faculty within the program. Specifically, the CBSA strives to increase both personal and scientific interactions as well as provide opportunities for career development. This is accomplished through various student-led events including coffee/bagel hours, welcome picnics, happy hours, and the Annual Cancer Biology Department Retreat. Our goal is to create a welcoming and informative environment that supports current students and faculty. 

What is the glue for this long-standing relationship given that student leadership changes? 

Although leadership positions change every couple of years, every student in the Cancer Biology Graduate Program shares the same overarching goal and passion – to help make a difference in the lives of people with cancer. Normally, this is accomplished through our research endeavors and discoveries. However, our relationship between the CBSA and Gilda’s Club enables us to make a more immediate difference within our direct community. Seeing this impact gives us an even greater drive for our research.  

Harriet Schiftan, Amanda Hesterberg (CBSA Philanthropy Chair), Molly Warren
Kayla Murrell, Brad Davidson (CBSA President), Harriet Schiftan

How do you educate your peers about Gilda’s mission? 

I have had many conversations with peers, colleagues, friends and even strangers about Gilda’s Club and its mission. It’s common to meet someone that is impacted by cancer, whether directly or indirectly. Every time this occurs, I will always suggest the person look into Gilda’s Club to see if any of the resources would be helpful. People are always beyond grateful for the suggestion, as they want help, but don’t always know where to start.  

Each year for almost 20 years, CBSA hosts an auction benefiting Gilda’s Club, based on your experience, how does Gilda’s get selected? 

This relationship started and has continued for a number of reasons. Gilda’s Club has a shared mission to our own cancer biology researchers – which is to improve the lives of people impacted by cancer. Additionally, Gilda’s Club’s clubhouse is less than a mile from the Vanderbilt campus and this close proximity makes it easy to communicate with and commute to during the auction season. Lastly, every Gilda’s Club team member has enthusiastically engaged with our students which makes the relationship meaningful and impactful on the students, giving them a desire to continue this tradition in the future.   

Can you tell us about the event where you held the auction? Who attends the retreat? 

The retreat is an annual event held by the CBSA to share scientific discoveries, listen to talks by students and leaders in the field, as well as give back to the community through the silent auction. About 150 Vanderbilt faculty, students and staff attended the retreat, and invited speakers from across the country. This is a time for students to gain experience by publicly sharing their work, promote scientific discussion about their project’s direction, and initiate collaborations with other research labs. The items for the silent auction are on display throughout the event for people to view in between talks and during the afternoon poster session. 

Do you have a personal Gilda’s Club connection? If so, we would love to hear more about that. 

Yes, I know a couple of people that have lost a loved one to cancer and now benefit from Gilda’s Club. These individuals attend the support groups to meet other individuals who have walked through similar struggles. Having a community that has shared experiences helps you feel less alone and creates a safe space to share your honest thoughts and feelings.   

In 2007, Pam Martin was awarded the Commodore Award for her outstanding service to the Cancer Biology Research lab. The annual award recognizes and rewards one-time achievements and contributions of a significant nature by individual staff members, and honors select individuals who have made exceptional performance contributions to Vanderbilt University. 

Included in the nomination letters by many of her colleagues and peers were letters written and signed by Sandy Towers and Felice Apolinsky (Previous Gilda’s Club Program Director). “She is just heart and soul. We love her. She is an incredible, wonderful, person.” 

In the award recognition video, it is clear Pam was incredibly humble and did not want to be in the spotlight. She states, “While you have the chance, you do what you can. That’s the most important thing I think, you show up, and you pay attention, and you do what you can while you have the opportunity to do it.”