For 19-year-old Margo Coxon, a summer internship at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center wasn’t just something to add to her resume — it was a chance to help find a cure for the disease that took her sister’s life.
Coxon’s sister Sydney died at 11 years old from a brainstem glioma, a rare, inoperable tumor on the brainstem. Coxon was 8 at the time. In the years since, the biochemistry major has worked toward finding a cure by raising funds for pediatric cancer research and pursuing her own dream of becoming a medical researcher.
“[Losing my sister] made me more aware of cancer and more passionate about brain tumor research and finding a cure,” she said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, help people cure cancer because of her.”
Soft spoken, intelligent and passionate about science, Coxon is a rising sophomore at Willamette University in Oregon. She’s returned to Washington, her home state, to intern at Fred Hutch for the past two summers. Last summer she worked as a lab aid and this year she interned in Dr. Jim Olson’s lab. Olson specializes in pediatric brain tumor research, and he was one of Sydney’s doctors.
“We’re delighted that she’s here,” said Olson. “She’s been part of the lab family. She’s super intelligent and a good problem solver, but she also clearly understands the big picture of what we’re doing.”
During her internship, Coxon’s role was to purify mini protein drugs called optides. According to Olson, this type of independent research not only helps the interns ask and answer crucial scientific questions, it contributes directly to his cutting edge work.
“We’re depending on the answer they come up with,” he said.
Coxon’s desire to contribute to Olson’s research started long before she began interning in his lab. In fact, she’s been supporting his work ever since she was in grade school.
“[Sydney] was a very strong character — she wanted to give back to other kids even while she was sick,” Coxon said. “She started planning a garage sale where the money would go into helping other kids like her ... She passed away before the garage sale actually happened, but one of the things she was passionate about was helping others in the same situation as her.”
Coxon was one of the original members, joining when she was just 8 years old. She’s been an active member ever since, and even took a leadership role in the organization while still in high school. So far, the guild has raised more than $750,000 for the Olson Lab through lemonade stands, handmade cards sales and by hosting an annual golf tournament.
Olson said the money that the Pink Polka Dots raised was critical to the development of Tumor Paint, a new drug that “lights up” cancer cells, allowing surgeons to remove cancer — and leave healthy tissue — with much more precision.
“Without their support there might not be Tumor Paint and it certainly might not be as far along as it is today,” he said.
He also said Coxon’s back story was one he was familiar with.
More than half of the people who work in his lab have a personal connection to cancer or some other pediatric diseases. He believes his team’s success is a direct result of their personal drive to find a cure.
“A big drug company developing a drug like Tumor Paint would have hundreds of millions of dollars of budget and teams of hundreds of people,” he said. “We’ve been able to do it for tens of millions of dollars and a dozen people, and it’s because the passion that each person brings to the science shows in every day of their work. The passion is helpful because it focuses our team — not on manuscripts and grants, but on developing drugs for kids with cancer.”
Coxon recently finished her final week interning at the Hutch and will soon be returning to her college studies. After graduation, she’s interested in pursuing medical research or veterinary medicine.
While the loss of her sister was devastating, it has given her a drive to find a cure and to advocate for others like Sydney. She encourages anyone with a family member fighting cancer to be supportive and appreciate spending time with that person.
“Hold onto the moments that you have with them, and appreciate those,” she said.
From speaking at a cancer conference to building community with other families affected by pediatric brain cancer to fighting this disease from Olson’s lab, this woman has turned a painful loss into a hopeful future.
“Just put your anger or frustration or sadness over what happened into a drive for making it better so that other people don’t have to go through the same thing,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done. You have to turn it into something good.”
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Megan Herndon is a writing intern on the Fred Hutch news team. She is a rising senior at the University of Washington where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at email@example.com.