When Samhita Murthy was 8, her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and started chemotherapy.
“I learned that the treatment targeted the affected and non-affected cells alike. I saw her hair fall out and the emotional toll chemo took on her,” says the senior at the Math and Science Magnet Program at Morris Hills. “At that young age, it occurred to me that there must be a way to improve treatment to better target cancer cells.”
The experience defined Murthy’s life. She pursued opportunities to expand her knowledge of cancer research through independent study and through Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey’s BOLD Camp (BioCONECT Oncology Leadership Development), a summer program that teaches high school students about cellular biology and the genetics of cancer.
Now, Murthy is using her passion for classical Indian dance to raise money for cancer research. Murthy began learning Bharatanatyam – the oldest form of classical dance in India – at age 5 and last year began preparing for Rangapravesha, the graduation ceremony in which a student performs dances alone on stage for the first time.
To announce her dance graduation to family and friends, Murthy launched a website, which explained the ceremony and requested that in lieu of gifts supporters donate to the Cancer Institute. To manage donations, the institute helped her set up a personal fundraising page on its website.
The more than $2,000 she has raised to date has exceeded Murthy’s goal of $1,500, and with donations still rolling in, she’s keeping the page active.
“My parents always told me that it doesn’t really matter what I do as long as I have a positive impact on society,” she says. “I saw my graduation as a way I could directly benefit others.”
Narrative dancing is a big part of Murthy’s culture and religion. “We tell religious and cultural stories through intricate facial expressions, hand movements, rhythm and statuesque poses,” she says. “The stories can be personal, like a young girl waiting for her husband to return from war, or they could be epic, like a tale about a fight between a villain and a god. There are many life lessons and morals that I learned growing up from these stories.”
Over the past year, Murthy spent up to five hours a day learning nine new dances in preparation for the three-hour graduation event. “The training was rigorous; it taught me discipline and how to work toward a goal,” she says.
Her grandmother, Prabha Ramesh, is cancer-free and traveled from India to attend Murthy's graduation event.
Murthy now has set her sights on her next endeavor: Attending college to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. “I like physics and biology and think it’s amazing how far we have come with technology,” she says. “I want to play a role in discovering innovative ways to target cancer cells. I want to save lives.”
“Samhita’s story really struck me because she was inspired to help fund the research she learned about through the BOLD program,” says Leanne Kochy, the Cancer Institute’s director of development. “It’s wonderful to have a bright student like Samhita use her creative talents for the benefit of research.”