Terra Sigillata

She could’ve joined the lab of a Nobel laureate at Yale.

She picked me instead.

This is my thank you.

Regular readers may recall my post earlier last month about the tragic, heart-wrenching loss of the brother of my former student, Jen, a Morehead Scholar and sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Her brother Jon was a 23-year-old Carnegie-Mellon University graduate student and crew team coach. After completing the Chicago Marathon last fall, some nagging persistent pain in his femur turned out to be the bone cancer, osteosarcoma.

After months of hospitalization and chemotherapy that led docs and family to think he was beating the cancer, both in his leg and the metastases in his lungs, Jon had his final setback after coaching his girlfriend’s crew meet one Sunday morning. Sadly, Jon succumbed precipitously to what was likely a gram-negative bacterial infection from chemotherapy-related neutropenia, leading to fatal sepsis.

Instead of partying and hanging out at the beach during my freshman summer after classes (like I did), Jen was in Romania at the time, tending to homeless and orphaned child victims of the civil unrest in that country….just as she had done every year since she was 13. A testament to her; a testament to her parents; a testament to her grandparents; and a great role model for my daughter.

Jon was planning to do the Philadelphia version of the 100-mile LIVESTRONG bike ride/fundraiser for the Lance Armstrong Foundation on 10 Sept 2006. He would’ve been on crutches, but no matter. This is the same guy I had lunch with after his Pittsburgh bike wreck, pins and plates throughout his body, still hoping he’d be healthy enough to row for CMU later that fall. Quitting? Giving up? Not an option for this strong and vibrant young man.

Yes, he was beating the cancer, only to be lost to a bacterial infection that could not be fought no matter how strong the rest of his body.

Lots of Terra Sig readers turned out to comment and offer condolences on my original post. Dr Tara Smith at Aetiology and SciMom at DoubleLoop also had some beautiful reflections on the loss of Jon from the perspective of their own research areas.

Well, Jen is going to do the 100-mile ride for her brother and has set up a website to raise research funds in honor of him and his remarkable life:


Cut from the same cloth as Jon, Jen is also about as strong and tough as a boiled owl. She can do this even though her longest ride to date has been in the 60s or low 70s. Their older brother, Matt, will also be joining her together with a team of other friends and fellow classmates of Jon’s. Philadelphia is also where I stomped terra for my undergraduate days – I may go up and run a sag wagon and feed cheesesteaks and soft pretzels to the riders.

Raising money for cancer research and patient advocacy is cool, but what I’d like to ask of readers is to just go over and send your support to Jen as she undertakes this challenge on behalf of the memory of her brother and his passion, determination, and zest for life.

Sure, I’d be happy if Jen raised the most funds of anyone on her team, but being one of her mentors and lending my support through this blog is what I’d really like for her. I don’t even know what the minimum contribution is (it’s $5 USD); I’d just like to see as many words of support scrolling on her page.

From the pen of one of the finest students anyone could ask for:

Please support me as I take on a bold endeavor, the LIVESTRONG Challenge in memory of my brother Jon. He was planning on riding in the 100 mile event himself; I feel that the least I can do is ride it for him in his memory.

I miss him so much and know that I will not be able to get through this ride without your support or his memory in my heart.

Thank you so much in advance for helping me honor my brother and best friend. Net proceeds from the event support the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s mission to inspire and empower people affected by cancer through advocacy, public health, and research.

Jon was a big supporter of the cause; he admired all that Lance has accomplished and always loved biking. He even rode a bike across the country, from Savannah, Georgia to L.A. one summer a few years ago. My brother was a really great person and it’s not fair that he was taken so soon. I know he would be really proud of me if I finished this 100 mile race, so please help me make that dream a reality.

If this cause hits you anywhere near your heart (or wallet), I’d ask you to dial up http://www.livestrongchallenge.org/06pa/jenforjon and share your support.

(Note to Jen and a more light-hearted aside for other readers: FYI, the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Nobel prize was standing at a urinal next to Dr George Palade, 1974 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine, while a first-year graduate student attending the 1986 meeting, The Mitochondrion, a memorial symposium for the great biochemist, Al Lehninger.

Jen, the irony is not lost on me that Dr Palade is Romanian.)


  1. #1 Tara C. Smith
    August 14, 2006

    Y’know, if she’d worked in the Nobelist’s lab at Yale, she probably would have been forgotten in short time. I think she got the better end of the deal working with you. What a beautiful tribute, both to Jen and to Jon. Best of luck to her and the team.

  2. #2 Kim
    August 15, 2006

    Heck, I’d rather work with you any day!

    I went on over and sent my support to Jen. It broke my heart to see the photo of her and Jon together. Thanks for providing the opportunity to read about Jen and Jon.

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