By Greg Wehner
Even before freshman year, Camryn Highsmith had an interest in cancer research. The 17-year-old junior at Southampton High School knew many people in her life who were affected by cancer, many of them family members. But none impacted her more than her friend’s mother, Perrihan Nation. Ms. Nation battled breast cancer for six years, all while teaching English at Southampton High School, until she was physically unable to any longer. On May 10, 2016, Ms. Nation, at the age of just 43, died after her long battle.
At the time, Camryn was already participating in the high school’s research program, and seeing someone close to her go through such pain and suffering is what pushed her to keep going with her cancer research.
“That was a big impact on my life, so I wanted to see how far I could go with it,” Camryn said.
She’s glad she did.
After submitting her research to the Miami Breast Cancer Conference, Camryn has been invited to attend the event in March, where she will get the opportunity to present her work to professional oncologists from around the world at a mini-symposium, or pre-conference.
The conference is not for high school students—it is for active oncologists. Camryn’s mentor, Dr. Edna Kapenhas, a surgeon who works at the Southampton Hospital Breast Center, suggested that Camryn submit her abstract, which looked at how there were disparities in the frequency of diagnosis, based on age and race, of a particular form of breast cancer that Ms. Nation had, known as triple negative breast cancer, based on the nature of the tumor involved.
“Every year, posters from everywhere are submitted, but I don’t recall ever seeing one from a high school student,” Dr. Kapenhas, who attends the conference regularly, said on Friday. “When I heard she got accepted, I couldn’t believe it. This is quite an accomplishment, and I’m so proud of her.”
Southampton High School’s science research program started about a dozen years ago, according to science teacher Kim Milton, Camryn’s research teacher mentor, as part of a partnership with the State University of New York at Albany. The program gives students the opportunity to conduct research on a variety of topics, while also giving them access to the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s library of science journals. At the end of the school year, students present their research to administrators, teachers and members of the community in the high school auditorium.
Camryn conducted research and read scholarly articles about the three main receptors that doctors use to target and treat breast cancer—estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2—and what it means when all three receptors are negative in a tumor. She said that makes the cancer hard to treat, and also means the worst prognosis; Dr. Kapenhas said triple negative breast cancer is very aggressive, and the only way to attack it is through chemotherapy.
With Dr. Kapenhas’s help, Camryn looked at six or seven Hispanic women and about 12 African-American women whom her mentor had treated. She found that triple negative breast cancer tends to be more common in younger patients, and that there were more aggressive cases in the Hispanic women than in the African-American women.
Other than the fact that she’s about to present some serious research to a group of doctors at a professional conference, Camryn is a typical high school student. When she’s not reading over science journals, she plays lacrosse for Southampton, likes to play basketball, watches “Grey’s Anatomy,” loves the movie “Frozen,” and has even watched quite a bit of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Before even thinking about doing the research, Camryn said, she wanted to be a forensic scientist, because she loved what she saw on “Law and Order: SVU.” That has changed: “Right now, the dream is to be an oncologist,” she said.
Camryn said she wants to go to college somewhere on the East Coast, and is looking specifically at American University and Howard University in the Washington, D.C., area. She’s not quite sure if she wants to study biology or begin pre-med studies, but one way or the other, she said she’s going to be in school for at least eight years.
Surprisingly, Camryn said the sight of blood “freaks me out a little bit,” so she would much rather spend time interacting with patients and administering chemotherapy than spending time in a surgical room.
“Her strong suit is her relationships with friends, teachers and peers,” said Ms. Milton.
The conference takes place from March 9 to 12, and it will cost an estimated $3,400 for her and a guardian to go. “We’re trying to see if they can have a discounted price,” Camryn said, pointing out that because the conference is for fellows and professionals, the conference does not have a student pricing option.
The hefty cost has had donors coming forward, including the Southampton Education Foundation, Southampton Lions Club and Southampton Elementary School Interim Principal Dr. Michael Grimaldi, who offered to donate $500 if someone donated another $500 to make up the $1,000 left to raise.
As the conference approaches, which takes place at a hotel right on the water, Camryn is getting excited. “I’ve never been to Miami, so I don’t even know what to expect,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and I’m hoping that there’s nice weather there.”
Camryn’s father, Southampton Town Housing Authority Executive Director Curtis Highsmith, and mother, Tanisha Highsmith, are both beyond proud of their daughter and what she is accomplishing.
“C.C. never ceases to amaze me on how brilliant, motivated and driven she’s become while developing into a beautifully gifted young woman of God,” Mr. Highsmith said in an email. “Proud is an understatement for how my wife and I feel about her accomplishments. We cannot wait to see what greatness God has in store over her life.”
Dr. Kapenhas, who also plans to attend the conference with Camryn, echoed her parents’ sentiments. “She’s very bright and extremely smart,” she said. “At times, she is so smart that I forget she is a high school student. I have to say to myself, ‘Slow down, she’s only 16 years old.’
“I think she has a very bright future,” she added.