One of Hannah Ricketts' most poignant memories growing up is learning how to read with her family friend, Dee Head.

“Even now when I go into a bookstore I think about her,” said Ricketts, of Danville, Virginia, a Virginia Tech sophomore majoring in biochemistry.

Both of Ricketts’ parents worked as paramedics and maintained odd schedules, so Head often cared for Ricketts after school and on weekends. She became a surrogate parent.

When Head fell very ill with cancer, she and Ricketts read one last book together in its entirety without stopping over the course of several hours.

Head passed away shortly thereafter and as memories of her began to fade, Ricketts searched for something that would be worthy of commemorating her memory in the grand way that she wanted.

In both her work in a Virginia Tech lab that is working on fighting cancer and other diseases, and in the roads across America, Ricketts found her opportunity.

Last summer, Ricketts took part in the Ulman Cancer Run for Young Adults, a run that lasted 49 days and took Ricketts on a cross-country journey.

She ran on a relay team from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, to the finish line in Baltimore, Maryland.

The runners dedicated certain days to people in their lives who had battled cancer by writing their names on their calves.

Ricketts remembers early on in Colorado feeling altitude sickness on a day she had dedicated to Dee, whose name was scrawled on her leg in black letters. She thought about Dee and the fact that she didn’t have the option to quit. So Ricketts didn’t either.

Running was not just a physical challenge. It was also mental. On days when her knees hurt, or her feet were beat up from the thousands of strides taken, she thought about Dee, and the countless others the team met along the way who had told them stories of how they had been affected by cancer.

“When I started the run, I didn’t think I would make it to the end. Now I feel like I have that mental toughness to push through anything,” she said.

The run was also a humbling experience for her.

“It made me realize how lucky I am to be able to be healthy and have the opportunity to pursue a degree that will launch my career. There are young adults out there that should be starting families, planning weddings, and their careers. Running this summer made me appreciate the fact that I am healthy and can pursue a career and education,” said Ricketts.

At Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Ricketts works in Professor of Biochemistry David Bevans’ lab, where she researches possible drugs that could be used to target precursors to cancer called sphingosine kinase inhibitors. Most researchers know that cancers spread quickly, but what causes them to initially form is still relatively new ground. 

Sphingosine kinase are enzymes that seem to be connected to inflammatory responses. In cells where they develop, there is too much of the Sphingosine kinase signaling molecule, an immune response that causes cancer cells and other inflammatory-related diseases to start in the first place.

In the lab Ricketts performs calculations that generate detailed graphics of cell response to the drugs targeting the enzymes. The experiments are meant to identify good candidates for potential drug targets. Running the computational models is less expensive than testing each and every drug, which would be costly and time consuming.

“This research is very strongly related to cancer and is also a way for me to feel like I am giving back to Dee,” said Ricketts, who sees a future in nutritional health.

She also still runs regularly, and judging from her success, she hasn’t stopped running after her dreams, either.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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