In the midst of studying for exams, finishing projects, and preparing for graduation, Bioengineering seniors Erin Tevonian and Viraat Goel are training for the bicycle ride of a lifetime. They will join 16 other U of I students on a 4,000 mile journey from New York City to San Francisco this summer, raising six figures to fight cancer.
Tevonian and Goel are part of the Illini 4000, a student-run charitable organization that has sponsored this cross-country ride for the past 12 years and raised approximately $1.3 million for cancer research and patient support services. They began training in October primarily by running and doing conditioning exercises indoors. At the end of March, they moved outside with a 30-mile bike ride. Each week they’ll increase the mileage until they reach 90 miles by early May.
“If we don’t challenge ourselves now during the training, it’ll be miserable later,” said Goel.
After graduating on May 11, they’ll head to New York City via train with their bikes in tow. On May 17, the group will depart Central Park on the first leg of their journey. Averaging 70-mile rides each day, they’ll cross New York, Ohio and Indiana before reaching Champaign, IL, on June 4.
From there, they’ll ride to Chicago then through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and finally California. They’re scheduled to end their journey at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on August 4. A support van will accompany them, carrying their gear.
To minimize expenses, the group stays at schools, churches, and community centers along the route, where they will meet people whose lives have been impacted by cancer as either patients or caretakers. According to Tevonian, the Illini 4000 is different from other charity bike rides because team members highlight these people’s stories through the Portraits Project.
“We hope the Portraits act as a support vehicle for people,” said Goel, who has volunteered to coordinate the project during the ride. “We document the American cancer experience.”
Goel was inspired, in part, to participate in the ride and Portraits Project following a research internship he completed last summer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he worked with a team of researchers developing alternate therapies for glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
While he learned a lot about cancer biology, Goel said he felt disconnected from the patient experience. “Scientists should always understand the social burden that is caused by the diseases they’re trying to treat,” he said. “I realized that the Illini 4000 would not only give back to the community, it could also help me as a scientist grow to be more empathetic, compassionate, and in tune with the patient experience.”
For Tevonian, the Illini 4000 is yet another opportunity to get involved with a project that supports people and services related to cancer. Growing up, several extended family members were diagnosed with the disease, which inspired her to want to pursue a career in cancer research.
As an incoming freshman, she was invited to participate in the Illinois Cancer Center’s Cancer Scholars program, which has enabled her to take a series of cancer-focused courses and conduct research from the very first day she entered the university. “The Cancer Scholars program has helped me understand the biological basis of the condition, what progress has been made treating it, and where the field is going,” said Tevonian.
She has conducted research in Assistant Professor Roy Dar’s lab each year on the heterogeneity and gene expression of HIV—principles that can also be applied to cancer. Two summers ago, she volunteered at Hope Lodge in St. Louis, which provides a home away from home for cancer patients and caregivers getting treatment at nearby hospitals.
After the ride is completed in August, both Tevonian and Goel will start graduate school at MIT with the goal of earning doctorates and becoming cancer researchers. “One of the things that I’ve gained from my Illinois Bioengineering experience is the ability to communicate science and be a bridge between the community and scientists,” Tevonian said.
Tevonian and Goel continue to raise funds to donate to the fight before cancer before they depart for the ride. You can support them by visiting the Illini 4000 donation page. The Illini 4000 contributes to the following organizations: American Cancer Society, Camp Kesem, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Ishan Gala Foundation and cancer researchers at the University of Illinois.
In addition to Tevonian and Goel, Bioengineering is proud of all its student who previously rode in the Illini 4000—Dylan Beyhl (BS 2017), Grace Deetjen (BS 2016), Rebecca Ficht (BS 2017), Logan Orr (BS 2017), Lauren Sargeant (BS 2018), and current sophomore Sofie Schwink.