Coloring out cancer: Students run for research


Participants start to run at Pittsburgh Attacks Cancer Together 5K Race and Color Run in Schenley Park. (Photo by Theresa Dickerson | Staff Writer)

Colors flew through the air in Schenley Park this past weekend at the Pittsburgh Attacks Cancer Together’s 5K Race and Color Run. Members of the Pittsburgh community came to support the student-led organization at its annual event, which aims to raise money for the Hillman Cancer Research Center.

While Sunday’s run was a success, it’s taken PACT several years to get to where it is now.

It all started three years ago with current senior finance major Brad Smertz and senior chemistry major Ryan Gilbert. The Clarks Summit natives — who have known each other since preschool — decided to start an organization during their first year of college to raise money for cancer research. When Gilbert’s aunt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he remembered watching his father cry.

“I had never felt so helpless in my life,” he said. “Something had to be done.”

This feeling is familiar to Smertz as well. Many of the women in Smertz’s family have had breast cancer, including his grandmother, who has been diagnosed twice. So when Gilbert met with Smertz about starting PACT, Smertz was ready to serve as the first vice-president of the organization.

“I didn’t think there was enough being done on campus, so I grabbed this kid [Smertz] and we decided to start PACT,” Gilbert said.

PACT has since grown to a student organization of more than 180 members. Members participate in activities such as parties at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and making Valentine’s Day bags for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

“We have met with all of our members because we didn’t just want this to be a club where students walk in and walk out,” Gilbert said. “Our members actually hang out with each other outside of our biweekly Sunday meetings.”

Along with the help of the club’s members, the two founders turned PACT into a successful organization. It has held events such as benefit concerts, fundraisers outside of Steelers games and their annual 5K/Color Run for the last two years — and it all goes toward cancer research.

“We could stand out of a Steelers game canning and raise almost $200 for an hour and a half because people really believe in our cause,” Smertz said.

The money that PACT raises for cancer research is all student-driven. Those students have helped form relationships with local businesses, such as The Webb Law Firm and the Empire Beauty School, which in turn donate to PACT’s mission.

“I have never met anyone that has not been affected by cancer,” Smertz said. “That is why our mission is so important, because it affects everybody.”

PACT’s 5K/Color Run raised $5,000 in 2016, which went toward immunotherapy research at UPMC Hillman Cancer Research Center — the newest technology in cancer research. They quadrupled their money raised the following year, with $20,000 in donations for the 2017 Run. According to Gilbert, donations totalled about $30,000 this year.

Pitt alumna and senior development associate Meghan Boehm from the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center attended the 5K/Color Run this year as a representative.

“There has been a really big need for funding for immunotherapy,” Boehm said. “We are so amazed by them because they work so hard. We are happy they chose the UPMC Hillman Cancer Research Center to give their funding to.”

Many of the students who are members of PACT have been directly affected by cancer. Conner Hofmeister, a senior double-majoring in psychology and finance and roommate of cofounder Gilbert, has participated in the race for the past two years.

“My grandpa recently passed away from cancer. It is something that affects each and every one of us, and it is hard to talk about,” he said. “PACT gives us a chance to talk about those things we don’t always like talking about.”

Nisha Nanavaty, a senior molecular biology major, is also another member of PACT who volunteered to help organize the event. She and other members helped throw the color on the participating runners. Each of the five different colors thrown represented a different type of cancer.

“I am here for my aunt,” she said. “PACT is an organization that brings the Pittsburgh community together for a good cause and really makes a difference.”

PACT has visions of continuing its impact on campus by eventually becoming a nonprofit organization. Although cofounders Gilbert and Smertz have passed on the organization’s leadership to current president Katrine Schechter, a junior studying political science, they are continuing to make an impact on the Pittsburgh community by bringing awareness to all types of cancer.

“This journey has been an incredible experience so far,” Gilbert said. “The opportunity for [PACT’s 5K] to succeed as a community-wide event has increased because of the community’s willingness to be involved.”