Lemonade on Science Hill supports cancer research

Alex's Lemonade Stand logo
Aurora Learned

Aurora Learned at 16 months.  (Photo by Elyse Destout)

The lemonade stand that will be set up in the engineering courtyard on Science Hill on Friday, April 18, is about far more than a glass of lemonade, though it is about that too. It is also about a toddler named Aurora, about a parent's worst nightmare, about community, and about hope.

Katrina Learned works in the UCSC Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering, the nucleus of national and international genomics research into fighting genetic-based diseases, including childhood cancer. Her role is managing quality assurance tests on data and software that supports users of the UCSC Genome Browser, which daily fields a million page requests.

Aurora is Katrina's baby.

During a routine well-baby checkup just before Christmas, 2012, when Aurora was two months old, her doctor was palpating her abdomen when she felt something: "It's probably nothing, but I'd hate to miss something," she said in ordering tests. The news was not good. Aurora's parents rushed her to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, where a diagnosis of neuroblastoma was confirmed. 

A central line was inserted into their baby's tiny chest and, over the next three months, there would be transfusions, constant trips to the hospital and four rounds of chemotherapy. Surgery followed.

In April of last year, at 6 months old, Aurora was declared to be cancer free.  Getting to that point was overwhelming and humbling, Katrina says. Among those with her all along the way were her colleagues at the Baskin School of Engineering. They did everything from bringing by dinners to collecting money to help with expenses. Early this year, when two colleagues suggested they celebrate by putting on a lemonade fundraiser to support pediatric cancer research, Katrina was immediately on board.

Another colleague, Kelly Sauder, a financial analyst at the CBSE, thought the plan sounded good--but not big enough. She "blew it up." As more faculty and staff heard about it, they quickly became involved. A web page where online donations could be made was created, a short program planned, and the entire campus and community invited to join. New Leaf Markets and Newman's Own are donating lemonade, Marianne's is kicking in ice cream, and Pacific Cookie Company the cookies to go with.

After planning for the fundraiser was under way, exciting news arrived in the department: Camilla Forsberg, associate professor of biomolecular engineering, was awarded a $250,000 grant to further her research into the roots of another childhood cancer, acute lymphocytic leukemia. The award was from Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, the very organization that will benefit from the CBSE fundraiser. 

The group of colleagues at CBSE initially hoped to raise $2,000; now they are aiming for $10,000. Whatever the amount, it will be given to Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation--inspired by and named for a little girl who did not survive her diagnosis of neuroblastoma.  Since the foundation was created in 2005, it has raised more than $75 million and funded more than 375 promising research projects like Forsberg's. 

Back at home, Aurora is full of personality, running around, dancing, talking, and "being hilarious." Like most toddlers, she really wants to get her hands on the car keys. "There is no way you could tell what she's been through," says Katrina. And while there will never be a "routine" check up again, she is continually amazed by her daughter--and grateful beyond words.

The CBSE Lemonade Stand for Pediatric Cancer Research will be in the courtyard at the Baskin School of Engineering from noon to 2:30 p.m. on Friday, April 18. Earlier in the day, from 11 a.m. to noon, Katrina Learned and three UCSC cancer researchers will be speaking in Room 180, Engineering 2.