Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.
I cleared my throat, fighting back tears. I’ve never liked crying, much less crying in public — even though it would have seemed perfectly normal on this occasion. I was standing inside a marble mausoleum, watching two soldiers fold the American flag over a mahogany casket. All the feelings of disbelief leading up to that moment evaporated, and I was hit with the cold hard truth: My cousin Gaston was dead; cancer had stolen another member of our family.
Just a few months earlier, I was at Gaston’s house — unsure if I was there to say goodbye or to give him hope. I knew it was “goodbye” when I saw the man we called “Doc” sitting up on his bed, looking frail and weak. “What?” I thought, when my dad first shared the diagnosis, “doctors don’t get sick.” I was wrong, of course. Gaston had stage four colon cancer.
You’ll sometimes hear people call colon cancer “one of the bad ones” — the joke being that all cancer is bad, though colon cancer is particularly vicious. It’s the #2 killer among cancers in the US. Cases like my cousin’s — which was detected late — are often considered hopeless (the survival rate for these cases is 15%). But don’t bring any of that doom and gloom around Keven Stonewall. The twenty-two-year-old scientist has his sights set on ending the disease, and you’d be a fool to doubt him.
Stonewall, a Chicagoan, was just 19 when he researched a breakthrough colon cancer vaccine through a treatment called immunotherapy. His work also revealed that the vaccine needed to be age specific, after Stonewall led an experiment injecting a mitoxantrone-based vaccine (mitoxantrone is a well-known cancer-fighting drug) into two sets of mice, an older group, and a younger group. He then shot the mice with aggressive colon cancer cells and monitored them for several days. Stonewall found that the tumors in the younger mice were entirely gone after they had been injected with his vaccine, but the older mice were still affected.
“He should be heralded for helping to develop more effective colon cancer treatments,” Carl Ruby, the Rush University professor who ran the lab where Stonewall did his research, told DNA Info. “He has all the tools. He will go far.”
So how did a black teen from Chicago’s infamous South Side end up becoming a world-renowned cancer researcher? It all started with a microscope in 5th grade.
“I went to my teacher, and I kept asking like, ‘Okay, what do people do with microscopes? What can I do with a microscope?”’ he says. “Because the only time I’d seen a microscope was on TV and those scientists you know, Dexter’s Laboratory or all those different science TV shows.”
What Stonewall didn’t see on TV were scientists of color. While he’s everyone’s favorite scientist now, Neil deGrasse Tyson hadn’t hit the mainstream back then. Seeing a black scientist on your screen at the time was about as rare as, well, seeing a black scientist on your television screen today (minus literally one person). According to a 2013 National Science Foundation study, black men make up just three percent of scientists and engineers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
“From an aspect of race necessarily you didn’t see a black scientist,” Stonewall says of his childhood. “You probably saw your old white man with a white lab coat.”
When 10-year-old Stonewall saw that microscope, he was told by his teacher that “people do science if they like to answer questions and want to save lives.” He was immediately hooked. So much so that he asked his parents for a microscope for Christmas. Fortunately for… literally the whole planet, his parents were very supportive of this newfound interest.
“Both of my parents are in the education field, so education was something that was always heavily valued growing up,” Stonewall says. “If I wanted a microscope, they knew that was going to be something that would help me be passionate or advance in the field. Because their philosophy of education is kids have to do something in order to be at their highest potential.”
It wasn’t until Stonewall entered high school that he developed an interest in cancer, after the then 14-year-old witnessed a friend’s life torn to shreds by the loss of his uncle to colon cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that while grief is expected after a loved one dies from cancer, 1 in 5 will develop clinical depression.
“It got to the point where he was the top student in our high school class, and he dropped to be one of the lower ranked students,” he says. “It affected him emotionally, economically, physically… He just wasn’t the same.”
Cancer’s destructive toll pushed Stonewall to google questions like, “What is cancer?” and “How does somebody get cancer?” This preliminary research lasted two years before Stonewall decided he needed to do more. Already interested in science, he applied for several internships during his junior year of high school in hopes of working at a research lab.
“I was like, ‘If I’m going to at least try to eradicate cancer or even fight cancer, I need to be at the core, the ground zero, doing the dirty work.'”
Stonewall eventually landed an internship at Chicago’s Rush University, where he began studying under mentor and lab director Dr. Carl Ruby. Their relationship blossomed and the two continue to hold one another in the highest regard. It’s a true mentorship story, with Ruby giving his students an incredible amount of freedom to explore their passions.
“He welcomed me in so much,” Stonewall says. “He really was big on just letting younger students be free with their work. Let them do what they want to do. A lot of times, when you work in a research lab as an undergrad or even as a high school student, you have this big hierarchy system where you have to listen to the person ahead of you.”
Stonewall applauds Dr. Ruby for refusing to adhere to this unspoken hierarchy. It opened the door for the young researcher to introduce his idea for a colon cancer vaccine with confidence.
“I came to him with this idea, like, ‘Well, how about we use a vaccination to work with the colon and the host,'” he explains. “But he never knocked it down.”
Dr. Ruby allowed Stonewall to move forward with his experiment of injecting mice with the cancer-fighting drug mitoxantrone and colon cancer cells. The rest may just wind up becoming world-changing history.
As a young black cancer researcher, Stonewall has conflicting thoughts about discrimination in STEM.
“I always ask myself is it race or is because I’m young?” he wonders. “I never had any personal racist experiences, but my peers have. I think a bigger thing for me sometimes is age.”
Now at 22-years-old and in his final year at the University of Wisconsin, Stonewall still has his sights on curing colon cancer. His focus has also widened a little, to include pediatric cancers such as neuroblastoma (cancer that grows in the nerve tissue) and osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer also found in children).
“That’s actually kind of touching on where I would want to be one day,” Stonewall says of his work with cancers that affect kids. “Ideally, it would be pediatric oncology, and even if I decide that oncology isn’t the road that I want to go, I would still be in pediatrics.”
For a young man whose groundbreaking research may one day lead to a cure for a colon cancer, Stonewall is pretty humble, describing himself to me as being just a regular “kid from Chicago,” rather than Keven Stonewall, 22-year-old cancer-fighting badass. Still, he’s well aware of the opportunities he’s been given and vows to make an impact on those who will follow in his footsteps. He hopes to be a role model for black children who don’t know or even believe that they have options aside from, having a hot 16, or as Biggie once put it, “slinging crack rock or having a wicked jump shot.” When he can, he volunteers at different organizations that focus on youth empowerment to speak to young people about getting into STEM fields.
“How are we going have more black doctors or more black scientists?” he asks. “Well, we need more people who can represent in STEM fields because the more and more they see us in these different positions the more and more that’s going to be a reality for them.”
Representation matters. Stonewall has seen this impact firsthand — he credits having a black doctor growing up with planting seeds of belief that he too could be a doctor one day.
“We have to use our platform to our advantage because the younger kids are looking up to us,” he says. “There’s more to us than playing basketball, becoming a rapper — we can do a lot more. We’re in all these different positions; we use that platform for reaching back out to the community so that we can show them we all can do this.”
As a product of Chicago’s public schools, Stonewall recognizes the faults of the system he was educated in. Currently, the cash-strapped CPS is on the brink of bankruptcy. Just a few months ago, Chance The Rapper donated $1 million as a “call to action.” Still, the ever-ambitious Stonewall hopes that one day CPS can create spaces for children interested in science.
“If the city can’t do it then that’s something I want to do personally,” he says. “The only time I’ve seen that in the city was this science fair. But, there wasn’t [anything] concrete.”
We can only hope that Stonewall’s research leads to a cure for colon cancer one day — and with his talent and ambition, he’s well on his way — but what’s perhaps just as meaningful as his work in research labs is the solid groundwork this young man is laying down for future black scientists. It’s one thing to be a black child growing up the inner-city and wanting to be in STEM, but there’s no greater inspiration than seeing people who look like you achieving the same dreams you envision for yourself.
“You can do anything you want if you put your heart into it,” Stonewall says. And his story proves the point.