From farm to football... to the front lines of cancer research
When Casey Droscha was 5, he headed to the barn with his dad every morning and fed the calves on their 80-head dairy farm. "I can wean any calf to a bucket," he says proudly.
These days, he's working on his graduate school thesis, working side by side with some of the world's top cancer researchers at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids.
Casey, '09, studies how genes are turned on and off at the DNA level. Certain genes help determine whether a stem cell will divide and become a bone, muscle or fat cell, he explains. Once this differentiation has occurred, the genes aren't needed anymore and turn off. But in the case of cancer, these genes can remain active and cells continue to divide.
It's the kind of high-end research that might one day lead to cures.
Still, Casey leaves his lab coat behind many weekends and returns to his family farm near Mason to help with the maple syrup business.
"My dad didn't make me help out on the farm because he knew it would be good for me," Casey says, taking a break from his work at the Van Andel Institute's high-tech lab. "He just really needed my help."
Casey earned the money for his freshman year at CMU by selling several head of cattle he had purchased through earnings from childhood 4-H projects.
After walking on to the football team his freshman year, with no money to rent an apartment, he camped out in a beat-up $800 RV in a friend's yard so he could afford summer classes.
After red-shirting his freshman year, he made the travel squad, then a starting position, and by senior year he was defensive captain. He completed his science degree on full scholarship.
"Football gave me the mentality to appreciate what you have, to set your goals high, work hard, and the things you accomplish along the way will be worthwhile," Casey says.
"I take what I learned from football into the lab every day. In science, you fail all the time. When experiments fail, it's frustrating and can cost you months of work. Perseverance is the key to success. As long as I learn why it didn't work, I'll be successful the next time."
Why cancer research?
Casey is quiet for a minute, then tells how cancer took the life of his godfather in the blink of an eye.
"Why didn't we have the knowledge to catch it sooner?" he asks. "It made me furious."
"I wanted to be involved in an important problem - something cutting edge, on the front line, that would make a difference to a lot of people."
But he still has the heart of a farm kid.
"After graduate school, I want to reconnect with my roots," Casey says. He plans to apply his scientific knowledge to food production and agricultural practices. He talks passionately about the connection between nutrition and cancer.
"I want to be a scientist who can change things in my corner of the world - to help the people I touch, I know, I see."