A parent's worst nightmare became a painful reality for Bernard and Ethel Garil, not once but twice: Their daughter, Stacey, died of breast cancer in 1999 at age 28. Their son, Michael, after battling cancer and multiple ailments for two decades, died at age 39.
The Garils could have been bitter and angry. But instead of focusing on the anguish of losing both their children, they dedicated their lives to helping others with cancer.
"We decided that rather than sit and mourn, we were going to do something positive," says Bernard Garil '62. And there was no better place to do it than his alma mater.
Brooklyn College was the starting point for Garil's career in finance. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting, he paved a path of success, working as a broker-dealer and mutual fund executive.
Five years ago, following the death of their children, the couple partnered with Brooklyn College to offer the Stacey Garil Womack Memorial Fund at Johns Hopkins' Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore. This summer internship program awards two outstanding students the chance of a lifetime — to work with some of the best oncology doctors in the country.
"I always had an interest in oncology, but I'd never had the experience," says Joseph Gotesman '13, who majored in both chemistry and philosophy. "I'd never been in an environment where I could do cancer research and be involved in oncology and clinical studies." But thanks to the internship, he had the opportunity to perform actual scientific experiments.
Gotesman, who began attending Albert Einstein College of Medicine this fall, describes his summer at Johns Hopkins in 2012 as "amazing" and "invaluable."
"The internship allowed me to experience firsthand bench research in pediatric oncology," says Sun Mei Liu '12, who is attending medical school at SUNY Downstate. "I learned a plethora of cutting-edge techniques in molecular biology that I would not have had the opportunity to learn elsewhere."
The interns — majors in biology or a similar field with an interest in cancer research — receive a $5,000 stipend for the summer. They also receive up to $2,500 to cover their food and housing costs while at Johns Hopkins.
Matthew Lee '13 says the program was extremely well organized and could not have gone more smoothly. "You just sign the papers and get on a bus. They set up everything," explains Lee, who majored in both chemistry and biology. He is also attending SUNY Downstate medical school.
During his time at Johns Hopkins, Lee's work focused on "trying to pinpoint certain genes that were more vulnerable to chemotherapy and tailor a more personalized medicine," he states.
Koby Herman '13 was at Johns Hopkins in 2011 and conducted research specific to leukemia. "I had the privilege of working on an exciting project," says Herman, "that aimed to create a system by which the role of a protein shown to be associated with leukemia could be studied."
During the internship, he shadowed Dr. Robert Arceci, a renowned pediatric oncologist, as well as other doctors. "I was inspired by our conversations with young patients and their families," says Herman, who is interested in surgical oncology.
"The internship experience is key," says Arceci, formerly the chief professor of pediatric oncology at Johns Hopkins and now the division chief of hematology/oncology at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders of Phoenix Children's Hospital. "Many people decide they want to go into medicine, but they've never really seen what being a doctor is. It involves taking care of people who are really sick, especially in oncology. These students have seen consults with complicated patients. They've seen me talk, and other doctors talk, to parents when the patient is newly diagnosed."
He adds that it is the same with being a scientist and doing research. "It's one thing to say you want to be a scientist, but it's another thing to experience what it takes to pipette the same amount of liquid into wells a thousand times in a row. That may be one of the reasons this program has been as successful as it has been: it's real-life experience."
This past summer, the internship program expanded in Michael's name to include the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where chemistry major Akreeti Maskey '14 delved into research she'd never imagined being able to do as a student. "Most of my time was spent in research labs," she says. The doctors "set it up so that I was in three different labs. I learned to do tissue culture, tissue sectioning, and slide staining for frozen and paraffin sections."
Biology major Mustafa Ghanem '12 was amazed by the overall experience. "My job was to determine the effects a proposed chemotherapeutic regimen would have on the proliferation of tumor cells," he says. "My experiments focused on a pancreatic cancer model, a particularly deadly form of cancer." He adds proudly, "My work at Hopkins is already being incorporated into an imminent clinical trial."
All of the students are aware that this unique opportunity was available to them because they were eligible recipients of the Garils' generosity.
After meeting the couple, Gotesman was even more impressed with their kindness. "They are amazing people," he says. "They’re super nice and they have really good hearts. It's clear they really care for others."
Lee adds that "they’re truly inspiring. It's enlightening to see that they have so much passion and drive."
"I don't think any of this would have happened without the Garils," says Arceci. "Bernie and Ethel have had major traumas in life. They did something spectacular by launching this program."
For Bernard Garil, it all comes back to Brooklyn College. He credits his great experience at the school with making him want to give back to the college community. He has been on the board of the Brooklyn College Foundation since 1997, and in 2011 President Karen L. Gould honored him with the college's Presidential Medal for "his long record of charitable service."
The couple has donated millions of dollars to cancer research, but it is the internship program that moves them because they can see exactly what their money is doing.
"There is a face behind every one of these checks," Garil says. "They'll be the researchers of tomorrow leading the fight against cancer."
There is another bonus to their philanthropy. The Garils are very proud of the young people they're helping to become doctors. The two speak glowingly of the interns who have gone on to study medicine at Harvard, New York University, Mt. Sinai, SUNY Downstate and other universities. "We keep up with them," says Garil. “They e-mail us about what they're doing."
For the couple who lost both their children to cancer, these future doctors are a meaningful part of their lives. They have, Garil says, "become an extended family."