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Breaking Ground in the Fight Against Cancer

The Mentorship Advantage

By Jeffrey Overstreet ( | Photo by Paul Hakimata / Despositphotos

Prostate cancer cells
Prostate cancer cells, as seen through a microscope, were the object of study for Sarah Konopasky '12 in her mentorship.

Sarah Konopasky '12 believes that cancer will be cured someday. And she's not just being optimistic.

Konopasky has worked on the front lines of the battle against cancer. As a student at Seattle Pacific University, she did more than attend class. Through SPU's Mentor Program, she served in the research lab of Dr. Peter Grimm, one of the world's foremost experts on prostate cancer.

The executive director of Seattle's Prostate Cancer Treatment Center, Grimm has helped pioneer today's method of prostate seed implantation, serves on many prominent medical boards, and has treated more than 3,500 patients and trained more than 6,000 physicians, nurses, and physicists. He also has patents on needle design, diagnostic tools, and seed technology.

He might seem unreachable to a college student. But when Grimm heard about Konopasky's interest in learning from him, he surprised Mark Oppenlander, director of SPU's Center for Applied Learning, with an immediate “yes.”

“Mentorships work when both parties contribute,” says Oppenlander. “The student has to take a leadership role in saying, ‘This is what I want to do.' The mentor has to provide the opportunity, and Grimm did. Not only did the two hit it off, but he opened up his lab and his practice to her, and the next thing you know, she was working on research with him.”

In fact, Konopasky helped Grimm accomplish “an enormous task” — reviewing all of the literature about prostate cancerpublished around the world in the last decade.

“Sarah helped us by organizing this information in a form that makes it understandable for patients,” says Grimm. “She worked every day with an enthusiasm that I thought was spectacular.”

The experience persuaded Grimm that SPU's Mentor Program should be a model for other institutions. “It gives students a sense of what actually is out there, instead of the image presented by television,” he says. “They can sort out early what they want to do, or maybe more importantly, what they don't want to do.”

Konopasky strongly encourages premed students to find a good mentor, especially since the health care field is constantly changing. “You've got to set yourself up to do something that you enjoy.”

Bringing Advanced Placement credits with her from high school in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, Konopasky fast-tracked her education with summer courses, graduating after three years of study with the advantage of on-the-job experience.

“Just attending classes is not going to give you the same experience as someone who has seen what doctors do firsthand,” she says.

For Konopasky, cancer research is more than a job. Close friends have cancer. “This subject has always been close to home,” she says. “But we're progressing. We can already pick up on who's going to be predisposed to possibly having cancer. We're making such advances every day.”