Student raises awareness for ALS

Story by Tom Scearce

“Extreme pain” was what first-year neuroscience and biochemistry, cell and molecular biology major Sarah Martin felt as she tied her running shoes to run the Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in August of 2011.

She trained throughout the summer, only to twist her foot during her last run two days before the big race.

However, she knew she had to run. She was running to honor her principal and “very close friend” Eric McLaren who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects the motor neurons in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, just a year earlier.

“That morning I decided that if Dr. McLaren can fight ALS every day with such courage, then I can run these 13.1 miles for him,” Martin said.

Around the seven-mile mark, the pain became unbearable. As soon as she thought about quitting, she heard someone scream her name from behind. To her surprise, she found McLaren running behind her.

“It really empowered me to finish the race. And I did,” Martin said.

Hailing from Alsip, Ill., Martin attended the Illinois Math and Science Academy, an elite public high school where students  undergo a thorough admission process to be accepted. It was there that she met McLaren.

“After watching him battle the first symptoms of the disease, I became passionate about defeating ALS,” Martin said.

Since she was 14 years old, Martin has worked closely with the ALS Association of Greater Chicago by volunteering, raising awareness and raising money for research.

“It’s great because I’m able to meet people from all over Illinois, and they’re people I would never get the opportunity to meet normally,” Martin said.

Her passion doesn’t end there. Martin also performs ALS research. During her senior year, she started a new project at the University of Chicago that focused on understanding the role of mutant SOD1 molecules in ALS pathology.

“I love it because I get to work alongside some great researchers and learn so much,” Martin said. “It’s great to know my work is making, or will make, a difference.”

Her devotion to ALS even played a role in deciding what college to attend. She wanted a smaller school that was outside Illinois, but still close enough where she could continue her work and stay close to McLaren.

“Drake just seemed to be the perfect fit,” Martin said.

Martin said that not only is the school great academically, but she believes that the people at Drake are supportive of her cause.

“It’s good to know I go to a school where people care,” Martin said.

Martin also speaks to classes here at Drake about the disease and plans to head out to speak at other schools. Martin credits a lot of her success here at Drake to President David Maxwell.

Martin introduced herself to Maxwell at the Francis Marion Drake Society Dinner last October. They began discussing her majors and that led to her commitment to ALS. The topic caught Maxwell’s eye because he had a close friend pass away from ALS about a decade ago and it’s “a very personal issue” for him.

Maxwell introduced Martin to Dr. Richard Deming, who is head of the Cancer Center at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. Deming gave Martin his card and told her to call him so he could connect her with the neurology folks at Mercy Hospital, which he has.

Maxwell is confident Martin will succeed in her work.

“She’s obviously blazingly smart, and I’m very impressed by her passion and drive to find a cure for this terrible illness. I fully expect great things of her,” Maxwell said.

Martin has started a blog entitled “Sarah’s ALS Journey” to document her work and spread awareness.

“It’s great to get the word out there, and it’s probably the best thing students can do,” Martin said.

She doesn’t know what the future will bring, but she knows that what she is doing know matters.

“ALS is my life. I don’t want to do anything else, and that’s OK. My work is very important to me, and I just want to honor my principal and show him that he left a legacy,” Martin said. “Even though there isn’t a cure, there’s always hope.”

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