Student taking a stand to fight cancer as THON overall chair

When Elaine Tanella attended her first Penn State dance marathon during her freshman year, she went to the Bryce Jordan Center to cheer on the hundreds of students who would be on their feet for 46 hours for a good cause. Thirty hours later, she was still there and still standing.

“I almost got addicted to being there and giving everyone support,” Tanella said, confessing that she did leave once to take an online quiz and sleep before returning for the duration of the dance marathon known as THON. Formally the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, THON partners with The Four Diamonds Fund and the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer. Since 1977, Penn State students have raised more than $78 million for the cause.

For Tanella, those 30 hours were just the beginning. That weekend inspired the Schreyer Scholar to be more involved the next year. Her enthusiasm and determination paid off: As a sophomore, she was selected to be on THON’s communications committee and chosen as one of the dancers representing Atlas, an independent fundraising organization started by students in the Schreyer Honors College. Now, she is the public face of THON 2012. This year, Tanella was selected to be the overall chair, a role that includes outlining ideas and goals for this year’s dance marathon and helping some 15,000 volunteers to implement them.

“I really wanted to give more of myself to this cause and to the families that have given me so much,” she said of her decision to apply for the 2012 overall chair. “Everyone is affected by cancer, in some way, shape or form, and the chance to help change that -- so that some day in the future the disease will be cured -- is invaluable.”

By “giving more,” Tanella means postponing graduation for a year in order to hold this position. In between the additional coursework she is taking, Tanella devotes 40 to 60 hours every week to the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. The millions of dollars raised by Penn State students throughout the year fund research and provide financial support to the families of children with cancer. In addition, student organizations are paired with individual families to offer encouragement and emotional support.

“I like to think of it as building relationships with people,” Tanella said. “Looking at other charities, not everyone has the fortune of meeting the people that are being helped. That direct family link reeled me in. You can’t describe in words how valuable your families are and how much they mean to you.”

THON’s financial and emotional support of the families is well-known, and so Tanella said one of her goals for this year is to highlight the organization’s role in funding research.

“Many people don’t look at THON as the cure-finding organization that it is. It’s an amazing support for families today, but we’re also helping families of the future, so they don’t have to battle this disease,” Tanella said.

The fifth-year senior bioengineering major has a personal connection with this research: Her honors thesis focuses on a new encapsulation material for cancer drugs. Tanella has been working on a collaborative research project among several universities studying these casings made of lipids, which are biocompatible and don’t harm the body the way synthetic material does.

“The whole idea behind it is that if they are successful and can carry the drug, you can target them to cancer cells and won’t get the toxic side effects of chemotherapy, because chemo literally kills all the good cells and the bad cells,” Tanella said.

Tanella has always been interested in the biology of cancer, and THON adviser Barry Bram says this is something that sets her apart from past chairs.

“She actually understands all the science, so when we’re at the Four Diamonds Fund, talking to a researcher, or when we’re hearing about breakthroughs in cancer research, she can explain that in a way that makes sense to us,” he said. “Out of all the overall chairs that I’ve worked with, she’s going to be the one to cure cancer if anyone’s going to do it because she’s a scientist and a researcher.”

While medical school may be in her future, Tanella is considering entering consulting after graduation for the opportunity it would give her to work with others on projects across different industries.

She finds that THON has prepared her well for such a people-oriented career. “One of the benefits you get inadvertently is learning how to lead a group of people, how to motivate them and share your passion,” she said. “THON taught me that you have to be adaptable to those you’re leading -- everyone has a different learning style, and everyone is motivated in different ways.”

Working with people and learning from them is what matters most to Tanella, and she’s found that personal connection in school with the students and staff of the Honors College.

“You meet some amazing, talented individuals who are so driven, in a very positive way, and they take you with them. You challenge yourself in new ways and grow as a person,” she said. “The staff is so student-focused and very interested in seeing students succeed and grow -- I think that’s what helped me get to where I am today.”

For Tanella, today is for THON. The future can wait just a little longer.

Last Updated January 10, 2014