Timmy Samec has researched new ways of treating cancer, but when he started his Ph.D. program at Clemson University, he never thought he would be the one needing treatment.
Samec’s testicular cancer diagnosis in February 2020 was ill-timed in more ways than one. He was 26 years old, an accomplished triathlete and a busy doctoral student.
But there it was– the awful reality– and there was nothing he could do but deal with it. Samec did, and seeing things from a patient’s perspective brought new meaning to his work.
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” Samec said. “That was my a-ha moment. It was like, this is where I belong.”
Samec is now cancer-free and will graduate this month with his Ph.D. in bioengineering. To those who know him, Samec’s graduation is not a surprise but a testament to his resilience and ability to adapt to whatever life throws at him.
“It was a tough spot, but he handled it with such grace and strength,” said his Ph.D. advisor, Angela Alexander-Bryant, an assistant professor of bioengineering. “He’s certainly a very tough guy.”
The oldest of four siblings, Samec is the son of Tim and stepmother Nicole. He is now headed to Tampa, where he will join his fiancee, Shaina Grego, a physician’s assistant. Samec recently began his career as an associate scientist at Iovance Biotherapeutics.
It’s been a rough road at times, but Samec had practice in successfully plowing through setbacks even before pursuing a doctoral degree.
He wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy after graduating in 2011 from Pennsylvania’s Hazleton Area High School. Samec said that while he was born with a small hole in his heart, he had his medical clearance, congressional nomination letter and acceptance letter.
“On induction day in Annapolis, I got a medical DQ,” he said, using the shorthand for disqualification. “One of the hardest moments of my life was hearing those two F-18s fly overhead after the plebes took the oath. My family and I were walking away. That was rough.”
Still, Samec found a way to push forward. He enrolled at Slippery Rock University, where he majored in physics with a concentration in computational biophysics. He later started travelling about 45 minutes to the University of Pittsburgh to conduct research in its labs.
Athula Herat, the chair and an associate professor of physics at Slippery Rock University, said that Samec is among the top five students he has ever taught.
“He is the total package,” Herat said. “He is a very charming person, he has a brilliant mind, and I’ve never seen anyone work harder than him. His time management and work ethic are unbelievable. He’s a machine.”
Those constantly turning gears have helped Samec become an accomplished triathlete.
He has completed a full-length triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run), and he competed in the International Triathlon Union world championships in 2015 and 2016 as a member of Team USA.
The sport also brought him to Clemson for the first time when he visited in 2014 and 2015 for the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships.
During that second visit, Samec was starting to explore where he wanted to go to graduate school. He talked with several members of the Clemson bioengineering department, including faculty members, a graduate student services coordinator and the chair, Martine LaBerge.
“Clemson was my No. 1 choice from the get-go,” Samec said. “I applied to many other graduate programs, but I heard from Clemson very quickly.”
Alexander-Bryant, or “Dr. AB,” was still a postdoctoral researcher and just starting to build her team when she first learned about Samec.
“His personal statement struck me and let me know that this guy is not only very smart and successful, but he has overcome adversity to get to where he is,” she recalled. “He’s going to stick it out, and he’s going to be successful.”
The two clicked, and Samec became Alexander-Bryant’s first Ph.D. student. When they started, they had a lab but not a single piece of equipment in it.
Quite a bit has changed in five years. The lab is now fully stocked, and Alexander-Bryant recently received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.
The team researches how to increase gene therapeutic delivery to ovarian and brain cancers, and Samec has been along for the whole ride.
“It’s just incredible that we went from sitting in an office thinking about what amino acids we can put together,” he said. “Using all of the different tools we have in here, we’ve been able to develop what we thought of and see it work in cancer. It’s incredible to me.”
The cancer diagnosis may have temporarily slowed Samec down but didn’t stop him. He said that when he first learned of it, he wondered what so many other patients do: Why me?
“That was the hardest stage, working through the why barrier and realizing that the why doesn’t matter because it is what it is,” Samec said. “There was nothing to do but move forward with what it was I had to do.”
He said it was also hard at times to know as much as he does about cancer. Samec remembered poring through the research on his condition, and some of the case studies were not favorable to his outlook.
It wasn’t until he learned that his cancer was still in its first stage that he was able to ease his mind.
Samec underwent surgery in the last week of February 2020 to remove the cancer, a procedure that required an incision at the base of his abdomen. The recovery was tough at first, and Alexander-Bryant told him to take the time he needed to get well.
But Samec was eager to get moving again, both in his Ph.D. studies and in athletics.
“Of course, I was pushing to get back on the bike and start running,” Samec said. “The doctor said, ‘Let’s give it three weeks and see.’ I hit the three weeks, and I was on the bike. I did a half hour, nice and easy. That helped.”
The original treatment plan called for Samec to undergo chemotherapy a few weeks after surgery, but two oncologists recommended against it. The idea was that the risk from COVID-19 with a compromised immune system could have been greater than the chances the cancer would return.
Instead, Samec has been undergoing regular CT scans and blood tests. He knows that everytime he goes for a test his whole life could change in an instant.
“It’s constant prayer every time,” Samec said. “I’m thankful for what I have and what I’ve been able to do, and I hope for the best because it’s out of my control. I credit and thank Dr. AB for helping me to realize that and renew my faith. It’s absolutely huge. It’s been incredibly rewarding and what I needed.”
If anyone has questions about how thoroughly Samec has recovered, consider this: He rode his bike 22 miles in just under 57 minutes on Nov. 6 at the 2021 edition of LOWVELO, a course that was shortened due to inclement weather. The Charleston event raises money for cancer research at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center.
He’s very familiar with the cause. As a student, Samec was the first-ever LOWVELO graduate fellow, a distinction that helped pay for his graduate education while encouraging collaboration between Clemson and MUSC.
“Having a fellowship from LOWVELO and the Hollings Cancer Center makes it especially meaningful,” Samec said. “I like that it’s for cancer research in the state of South Carolina. It keeps local interest at heart.”
LaBerge said that while Samec will be missed when he leaves Clemson, he will be well positioned to succeed in his next endeavor.
“Timmy’s continuous push to overcome the hurdles in his path serves as an inspiration to us all,” she said. “His degree is well deserved. I offer him, and all of our graduates, my deepest congratulations.”
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