Two community organizations, Advocates for Community Wellness and Equal Hope, and two University of Illinois Cancer Center members in the Cancer Biology research program, Ankur Saxena, PhD, and Ekrem Emrah Er, PhD, are the inaugural recipients of the Cancer Center’s Hope Leaders Fellowships, a program dedicated to building bidirectional relationships between scientists and community organizations.

The fellowships, awarded through a competitive process, actualize the Cancer Center’s commitment to community partners and scientists by providing resources through its Office of Community Engagement and Health Equity (CEHE).

Community partners are awarded $20,000 each across two years and scientists are awarded $30,000 over two years.

About Hope Leaders Fellowships

The program will empower community organization leaders to communicate the health needs of the communities they represent directly to Cancer Center researchers; return to their communities and disseminate information about cancer research discoveries and health resources available at UI Health; and build trust for the cancer research infrastructure in traditionally underserved communities.

The program aims to enrich basic research training by teaching trainees in the scientists’ labs how to develop research projects that are relevant to the community; adjust research activities to reflect changing needs; and share relevant research data with the people who are most impacted.

The “hope’ is that the program will begin to address structural realities behind disparities in cancer outcomes that exist today by building a long-term, sustainable community-research partnership.

The Hope Leaders Fellowships awardees recently got to know each other during a meet-and-greet orientation at the Cancer Center as they prepare to work together over the next two years.


Here is more about the community organizations and scientists:

  • For 20 years, Advocates for Community Wellness (A4CW) on Chicago’s South Side has helped to reduce barriers to health, decrease health disparities and increase health literacy in medically underserved communities through community engagement and by providing outreach education and resources for supportive services to families in need.
  • Equal Hope (EH) reaches over 500,000 Chicagoans annually and educates over 60,000 on issues of health, health inequities, how to improve one’s health, how to access high quality healthcare and the benefits of clinical trial participation for people of color. EH serves Chicagoans in underserved areas where health inequities are highest and where more Chicagoans are disconnected from high quality healthcare. EH’s clients are 51% African American and 34% Hispanic.
  • Er received his PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology from Harvard University and, after postdoctoral training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, started his own research laboratory at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) in 2019. The Er lab works to answer a central question in cancer biology: How do disseminated cancer cells grow into metastases in vital secondary organs? Their focus is on biophysical characteristics of the tumor microenvironment, which impacts the interactions between cancer cells, vascular stromal cells and immunity during the outgrowth of lethal metastases. Their work has identified a novel biophysical form of immune surveillance that they termed mechanosurveillance and are working on identifying new modes of therapeutic intervention.
  • Saxena received his PhD in Genetics and Development at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and did postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Since 2015, the Saxena Lab at UIC has worked to reveal new details of how stem cells and cancer cells behave in their natural environments. The goal is to better understand causes of birth defects, neuronal loss, and pediatric cancer progression, with a focus on revealing connections between these seemingly disparate topics that, in fact, have a surprising amount in common. Watch a video about this work.
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