ENGAGES Grad on Personal Quest
Natasha Stallings is on a personal quest to cure breast cancer, and it’s taking her from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., where she’ll study at George Washington University beginning this fall. But the former Project ENGAGES student’s journey included an important, recent stopover in Chicago, where she participated in a panel discussion with former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, at the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit.
“What an amazing whirlwind,” said Stallings, trying to wrap her mind around everything that has happened to her the past two years.
Stallings, who graduated in May from KIPP Collegiate High School in Atlanta, spent the past two years in the Project ENGAGES program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, doing breast cancer research in the lab of Krishnendu Roy, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (which is headquarters for Project ENGAGES).
This spring, Stallings got what might be the most important phone call of her life so far. She knew what she wanted to do, but didn’t have the resources to make it happen.
“I’d been stressing about how I was going to pay for school,” she said.
She’d applied for the KPMG Future Leaders Program, which supports growth opportunities for top female high school seniors across the country, through college scholarships and leadership training. But she hadn’t heard anything. Meanwhile, her high school classmates and fellow ENGAGES students at Georgia Tech were getting good news about scholarships and college plans.
“Everybody else was excited, and I wanted to be happy, but I thought I’d be in debt for the rest of my life,” she said. “It was really weighing on me. Then I got the call, and it was like a huge weight had been lifted off of me. I started crying immediately.”
Tears of joy. The KPMG scholarship will pay for GWU and allow Stallings to continue her research in college. That’s important, because Stallings is serious about wanting to change outcomes for women battling breast cancer. She knows the scenario from first-hand experience.
Stallings entered Project ENGAGES the summer of 2016, not long after her mother, Katherine, was diagnosed with stage three triple negative breast cancer. As the youngest of four children, she was the only one still living at home.
“I was there for the whole process, the chemotherapy, the radiation,” she said. “I shaved my mother’s head for her. It’s hard seeing someone you love go through that experience. I was going to stay home that summer and take care of her, but she kept encouraging me to go get a job. Then I remembered seeing this flyer at school for Project ENGAGES the week before. The application was due in three days.”
After interviewing with Manu Platt, co-founder and co-director of Project ENGAGES, and Lakeita Servance, who manages the program, “I felt like it was meant to be.”
She was selected as part of the cohort of students (from six Atlanta area high schools that serve predominantly African-American populations) that began in 2016, and found a perfect lab mentor in Alexandra Atalis, a graduate student and researcher in the Roy lab.
“I still vividly remember Natasha from her interview with me during the ENGAGES mentor selection process,” Atalis recalled. “She spoke with a lot of energy and passion. We shared a very similar story, with both of our mothers having battled cancer. She was inspired to work in the biomedical industry to help cancer patients, which was also my motivation.”
Together, Stallings and Atalis worked on research entitled, “Investigating Inflammatory Markers That Stimulate Breast Cancer Metastasis Into Lymphatics.” Basically, they were identifying immunological signaling molecules that induce or inhibit breast cancer cell migration.
“I couldn’t just leave this research, because this is a passion,” Stallings said. “So I’m taking my research to George Washington University. I’m really excited that it didn’t just end with my Project ENGAGES experience.”
Long range, who knows? But Stallings has given it some thought.
“She is a big dreamer,” said Atalis. “We would talk a lot about her college and career aspirations and she had a lot of great ideas, mostly centered around helping patients. What helps her stand out is her ability to empathize and connect with others. That is what will help her go far.”
Someday, she’d like to start a rehabilitation center for patients undergoing chemotherapy. And though she’s considered working in the biomedical industry, Stallings is thinking now that she’d like to pursue a career in medicine.
“I know that I want to have patient interaction,” said Stallings, who would like to somehow combine her research skills with whatever clinical future may be waiting.
That future, supported by the KPMG scholarship, will continue taking shape at Stanford University (July 15-17), where she’ll meet the 19 other KPMG scholars from across the country at the annual KPMG Future Leaders Retreat. And as the nation was celebrating Independence Day, Stallings was still glowing from her experience the week before, in Chicago, with Condoleezza Rice, KPMG’s ambassador for the leadership program.
Part of the program included the premiere of a video about Stallings, produced by KPMG (and shot in Atlanta), as well as a speech from Rice, and opportunities to meet other KPMG scholars.
“It was incredible,” said Stallings. “The video came together perfectly, Condoleezza Rice’s speech was so empowering and inspirational, and it was really great to see the other girls and learn their stories. My mother loved the whole experience. I mean, to get off the plane and have a car waiting for you? We felt like royalty.”