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A whirlwind takes on cancer

April 18, 2012


Zach Morris.

Zach Morris thrives on helping people, especially in the fight against cancer.

Photo: David Mendolia

Student Zach Morris lives to help those who face cancer

By Deane Morrison

Getting somebody like Zach Morris to pose for a picture seems like a coup.

The University of Minnesota junior is rarely at rest, so focused is he on never missing a chance to help others, especially those affected by cancer.

"My whole life I've been doing things to help people, but when I came to college, I put the pedal to the metal when I saw all the organizations and could push myself to help people as much as I could," says Morris, a biology and physiology major.

Take, for example, his work in bringing Camp Kesem to Minnesota. Camp Kesem, founded in 2000, is a weeklong residential camp run by college students for children whose parents have or have had cancer. It helps the young campers bond with others in the same situation over traditional camp activities like sports and arts and crafts.

Last year Camp Kesem teamed up with cyclist Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG organization to open 12 new chapters. To get one for the U, Morris submitted a lengthy application; eventually, the U landed in an election on the LIVESTRONG website.

"We launched a campaign via Facebook and on campus to get votes," says Morris. "Many schools were in the running." The U won a chapter, and its first season begins this summer at Camp Koronis in Paynesville, Minnesota.

"We want 40 campers, and space is available," says Morris. "It's for kids ages 6 to 13, but in 2013 it will expand to include teenagers." Morris will be part of the camp's administrative staff, with the title of co-chair.

Putting cancer on the run

This year Morris helped organize the ninth annual Relay For Life, which last year raised more than $220,000 for the American Cancer Society and is set to reach a cumulative mark of $1.3 million this year.

"The money we raise comes back to the University," Morris explains. "The American Cancer Society distributes the funds to the U of M. We have 12 ACS-funded researchers on campus. And we also have Hope Lodge. I work there—it's a place for cancer patients 18 or older to stay for free while being treated."

Last year Morris, as director of corporate relations for the relay, helped secure sponsorships worth more than $18,000. This year, as director of survivorship, he's recruited cancer survivors, some of whom will speak at the event.

"The passion behind what I do in the fight against cancer is for [my grandmother]," says Morris. "She's suffered the effects of cancer on the opposite spectrum as most people—having those close to her lose the battle as opposed to losing it herself. Cancer causes people's lives to come crashing down, whether they are diagnosed themselves or not. She's truly the strongest person I know."

In addition to Colleges Against Cancer, which puts on the relay, Morris is in Big Brothers Big Sisters, and last spring he took part in the Pay It Forward tour, which sends busloads of students on social service missions to cities over spring break. And there's lots more.

"I've supervised Zach on and off for the past two years in [the office of] Housing and Residential Life at Comstock Hall," says Heather Jerabek, a housing specialist. "Zach is a joy to supervise. He is a team player and a wonderful role model for his co-workers and peers. His dedication to the fight against cancer is a real inspiration."

Whirlwind out of Iowa

Besides being active in about a dozen organizations, Morris maintains a 3.7 GPA. A native of Fairfield, Iowa, he was drawn to science early, thanks to high school teachers who passed along their fascination with the field. And what could be more fascinating than life itself?

"It's intriguing to me, the millions of things going on in your body," he muses.

"I want to go to graduate school, but take some time off first. I think I'm better at working with people—for example, through Camp Kesem or the relay—than, say, in an operating room."

Maybe he's right. But it's hard to think that somebody like Morris wouldn't succeed at anything he tried.

Tags: College of Biological Sciences, Academic Health Center

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Integrative biology and physiology department

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