At age three, Kyle Rattray was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidney that until the advent of chemotherapy in 1950 delivered a universal death sentence. Rattray underwent two years of treatment, periodically leaving his migrant farming community of Sunnyside, Washington for treatment in Seattle. The experience, which cured him, thrust his family into unfamiliar emotional terrain, which ultimately shaped his approach to life.
Both his mother and his father — neither of whom has attended college — are farmers who grew up within 20 miles of their birthplace. He and his older sister, he says, “were very much in line to become the farm hicks of my generation. It sounds primitive, but for my parents, dealing with cancer was like going to a foreign country. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming.”
In the years to come, Kyle ‘s parents took that fear and reached out to help other families traumatized by cancer. Their empathy “affected me in a profound way,” says Kyle, adding that his early experience with doctors was equally influential. “Whenever I went to see the guys in the white coats, I got better. They were almost God-like. Ever since then, medicine is the only thing I’ve thought about.”
Rattray’s drive to cure others of the disease he once had has been paramount ever since.
He chose his major at MIT — brain and cognitive sciences — as a steppingstone to reaching the goal, and he made his way to a cancer research lab for the same reason. As a freshman, Rattray contacted Biology Prof. David Housman, who conducts research on human genetics and a variety of cancers, including Wilms’ tumor. “I usually don ‘t take students until after their freshman year, but Kyle struck me as a very bright and determined kid who would do well in the lab,” says Housman. Rattray jumped at the chance to research Wilms’ tumor, which he has been doing for the past year and a half on a volunteer basis. Rattray, Housman adds, reminds him of a former postgraduate student from the mid-1980s, who has since played a pivotal role in developing Gleevec, a treatment for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor, which was fatal prior to Gleevec’s discovery. “Kyle will do that, or something like it, in 15 years. He has the same drive and intuition, and they ‘re key to doing this work well.”
In the 14 years since he was cured, Rattray has devoted his energies to an array of cancer-related causes. Every year since he was six, he has participated, often as a speaker, in numerous American Cancer Society (ACS) Relays for Life, charity events in which teams of people take turns doing laps around local parks and fairgrounds. Among the most successful fundraising efforts in the country — “they’re fun, 24-hour parties,” says Rattray, currently a Cambridge Relay for Life co-chair — the event raised $241 million nationally in 2001.
Rattray’s dedication to battling cancer was alive and well in high school, as well. He established a computer repair company, the proceeds of which he donated to the ACS; in his senior year alone he raised $5, 000 for the cause. At age 16, he parlayed his anti-cancer commitment into a summer internship with the National Cancer Institute (NCI)in Washington, D. C. The internship is tailored to college undergraduates, but Rattray, “through general persuasion,” he says, made a case and was accepted.
His youth and his story generated buzz around the Institute, and he landed a half-hour interview with then-NCI director, Richard Klausner, MD. “Meeting him gave me a lot of confidence,” recalls Rattray. “He said you don’t have to be brilliant, you just have to be good, to make a difference in oncology, and that if you really want something, you can achieve it. It sounds cliched, but coming from him, it really stuck with me.”
INSPIRED TO STUDY
Rattray’s journey to MIT was a result of similar focus and direction. Coming from a high school where only 10 percent of the student body attends college, Rattray became inspired to study at MIT in eighth grade, when his friend’s sister was accepted.
Since arriving at MIT, his time has been highly focused on cancer matters. He chose his major, in part, because “it gives me time to do all the extracurricular cancer-related stuff I think is really important.” To wit: he established the MIT Cancer Society as a resource for students and families. He and an MIT friend — Greg Mahowald — are planning a cross-country bicycle ride this summer to raise awareness and funds for cancer research; seeking sponsors, Rattray’s personal fundraising goal is $10,000. He also volunteers his time at the Cam Neely House, a Boston home offering shelter and support to cancer patients and their families during treatment; the experience, he says, “reinforced my belief I’d be good at comforting people with cancer.”
Whether to offer comfort by being an oncology physician or researcher is an open question for Rattray. “Many people go in (for cancer treatment) and don’t come out. It’s hard to describe how much that hurts,” he says. “Doing anything I can to make their time better or improve them medically is the only way I can succeed in life.”