All eight Rotary Clubs of the Florida Keys have a focus on propelling local students into higher education and supporting them when they arrive. Last year alone, $100,000 in Rotary Club Scholarship awards were given to students graduating Coral Shores High School and Island Christian School. $45,000 more was awarded to previous recipients who returned needing more assistance.
For former recipients like Hunter Risher, the continued support has made all the difference.
Risher graduated from Coral Shores High School in 2013 with aspirations of studying medicine. After being accepted to Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University, Risher decided to major in cellular biology. Finally graduating in May 2016, Risher has spent two years as a research coordinator with neurologist Dr. Peter A. Calabresi, tracking “changes and atrophy” in the retinas of patients with multiple sclerosis.
A professor of neurology, Calabresi is the director of the school’s Multiple Sclerosis Center. The Yale- and Brown-educated professor studies mechanisms of neurodegeneration and neuroprotection. Retinas could play an important role in those fields, said Risher.
“Because multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system, and the retina is also composed of neural tissue, we believe that it can be used as a helpful bio-marker for tracking how a patient is doing, as well as using it as an outcome to measure the efficacy of clinical approaches to managing the disease,” he said.
Risher specifically is researching a cancer drug called rituximab. He said he wants to see if the drug offers more or less protection to the retina. He’ll find out by measuring the rate of atrophy for the retinas over time with a device that quantifies volume and thickness of a patient’s retinas.
With his research winding down in the spring, his sights are now set on applying to medical school in June. Of the 15 to 25 schools he’s reaching out to, his top choices are the University of Maryland and the University of Miami.
“Oncology is something I’m really interested in right now,” said Risher. “I work for a neurologist in my current role, so I’m interested in that, too.”
Aside from medicine, Risher also has a passion for baking and cooking and said he makes a mean French toast. The most interesting experience he’s had since leaving home, however, is working as a patient advocate during the summer of his undergrad years. His efforts were geared to helping patients from low socio-economic statuses gain access to basic needs. But service to others wasn’t a new concept to him.
“When I was in high school I was part of the Interact club, and I ended up becoming the president. Through that opportunity I was able to do a lot of service projects that I listed on applications applying for schools. It made a difference,” said Risher. “Every year I was in college I received money from the Upper Keys and Key Largo Rotaries, and it made a difference in paying for school. If not for them I would have twice as much student debt to pay off.”
He suggests students try to “diversify” their experience.
“You don’t know who could help you out in the end, or what could end up being an asset in the future,” said Risher.
“The Rotary Club of the Upper Keys awards scholarships to graduating seniors and to continuing undergrads based on three factors: need, academic standing, and accomplishments,” said Upper Keys Rotarian Frank Derfler. “We conduct interviews, ask for transcripts, receive financial records, and evaluate participation in community events. This is a lengthy process involving a large committee of Rotarians who put in 40 hours or more in interviews and evaluations.”
Financial support from Rotary Clubs allows students like Risher to pursue careers that could one day have far-reaching impact. Supporting the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market is a way to give more “Keys kids,” like him, that chance. Founders Park will host the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market on Feb. 24 & 25 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.