Volunteer Spotlight: Connor Sweetnam Captures Valuable Treatment Insights from ASK Cancer Commons


Volunteers are essential members of the Cancer Commons community. We are deeply grateful to those who have generously donated their time to helping us change the way the world treats cancer.

This month, we celebrate the contributions of Cancer Commons volunteer Connor Sweetnam, who uses his engineering background to extract insights from our interactions with patients so they can be leveraged to help other patients. To learn more about his work, I interviewed Connor via email.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I am the oldest of three boys and have come to call the Bay Area home. I graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Southern California in May 2016 and now work as the Facilities Assistant for a cancer immunotherapy start-up named Alexo Therapeutics. I thoroughly enjoy reading, building things, watching college football, sports, snowboarding, backpacking, scuba diving, and traveling. As a next step, I’m thinking of going to graduate school in a field related to biotechnology or engineering.

How did you find out about Cancer Commons, and what made you want to volunteer?

I was at a backyard BBQ for a group of my good friends and was talking with a friend’s dad about my interests in cancer, genomics, and precision medicine. He mentioned a friend of his named Marty Tenenbaum, the founder of Cancer Commons, and suggested I might like to talk to him. After my friend’s dad put us in contact, I met with Marty one afternoon to discuss my interests in the future of cancer treatment and Cancer Commons. Marty’s idea that cancer is an information problem and that a platform could be built to enable patients to find effective treatments tailored to them radically changed my view on the future of cancer treatment. By the end of that conversation, I was so excited by the work going on at Cancer Commons that I decided to volunteer.

You work on capturing insights from our interactions with patients via the ASK Cancer Commons service. How did you decide that this was the best way for you to contribute?

I come from an engineering background so I was interested in working on the patient platform and treatment insight capture process. My prior experience reading scientific and medical literature from school also heightened my interest in this area. This combination poised me to work at the interface of the insight capture process and the building of the patient platform. I first got started working with another volunteer in order to tag possible insights from the emails traded between patients and our in-house specialist and chief scientist Emma Shtivelman in ASK cases. This gave me a familiarity with the process we are trying to automate and the types of insights we are looking for.

How has your volunteer work evolved since then?

In addition to identifying insights form the ASK interactions, I also extract them from miscellaneous case reports received from doctors, and am now focused primarily on scientific review articles. While each of the sources obviously isn’t the exact same, they each basically consist of one or a few insights interspersed within a mass of supporting information, especially in the case of the scientific literature. I comb through these sources to find insight relevant to cancer patients (hopefully of the form: “Because of X, do Y”), copy the text, translate it into a more easily communicable form, and enter it into our platform.

How will these insights be used to help other patients?

The goal is to construct an easily searchable database of these insights for a patient to use similar to an internet search engine. The patient can open up the platform and enter in his or her relevant information, such as cancer diagnosis, genetic mutations, and/or molecular test results. The platform would then display a list of treatments that are either indicated for or against that patient based on the insights we have captured and their specific test results. The patient could then select a treatment and receive additional information as to why that treatment is indicated for or against and, when available, we could provide links to the source material.

What do you hope the impact of your volunteer work will be?

I would love to see the patient platform running with some of the insights I’ve collected inside of it. If even one patient could find a treatment that worked for them from one of the insights, it would be immensely rewarding. I am gratified though by simply helping to develop the platform and establish the insight extraction process which helps lay the groundwork for the future. I hope to continue in these areas as the project advances further.

Have you enjoyed volunteering so far?

I have enjoyed volunteering a Cancer Commons; it is one of the highlights of my week. Perhaps my biggest challenge is that I’m not in the office as often as I’d like to be.

Has your volunteer work at Cancer Commons impacted your own life?

I learn something new every time I’m in the office. The experience has broadened my perspective on cancer treatment and research. I now think of cancer treatment as an information problem in addition to the more classical views. There is so much information out there related to the complexities of cancer research, diagnoses, and treatment and more generated every single day, so figuring out how to capture it and present it clearly would be a huge benefit to society. Volunteering here has also led me to consider going to graduate school in fields related to the work I do currently and embarking on a career in it.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about volunteering at Cancer Commons?

I would definitely say, “Do it.” You get to work on a project that will improve many cancer patients’ lives and redefine the way we look at cancer going forward. In addition, you’ll be exposed to some fantastic people and a whole range of new perspectives on cancer treatment. It’s a tremendous learning opportunity.

We are always seeking new volunteers with a wide variety of skills. If you are interested in becoming a Cancer Commons volunteer, please reach out at volunteer@cancercommons.org.