At age 12, Elana was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. Four years later, as a high school sophomore, she re-confronted her disease — as a medical researcher.
“This cancer had almost taken my life. Even though little research [on liver cancer] had been done, that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible,” said Simon, who grew up on the Upper East Side.
Her father, Sandy, a biophysicist, made space in his lab at Rockefeller University, and Simon set about collecting tumor samples from patients and survivors. Through genome sequencing, she found that all the samples shared the same genetic mutation.
“It was weird, but it was awesome to see all the pieces come together,” she said.
In February 2014, Simon co-authored a study, published in Science magazine, about the mutation. The next month, she personally presented her work to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair.
“It was definitely a proud moment,” she said.
Today, a freshman at Harvard University studying computer science and dramatic arts, Simon hopes to pursue a future in high-tech medical research. This summer, as an intern at Facebook Inc., she hopes to learn more about trends in computer technology.
Simon’s Jewish identity has remained a source of pride and strength throughout her journey. One of her fondest Jewish memories was attending Camp Simcha, the Jewish camp for young cancer survivors and patients.
“It was one of the most uplifting places I’ve ever been,” she said.
She also grew up attending synagogue, and her family remains active members of Temple Shaaray Tefila.
Most important, however, is the value placed on family.
“My parents raised me to believe in the importance of family — it’s engrained in my Jewish identity,” she said.
To this day, her two heroes remain her father and the surgeon who removed her tumor.
“Both of them taught me how to give selflessly,” she said. “I hope, in my lifetime, I can learn to do the same.”
Trapeze artist: Simon’s favorite pastime is as lofty as her career aspirations. Since she was child, she has attended performing arts camp. Today, she is an experienced trapeze artist, taking classes in Midtown whenever she’s back in NYC.