Megan SturdyHikers and climbers scour the summits for an algae that may help cure cancer.

Attention hikers and climbers: on your next trip to the local crag, you might have a hand in curing cancer. Sound ridiculous? Megan Sturdy, a medical chemist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an avid climber, is calling on anyone who frequently explores the outdoors to help with her ongoing cancer treatment research. Sturdy is testing different strains of naturally occurring blue-green algae to see how it affects a certain cancer enzyme. As part of Climbing for Cancer Research, Sturdy will send anyone willing to help a simple algae collection kit for free. She’s hosting a climbing benefit for the cause at the Muir Valley area of the Red River Gorge in Kentucky on June 6.

How did you figure out how to fit climbing into your cancer research?
I’ve been climbing for about five years. I learned quickly that climbers and hikers travel to remote natural areas. If I could encourage some of them to collect samples from different habitats, I realized that we’d have a better chance to find an effective strain. Blue-green algae growing in different habitats allow for different chemical diversities to develop.

Is blue-green algae easy to find?
Definitely. The collection kits we send contain a basic set of instructions and pictures of exactly what we are looking for. It’s just pond scum.

Any particular places best for collection?
The greater diversity of blue-green algae is found in more extreme habitats such as high altitudes. Those particular strains have gone through so much to adapt and survive.

Can non-climbers be useful?
Absolutely. You can often find blue-green algae in your backyard. Each microhabitat is intriguing. We can often find cyanobacteria growing on rocks near waterfalls, which is not your everyday pond scum. And some of our most promising samples have actually come from puddles on the side of the road.