Living Science

1 Apr

In Texas, the new state guidelines for teaching A&P at the college level include teaching scientific methods and experimental methods.  While I’m sure most of us cover something about the ways of science, I know at my campus we will be expanding our coverage of the experimental methods used by scientists.  This expansion will include experimental activities in lab, but I also intend to introduce examples of current science research in my lectures.  In line with my desire to make course material more personal to my students, I’ve been looking for relevant case studies that showcase the ways of science as well as teaching human physiology.  I think I’ve found what I need…

I’ve been watching “Cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies” this week on PBS.  It’s a riveting mix of historical accounts and vignettes of recent interviews and profiles of cases.  For example, the history of tobacco use, lung cancer, and the politics of marketing are highlighted in more than one episode.  A brief overview of DNA and cell division help clarify the reasons that mutagens are linked to cancer.

I find it particularly insightful in hearing about the investigations into how cancer was treated a generation or two ago.  Assumptions, such as that cancer spread locally (the reason for radical mastectomies), were so entrenched that anyone challenging that paradigm was professionally ostracized.  The clear lesson in adhering to the methods of science stands out in these stories.  The dedication of those scientists who pushed past the dogma to look for other explanations is inspiring. At around the same time, the shift in patient treatment from killing cancer to palliative care gave everyone a different perspective – not only medical personnel, but also the public at large.

Today’s research initiatives, particularly in how to analyze cancer genomes, are mind-boggling.  The cancer genome atlas has revealed a huge number of mutated genes, revealing that not only oncogenes, but also tumor suppressor genes, can mutate and lead to the development of cancer. It’s particularly satisfying to hear renowned scientists explain complicated information with wonderful clarity.  The computer-generated 3-D animations of molecules developed to fight cancer are incredible.  And, while the realization that cancer cells continually mutate, making treatment continually difficult, is hard to accept, at least we continue to add to our knowledge of cellular mechanisms.

Many of the questions raised certainly go beyond basic and applied science, addressing issues of access to, and cost of treatment, and political aspects of research and regulation of carcinogens.  I can send my students to see the episodes for themselves to get the full story, and I’m betting they will be as entranced as I have been.

As with many other fine productions on PBS, there are educator resources available on the website (at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/cancer-emperor-of-all-maladies/educators/). These include online activities and additional resources.  I hope you’ll enjoy these as much as I plan to.

One Response to “Living Science”

  1. Bobbi Patton April 2, 2015 at 9:02 pm #

    Betsy,

    Your blog could not have been more timely. I just watched the episode last night, and found it fascinating! In addition to the science, I was caught up in the stories of the patients who were desperate to enter the cutting edge clinical trials. Students find it hard to see the connection between the scientist peering through a microscope and the patient dying in a hospital bed with family members desperately hovering over them. The scientists in these stories who risked their reputation to pursue an unconventional hypothesis were the true heroes. I was literally crying when the patient with melanoma was “holding” his T cells in the “Petri dish” and anticipating the valiant war they would wage in his body the next day.

    I would encourage any science teacher to have their students watch this show. Beyond the educational value, it is a story of hope, humanity, and courage (of both the researchers and the patients). I didn’t realize there was more than one episode, but I will definitely watch them all and check out the resources you mentioned.

    Thanks for sharing this with everyone!
    Bobbi

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