Published by
Stanford Medicine

Author

Events, Science, Stanford News

Hawkeye Pierce (i.e. Alan Alda) teaches scientists how to better communicate about their work

Hawkeye Pierce (i.e. Alan Alda) teaches scientists how to better communicate about their work

Alan_Alda_MASH_1972 - smallAs a teenager, I wanted to grow up to be Alan Alda. Actually, I wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce, the wise-cracking Army surgeon Alda played on the iconic television series M *A *S * H. I loved M*A*S*H, and Hawkeye was The Man. He was the funniest character, the best surgeon, and the biggest partier and, whenever the show got serious, he displayed the most passion for people and justice. (And since I was a gangly kid with red hair and acne, it probably didn’t hurt that Hawkeye got all the women, too.)

This came back to me when I attended Alda’s recent lecture on the importance of science communication held at Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. The talk was part of a two-day workshop conducted by the staff of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to teach Stanford scientists how to more effectively speak and write about their work.

I couldn’t help but smile when he ambled out to greet the capacity crowd. It’s Hawkeye! He was a few decades older (aren’t we all) and had swapped olive drab fatigues for a natty gray suit, but his voice and smile were the same, as was his distinctive, infectious laugh.

For more than an hour Alda used personal anecdotes, video clips, audience participation and a lot of humor to argue that too many scientists are holding themselves back – as well as science itself – due to their inability to explain their work in clear, understandable language. Whether speaking to policy makers, the public through the media, potential funders, or even scientists from other disciplines, the meaningful exchange of ideas and information is too often lost in incomprehensible detail and specialized jargon. (Alda got a big laugh with a story of a multidisciplinary collaboration that dissolved due to an argument over the correct meaning of a “probe.”)

The consequences are serious, though, with government research budgets under constant pressure and large portions of the population blithely disregarding scientific consensus on issues like climate change and evolution. Alda challenged the scientific community to do a better job educating policy makers and the public, and his center provides some unique tools to do so.

Continue Reading »

Cancer, Stanford News

Saying thank you with art: Stanford undergrad pens one-woman play on cancer

Saying thank you with art: Stanford undergrad pens one-woman play on cancer

Camille face painting

These days, most people say “thank you” with a quick e-mail or text. If they’re really grateful they may (gasp!) hand write a note. Stanford senior Camille Brown wrote a one-woman play.

Brown is a science, technology and society major and has penned and performed “Seeing the Spectrum,” a series of intimate monologues telling the story of Camp Kesem at Stanford – a summer camp for the children of cancer patients – from the campers’ perspective. Brown has volunteered with the student-run camp for her entire college career, and during that time she has counseled, hugged, face-painted and sat quietly with countless children facing the reality of a parent with cancer.

It’s a reality Brown knows all too well. The day she graduated high school her family learned of her mother’s diagnosis with Stage 3 colon cancer. Brown’s entire Stanford experience has been colored by cancer and, remarkably, she’s focused on her gratitude. Not for the cancer, of course, but for her Camp Kesem community, from which she says she’s received far more than she’s given.

So, as she approaches her final year of camp (only undergrads can be counselors) she created “Seeing the Spectrum,” with support from a Spark! grant from the Stanford Arts Institute, as her unique and lasting expression of appreciation.

I sat down with Camille Brown on the morning before her first performance – a very special private show for Camp Kesem counselors, campers and families. Here is part of our conversation.

Tell me about your play.

“Seeing the Spectrum” is a collection of eight monologues based on interviews I conducted with 15 Camp Kesem campers about their experiences with their parent’s cancer and with camp. Each monologue is fictionalized to preserve anonymity, and some are composites of two or more interviews.

The idea is to help people outside the program understand the enormous impact that Camp Kesem has on the lives of the campers and their families. For these children it is very important that they have a week that is more than bereavement counseling, but rather is a week of friends, water fights and silliness, because they are going through situations that essentially don’t let them be kids anymore. And Kesem is more than just the week of camp; these kids gain a year-round community.

What inspired you to create it?

I work at the Stanford Humanities Center and they assigned me to write an article about Anna Deavere Smith’s 2012 guest lecture on grace. She explained her process of basing her monologues on interviews. She picks a topic and then talks to a number of people to get multiple perspectives. While working on the article it occurred to me that Camp Kesem would make a great subject.

What has working with Camp Kesem meant to you?

I was initially terrified to do it, because I worried that if I became involved as a counselor I would be projecting my feelings about cancer onto the campers, and it would be a horrible experience for everyone. But in fact, the more work I have done with camp, the more I have just been able to fall in love with the kids and feel that I am combating this frustrating force of cancer in my life by helping to give them a chance to handle it. I actually feel a little bit selfish because the kids are like my therapy. They are so resilient – some going through situations worse than my own – and I feel that I have been able to learn more about myself by trying to be selfless for them.

Continue Reading »

Cancer, Health and Fitness, Stanford News, Women's Health

Ironman of Stanford Women’s Cancer Center

Ironman of Stanford Women’s Cancer Center

ironmanOliver Dorigo, MD, PhD, loves training. The associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has trained in medicine, surgery, gene therapy, molecular biology, laboratory research and clinical trials management. And that’s just for his day job(s), directing Stanford’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology and the gynecologic oncology program at the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center.

In his spare time Dorigo’s training has included enough running, biking and swimming to compete in 19 Ironman distance triathlons, the most recent being the 2013 Ironman World Championship, held in Kona, Hawaii in October. (For those keeping score, “Ironman distance” means a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run.)

Dorigo says the physical and psychological rigors of triathlon training have helped him professionally to overcome challenges and find solutions for success in difficult situations. And they are lessons he imparts to his patients. As he told me:

In every race, there is a moment when making another step forward seems almost impossible. However, with persistence and the right attitude, this step and all others necessary to reach the finish line will eventually happen. There’s just no giving up. And that’s exactly the attitude I convey to my cancer patients. Don’t give up; keep fighting! Otherwise, how does one ever know whether one could have reached the finish line?

Dorigo and his primary medical passion – ovarian cancer – are discussed in the latest edition (.pdf) of the Stanford Cancer Institute News.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: Frontiers in the fight against ovarian cancer and Ovarian cancer biomarkers may enable personalized treatment, say Stanford scientists
Photo by Grayskullduggery

Cancer, Dermatology, Image of the Week, Public Health

Image of the Week: Ready for some football – and protected from the sun

Image of the Week: Ready for some football - and protected from the sun

SUNSPORT kids

Above is a shot of just a few of the Cardinal football fans who applied temporary tattoos – and plenty of sunscreen - from the SUNSPORT booth at the recent Stanford Football Open House. The Open House is an annual opportunity for fans to meet players and run through drills in Stanford Stadium, and SUNSPORT was there to help everyone play safely in the Palo Alto sun.

SUNSPORT, a collaboration of the Stanford Cancer Institute, the medical school’s Department of Dermatology, Stanford Athletics, and Stanford Hospital & Clinics, is Stanford’s first-in-the-nation program to provide sun-exposure education and protection strategies to outdoor athletes and fans. The program is profiled (.pdf) in the latest edition of Stanford Cancer Institute News.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: Working to protect athletes from sun dangers and Image of the Week: Stanford SUNSPORT

Cancer, Dermatology, In the News, Sports, Stanford News

Working to protect athletes from sun dangers

Working to protect athletes from sun dangers

sunsport2SUNSPORT, Stanford’s new program to educate student-athletes about the dangers of sun exposure, was featured in the health section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

The piece (subscription required) tells the story of Stanford distance runner Erik Olson, who was diagnosed with melanoma last summer at age 20. Following successful treatment, Olson has adopted healthy sun-protection habits and is working with SUNSPORT to encourage other outdoor athletes, and fans, to do the same.

SUNSPORT, a collaboration of the Stanford Cancer Institute, the medical school’s Department of Dermatology, Stanford Athletics, and Stanford Hospital & Clinics, provides student-athletes with information about their heightened risks for sun-related skin damage and works with the teams’ coaches and athletic trainers to reinforce skin-protection practices on a daily basis.

“Outdoor athletes are an at-risk group for skin cancer, and SUNSPORT offers structured prevention strategies as well as research into skin protection behaviors,” Beverly Mitchell, MD, director of the Stanford Cancer Institute, told me.

Susan Swetter, MD, director of Stanford’s Pigmented Lesion & Melanoma Program, is quoted in the article. Swetter, who recently published research showing that young white men have a 55 percent higher risk of death from melanoma than their female counterparts, is one of SUNSPORT’s founders.

More information on the program is available at SUNSPORT’s website.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: As summer heats up take steps to protect your skin, Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma, How ultraviolet radiation changes the protective functions of human skin, Image of the Week: Stanford SUNSPORT and Working to prevent melanoma

Ask Stanford Med, Cancer, Men's Health, Stanford News

Six questions about prostate cancer screening

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men, and it’s something of an enigma. Unlike cancer in most other sites, tumors aren’t surgically extracted from the prostate. Instead, the entire prostate is removed, leading to short- and long-term side effects in patients. Also, it may be the only type of cancer that is diagnosed via blind biopsy – the urologist never actually sees the tumor and must resort to taking multiple needle-stick samples from throughout the prostate. Even when the presence of cancer is confirmed, there’s still a great amount of inaccuracy in determining its stage (or relative aggressiveness).

Judging prostate cancer’s aggressiveness is very important because despite the number of men it kills, the vast majority of cases are not life threatening. Most affected men have very slow-growing tumors that they will die with rather than from. And because the side effects of treatment – including urinary and sexual dysfunction – can greatly affect men’s quality of life, the medical challenge is to correctly assess which men require treatment and which do not.

James Brooks, MD, is a professor of urology and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute. He has been caring for prostate cancer patients and conducting laboratory and clinical research at Stanford for more than 16 years, and he recently answered some basic questions about prostate cancer screening for me.

What is the PSA test?

PSA stands for “prostate specific antigen,” referring to a protein made exclusively in the prostate. We measure the relative level of PSA as an indication that cancer might be present. To be clear, though, the PSA test is not a cancer test. Lots of different things can make PSA level go up, including infections, enlarging of the prostate – which happens as we age – and other things that have nothing to do with cancer.

Who should get a PSA test, and how often?

Recently released guidelines from the American Urological Association advise that for men at an average risk for prostate cancer, they should get a PSA test every other year beginning at age 55 and stop at age 69. If a man has a family history of prostate cancer, or is of African American descent, it is probably better to begin at age 40 or 45, and if their first score is very low he can wait up to five years to get another test.

What has been the impact of the PSA test?

I think it is pretty clear that screening has made a difference in survival rates. Prostate cancer death rates were slowly rising for many years. Then in the late 1980s we started screening with the PSA test. Deaths from prostate cancer peaked in 1994, and they are now 40 percent lower than they were at that peak. Two things changed since 1994: aggressive screening and aggressive treatment of prostate cancer.

All of this screening has in a sense changed prostate cancer. It used to be that men presented with more advanced prostate cancer. For example, in 1990, one in five men who walked into my office had prostate cancer that had already spread outside the prostate. Now only one in 25 men has metastatic disease.

Continue Reading »

Cancer, Stanford News

A special get-away for children of cancer patients

A special get-away for children of cancer patients

The leadership team at Camp Kesem at Stanford

How did you spend your free time as a college undergrad? I remember a lot of basketball, joking around with my buddies and homework procrastination. It was a good time, but I sure don’t recall making anyone’s life better.

I started reflecting on this after getting to know a group of Stanford students who dedicate a big chunk of their time – as much as 10 or 15 hours a week – to brightening the lives of local kids whose parents have cancer. These students are the volunteer organizers and managers of Camp Kesem at Stanford, a program that each June hosts children ages 6 to 16 for a free sleep-away camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Like summer camps everywhere, Camp Kesem has water balloon fights, friendship bracelets and poison oak, but what makes it special is its mission to offer a week of support and friendship to kids who really need it, kids whose families are coping with the struggle or loss brought on by cancer. What makes the camp run is the boundless energy and enthusiasm of its student counselors, who put their own concerns aside for a week and focus on being there – physically and emotionally – for the campers.

I wrote about the camp in a story appearing in the current issue of Inside Stanford Medicine.

“Camp Kesem is a lot of things: a camp, a retreat and an intervention,” Heather Paul, Camp Kesem at Stanford’s director and only employee, told me. “Most of all, though, it’s a community lovingly shaped by a team of incredible students.”

For our local readers, a fundraiser is being held tomorrow night at Treehouse restaurant on the Stanford campus. Thirty percent of that evening’s profits will go to support Camp Kesem.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Cancer, Dermatology, Image of the Week

Image of the Week: Stanford SUNSPORT

Image of the Week: Stanford SUNSPORT

This young football fan is rockin’ a SUNSPORT tattoo (the temporary kind) during a sun-drenched November afternoon at Stanford Stadium. The 27-23 victory over Oregon State was one of seven straight wins on the Cardinal’s dramatic run to the Rose Bowl.

SUNSPORT is a new education and research program to improve sun-protection knowledge and habits among Stanford student-athletes – as well as outdoor athletes and fans of all ages. The SUNSPORT logo tattoo delivers a message: “I’ve got my sunscreen on. Do you?”

A partnership among the Stanford Cancer Institute, the medical school’s Department of Dermatology, Stanford Athletics, and Stanford Hospital & Clinics, SUNSPORT is establishing the most comprehensive sun protection outreach and research program of any university in the country. SUNSPORT research focuses on surveying Stanford’s outdoor athletes to identify attitudes and sun-protection practices in this high-risk population, and program dermatologists also work closely with athletes, coaches and athletic trainers to improve sun safety behaviors.

Going to the Rose Bowl? Post your photos wearing the SUNSPORT logo on the Stanford SUNSPORT Facebook page. Tattoos are available by e-mailing a request with your mailing address to sunsportinfo@stanford.edu.

Photo by Kristin Nord/Stanford Department of Dermatology

Applied Biotechnology, Cancer, Stanford News

Making high-tech “maps” of cancer

Making high-tech "maps" of cancer

Map making has long been the domain of explorers, cartographers and treasure buriers, but a Stanford cancer researcher has recently gotten into the act.

Garry Nolan, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology, has developed a novel method for graphically plotting the data generated by analyzing individual cell characteristics. He uses a customized computer-design program to sort the types and numbers of cells making up individual cancer tumors. The resulting “maps” can identify cancer sub-types and even “family trees” among tumor cells in individual patients, and may one day be used to personalize treatments for cancer and other diseases.

“Our message is that cancers can be organized [and] can be mapped, and we can finally understand which cells a given drug has activity against and map this to the molecular biology of particular cancers,” Nolan said.

Nolan’s cell data is derived using an innovative variation on a common cell-sorting technique called flow cytometry. He has devised a way – which he terms single-cell mass cytometry – to measure dozens of biological parameters, including cell size, DNA content and protein expression in individual cells. Mass cytometry enables a more detailed profile of cells’ molecular makeup and activity than previous technologies.

The potential of Nolan’s work has been recognized. He is the first recipient of the Department of Defense’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program’s Teal Innovator Award, a five-year, $3.2 million grant to advance the understanding and treatment of ovarian cancer. Nolan’s research is also featured in the just-released Fall edition (.pdf) of the Stanford Cancer Institute’s newsletter, SCI News.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Cancer, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Videos

Intestinal cell cultures keep the research moving

Intestinal cell cultures keep the research moving

You may have seen video of stem cell-derived heart cells beating in a petri dish, but how about cultured intestinal cells contracting as though they were moving your lunch along? Well now you have. This video from Stanford researcher Calvin Kuo, MD, PhD, shows spontaneous contraction of an intestinal “organoid” – or tiny organ-like structure – grown in his lab. The tissue is replicating peristalsis, the muscular contraction that propels food through the intestinal tract.

In addition to flexing their muscles, these novel tissue cultures are being used for a host of diverse research projects – from studying the functions of intestinal stem cells to replicating bacterial interactions within the gut. The summer issue (.pdf) of Stanford Cancer Institute News reports on how the mini organs were developed, how they came to Kuo’s lab and how they’re also being used to decipher the genetic mutations that cause healthy cells to turn cancerous.

Previously: Guts and glory: Growing intestinal tissue in a lab dish
Video courtesy of Kuo; Akifumi Ootani, PhD; and Manuel Amieva, MD

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Stanford Medicine Resources: