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Cancer, Events, Medicine and Society

Tig Notaro: Using comedy to deal with cancer was a “godsend”

Tig Notaro - smallStand-up comic Tig Notaro brought her unique brand of comedy to Stanford early this week, and she didn’t disappoint the standing-room-only audience of students, faculty, staff and community members gathered on campus.

Notaro, a fairly successful stand-up comic before 2012, exploded on the national scene when she greeted an audience at the Largo in Los Angeles with the words, “Thank you, thank you, I have cancer, thank you, I have cancer, really, thank you.” She then told the audience: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I don’t have the benefit of time. So I’m just going to tell you the tragedy and know that everything is going to be okay.”

In that now legendary comedy set, Notaro went on to share the tragedy of her bi-lateral breast cancer diagnosis, the unexpected early death of her mother, and the ending of a romantic relationship: all within a four-month span. Well-known comedian Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and he tweeted: “in 27 years doing this, I’ve seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night at Largo.”

During her Stanford performance, which was sponsored by the Stanford Storytelling Project, the Stanford Arts Institute and ITALIC, Notaro gave a hilarious impression of a TSA agent trying to pat her down in the front. Notaro chose not to have reconstructive surgery after her bi-lateral mastectomy, so the agent had a hard time deciding if Notaro was a man or a woman. Laughing, Notaro said, “I had small breasts before, and I would joke about them all the time… how small they were.” Pausing for a moment, she grinned and said, “You know, I think my breasts heard me and decided to get revenge.” Notaro’s statement, and the audience’s responding laughter, illustrated what Louis CK has said about her comedy: “It is an amazing example of what comedy can be. A way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them.”

In a Q&A session after her performance, Notaro said using comedy to deal with her cancer was a “godsend. I hadn’t planned to talk about it as part of my act, but it just came out.” And today, she says, she’s glad it did. “I get letters every day from people who have been diagnosed with cancer, or people who have lost a loved one to cancer. If my comedy can help just one person who has to travel the same journey I have traveled, it is worth it.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Previously: Saying thank you with art: Stanford undergrad pens one-woman play on cancer
Photo courtesy of Tig Notaro

Events, Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford-hosted AMA Medical Student regional conference focuses on health-care technology

Stanford-hosted AMA Medical Student regional conference focuses on health-care technology

AMA photoStanford med students Nuriel Moghavem and Trishna Narula co-chaired an AMA Medical Student Section Regional 1 conference last weekend at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. Ninety students, including 40 from Stanford, participated in the two-day event, which involved meetings, breakout sessions with industry leaders and social outings, plus an optional trip to a local winery the following day. Moghavem shared his thoughts on the weekend’s proceedings in the Q&A that follows.

How did you decide to focus on healthcare technology innovation?

When we were putting together the proposal, we thought a lot about what makes Stanford different from other schools that might host this conference, and how we could add educational and inspirational value to the trips of students coming from other states. Stanford obviously has many things that set it apart, but we thought that the energy of the health tech field would really capture the imaginations of our attendees.

What were some key takeaways from the sessions?

Our keynote speaker was Atul Butte, MD, PhD, a giant in the field of big data analytics and [someone who is] incredibly knowledgeable about the process of bringing a medical discovery to the market. Everyone in that room was rapt and half probably left wondering why we all weren’t millionaires already. We then had some breakout sessions from telemedicine and technology startups that again pushed our attendees’ understanding about the future of medicine. I think the main takeaways were that technology is changing health care, and the “visibility” – if you think about it like driving a car in the fog – probably isn’t more than two to three years ahead. Technology has the promise to entirely overturn our idea of how health is fundamentally defined and approached in ways that we simply can’t anticipate at this time. It’s big stuff.

What took place at the AMA Leadership School Workshop?

The Leadership School is a national initiative to put tools in the hands of emerging leaders to empower them to expand their efforts. The workshop they led during our conference was an excellent morning icebreaker – asking attendees to share media related to their own personal “brand” (a favorite image, a Google search of themselves, etc.). Through the exercise, we all shared interesting personal details about our lives, interests, passions and hobbies, and we learned a valuable lesson in controlling one’s brand and online presence.

You are a busy medical student. Why do you feel it’s important to participate in leadership opportunities in your field?

As medicine becomes increasingly driven by public policy, it’s important that we cultivate a generation of leaders in medicine with the tools to engage in policy. This conference was, for us, an opportunity to get 70 of the brightest future physicians in our region (which spans from Hawaii to South Dakota!) in one room to discuss that very issue and to develop those skills. We don’t just think it’s important for emerging physician leaders to participate in policy matters, we think it’s critical for the future well-being of our community and perhaps our country for them to do so.

Co-organizer Trishna Narula later shared with me, “while this was a great opportunity for the AMA to benefit from the health technology hub at Stanford, it was also another large step for Stanford Med to push to the forefront of health policy and advocacy.”

Previously: Top 10 reasons I’m glad to be in medical schoolFuture doctors have a lot at stake, even if they don’t know it: A student’s take on the Affordable Care Act and Stanford Medicine X seeking students for leadership program
Photo by James Pan

Behavioral Science, Events, Medicine and Society, Stanford News, Technology

The Dalai Lama talks business, compassion and happiness

The Dalai Lama talks business, compassion and happiness

One Christmas, my dad gave me and my siblings copies of the Dalai Lama‘s book The Art of Happiness – a quick read with a valuable missive. (“Be content with this book – you didn’t need other presents” was my takeaway.) I was reminded of this when reading about a recent visit – focused in large part on happiness – by His Holiness to Silicon Valley.

During his visit, which was co-sponsored by Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), the Dalai Lama gave a talk at Santa Clara University on business, ethics and compassion. As Stanford News reports from the event:

In his opening remarks, [James Doty, MD,] noted that stress, anxiety and depression are the greatest health care costs to businesses – he referred to an “epidemic of depression.” Companies do not pay enough attention to the well-being of its employees, he suggested.

“Is there a different approach?” asked Doty, referencing the effects of meditation and compassion on the brain. This type of research, he said, has stimulated a revolution in science. Being compassionate increases one’s health, well-being and longevity, he said.

The Dalai Lama talked about how to become a “happy person” and build a “happy community” where people spread love and compassion.

“Everyone has the right to be a happy person, but generally we have too much of an emphasis on material values,” he said.

Doty is director of CCARE, which studies the science of compassion. (The Dalai Lama is a founding benefactor of CCARE.) More from the article:

Doty said that researchers are especially interested in ways to integrate technology and well-being.

“We’re studying the development of interventions, including web-based or smartphone-based apps that support health and well-being by decreasing stress and anxiety in the workplace,” Doty said in an interview before the Dalai Lama spoke.

Previously: Are women more compassionate than men? What the science tells usHow practicing compassion could ease or eliminate chronic stress and How being compassionate can influence your health

Events, Stanford News

Celebrating Carl Djerassi’s 90th birthday with his latest play, “Insufficiency”

Celebrating Carl Djerassi's 90th birthday with his latest play, "Insufficiency"

DjerassiThe play’s the thing wherin Carl Djerassi, PhD, will celebrate his 90th birthday. The latest work of the Stanford professor emeritus of chemistry (widely known as the father of the birth control pill), called “Insufficiency,” will be read on Saturday, February 8 at 8 p.m. at Cubberly Auditorium on campus.

The public is invited – and Djerassi especially encourages medical school affiliates  – to attend.

The play follows a Polish-immigrant professor seeking a tenured position at a university through corporate sponsorship, a double murder and a court hearing. Producer David Goldman, who heads the National Center For New Plays at Stanford, describes “Insufficiency,” as “light and funny while also managing to be instructive and entertaining.”

The event is free. Djerassi will be present for the reading and a post-performance Q&A.

Previously: Sex without babies, and vice versa: Stanford panel explores issues surrounding reproductive technologies

Applied Biotechnology, Ethics, Events, Genetics, Stanford News

Coming soon: A genome test that costs less than a new pair of shoes

Coming soon: A genome test that costs less than a new pair of shoes

Air JordansScarcely a week ago, a leading genomics company, Illumina, announced it could sequence a human genome for the new, low price of $1,000. This week attendees at a personalized medicine conference heard a Silicon Valley startup say it would get the price down to $100.

Either price is a steep drop from the $2 million it cost in 2007 to sequence the genome of DNA discoverer James Watson, PhD. Illumina, a San Diego-based company (and one of Stanford’s partner  in a just-funded stem cell genomics center), claimed the $1,000 price in a Jan. 14 announcement on its latest sequencer model. CEO Jay Flatley said the achievement shows that science has “broken the sound barrier” in the race to make genome sequencing affordable for medical care.

Speaking Monday at the sixth annual Personalized Medicine World Conference in Mountain View, Calif., Flatley predicted that genome sequencing would one day become so widely used in bedside medical care that it would be regarded as a “molecular stethoscope.”

Skeptics at the conference questioned whether a $1,000 genome test could include all the interpretation and analysis necessary to make the raw data useful for patients. But within minutes of the question, another company stepped up to say it was already working on a test that would lower the cost even more to $100.

“At $100, you get to be really competitive,” said Stefan Roever, CEO of Genia Technologies, a startup based in Mountain View, during a panel presentation at the conference. Genia is using a different method, called nanopore-based sequencing. The start-up was part of a consortium with Harvard Medical School and Columbia University that won a $5.25 million grant in September from the National Human Genome Research Institute to develop the technology.

The PMWC conference was a mix of academic researchers, companies commercializing the genomics, and venture capitalists checking out the new crop of start-ups. Stanford was represented by Stephen Quake, PhD, professor of bioengineering; George Sledge, MD, professor of medicine; and a multitude of others. Also making presentations were LeRoy Hood, MD, PhD, head of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, and Eric Green, MD, PhD, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Amir Dan Rubin, president and CEO of Stanford Hospital & Clinics, gave a keynote talk at the start of the conference. Stanford Hospital & Clinics was one of the cosponsors of the conference, held Jan. 27-28 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

Donna Alvarado is a Bay Area-based writer and editor who volunteers at the Stanford Health Library and finds inspiration in medical and health topics.

Previously: Stanford researchers work to translate genetic discoveries into widespread personalized medicineWhole-genome fetal sequencing recognized as one of the year’s “10 Breakthrough Technologies”New recommendations for genetic disclosure released and Ask Stanford Med: Genetics chair answers your questions on genomics and personalized medicine
Photo by rondostar

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.

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Events, Health Policy, Mental Health, Patient Care, Stanford News

Full-length video available for Stanford’s Health Policy Forum on serious mental illness

Full-length video available for Stanford's Health Policy Forum on serious mental illness

Previously on Scope, we discussed a Health Policy Forum on mental illness. As Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, explained in his post, the goal of the forum – entitled “Serious Mental Illness: How can we balance public health and public safety?” – was to explore issues related to health policies for the mentally ill in a transparent and productive way.

Paul Costello, chief communications officer for the School of Medicine, led the forum’s diverse panel of experts which included:

The forum addressed several issues related to serious mental illness including violence, life as a mentally ill patient in prison, the stigma of mental illness, and cluster suicides. Costello and the panel bring fresh insights to a topic of longstanding debate; the video is worth a watch.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: “Brains are unmentionable:” A father reflects on reactions to daughter’s mental illness, Upcoming Stanford Health Policy Forum to focus on mental illnessExamining mental health policies in the wake of school shooting tragedy and Probing the underlying physiological causes of mental illness

Behavioral Science, Events, Health and Fitness, Public Health, Stanford News, Videos

Now available: Full-length video of Stanford’s Roundtable on Happiness

Now available: Full-length video of Stanford's Roundtable on Happiness

Last month, I wrote about the Stanford Roundtable on Happiness and included a short video with a sample of tips for happier and healthier living that the panel and moderator Katie Couric had shared with the audience. Several readers wrote to me expressing interest in the event and saying they’d wished they could have seen the entire presentation. Now, here’s a chance to watch the event – the full-length video was recently made available online.


Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: What is happiness? Stanford Roundtable experts weigh inAre you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeingFirdaus Dhabhar discusses the positive effects of stress and Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress

Events, Genetics, Science, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford geneticist discusses genomics and medicine in TEDMED talk

Stanford geneticist discusses genomics and medicine in TEDMED talk

In a new video of a TEDMED Great Challenges event titled “Genomics and Medicine: Where promise meets clinical practice,” Stanford geneticist Carlos Bustamante, PhD,  joins colleagues “to explore what is already possible and what is just over the horizon in the world of genomic medicine,” as Eric Green, the Google Hangout event’s host, describes. Green, MD, PhD, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health, was joined by Amy McGuire, JD, PhD, of Baylor College of Medicine; James Evans, MD, PhD, of University of North Carolina School of Medicine; and Sharon Terry, president and CEO of the Genetic Alliance patient advocacy organization; and Bustamante.

Previously: Caribbean genetic diversity explored by Stanford/ University of Miami researchersAsk Stanford Med: Genetics chair answers your questions on genomics and personalized medicine and How genome testing can help guide preventative medicine

Events, Stanford News

Stanford’s School of Medicine Art Exhibit displays faculty’s artistic side

Stanford's School of Medicine Art Exhibit displays faculty's artistic side

Matthew Scott coastline resizedIn 2012, the walls of Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge were stark, bare and unexciting. But, for Nobel Laureate Paul Berg, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry, and (now former) Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, these empty walls were not unlike a blank page before a writer – a pristine canvas awaiting an artist’s touch.

“We decided we were going to do everything we could to find works we could hang that weren’t overly expensive,” Berg said, eliciting laughter from audience members who had gathered at a reception the evening of Nov. 5 to celebrate the opening of the School of Medicine’s fourth art exhibition at the center.

Berg and Pizzo’s vision for the center created the School of Medicine’s art committee and the first art exhibition at the center in January 2012. According to Berg, as artists from the medical school began submitting their works, the committee realized that the exhibit was no longer just about designing on a budget. “Our role would also be to support the arts in the School of Medicine,” Berg said.

This fall, the exhibition features the photography and glasswork of five current and retired professors:

It’s a “sample of the remarkable talents of our faculty,” Berg said. But the exhibition also shows how the School of Medicine has inspired and encouraged each of these scientists to pursue the arts.

Litt told me she accompanied her husband, Garell, as he snapped many of the photographs she patterns her glasswork after. “Having been there when the photo was taken, it’s a way of prolonging the experience,” she said.

Litt said that the unpredictable nature of glasswork is unlike her work as a physician. “As a physician, everything had to be right,” Litt said. “As an artist, you go with the flow.  Sometimes the outcome is better than you imagined.”

For Scott the exhibit was an important milestone in a lifelong pursuit of photography that began when his father taught him to take and develop photos as a boy. “You expose your soul,” Scott said of the exhibit. “It was interesting to see how people respond to work.”

Scott found inspiration for his art in the world around him. “It’s pretty impossible to not be enchanted with the beauty of California,” he said. “I love the mood of the coasts here; they are often not sunny and cheerful but instead stormy and wild.  They have an edge to them, which is better than a clear blue sky for photography.”

Scott’s images are intermingled with that of Stryer. This display, several audience members remarked, highlights the similarities and differences in the way each artist showcases vivid color and jagged versus smooth landscapes captured from atypical points of view.

For those local readers who are interested in seeing the works of art, the exhibit is on display November though June on the first and third floors of the LKSC.

Previously: More than shiny: Stanford’s new sculpture by Alyson Shotz and Image of the Week: Artful arches from Stanford’s Art Exhibit Extravaganza 2013
Photo by Matthew Scott, PhD

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