The value of being a general science nerd

I have always been, and probably will always be, a science nerd.

I look forward every month to receiving my issue of Scientific American (yes, I still get a hard copy), and often read it cover to cover.  I enjoy learning about scientific advances, and scientific controversies, in other fields.

Being a scientific nerd runs in the family.  My older son is pursuing theater as a career, but is an avid science reader and has an amazing depth and breadth of scientific understanding.  When he is on stage playing a scientist, he is not just reading lines, he really knows what he is talking about.  My daughter is finishing medical school this year.  Professionally, she is surrounded by the science of medicine, but also has a growing menagerie of fresh water and salt water creatures growing in her aquaria at home.   Care for her miniature coral reef and axolotl (a primitive amphibian native to Mexican lakes) has required that she acquire some knowledge of marine biology.  My younger son is a wild-land firefighter who received a master’s degree studying the burning properties of duff (the stuff that accumulates on the ground around a tree in the forest).  It was great fun reading the fire science posters on the walls at the University of Idaho when he was studying there.

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Attention Deficit

I am writing this on a weekend morning. It is really cold outside, and there is nothing on my calendar for a few hours. Instead of doing something productive, I find myself curled up on the couch in front of the fireplace surfing the web on my laptop. I am having no trouble finding totally useless but entertaining sites – a few thoughtful, some silly, and all too many outrageous. I know this is keeping me from more important projects (such as getting our family photos in order or writing a cancer research grant) but I am having a hard time focusing. My wife, who has experienced my channel flicking when I have the TV remote, knows this side of me all too well.

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A smile, a laugh, a cry, and when medically permitted, a hug

People of different faiths have varied perspectives on the value and meaning of the December holidays. Getting past the commercialization can also be a challenge. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of individuals who are humbug down to the core, we are all affected positively by the spirit of giving, receiving, and togetherness this time of year. I am not speaking here about giving and receiving “stuff,” but giving, receiving, and being together in a much more profound sense.

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Cancer teamwork in the Big 10

I spent time during my education and training at The Ohio State and the University of Michigan before arriving in Iowa City 25 years ago. I have close family members with ties to essentially all the other Big 10 schools. This time of year, we discuss the past season and bowl games, and argue about whose football team is overrated or underrated. When you are connected with a Big 10 school, you hear a lot about football.  Collaborative cancer research is generally not part of the Big 10 discussion. However, we are working to change that.

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Perception and Reality

I, like most of you, am relieved that the flood of political advertisements has stopped now that the election is behind us. The political ads were full of sound bites and statements, both positive and negative, that were purported to be based on fact, but in truth did a very poor job reflecting reality. These ads were designed to persuade, not to educate. Indeed, in politics, perception often trumps reality. The factual truth doesn’t result in votes, it is the perception of truth that counts. Whether we are talking about climate change, the Affordable Care Act, immigration, medical marijuana or support for cancer research, politics is based on perception. Guilt or innocence in a court of law is also based on the ability to persuade since determining the factual truth is often complex. Excellence in changing perception is one reason so many lawyers go into politics.

Those of us in medicine and science like to think we are different. For us, reality trumps perception. We believe that facts are facts. Even the best marketing or the most heart-felt desire for a different outcome is not going to change a cancer diagnosis. In the laboratory, a negative result in a well-designed experiment evaluating a promising hypothesis requires the scientist to reassess that hypothesis, even if the hope was that the experiment would turn out differently.

I am not trying to say that doctors and scientists are in some way superior moral beings because we believe in facts. Yes, basing decisions on absolute truth is a fundamental principle of medicine and science. In reality, results of tests or experiments are often equivocal, and even the best doctors and scientists revert to opinion and perception to decide on the next steps. As a doctor, I try to explain to a patient why I believe they should follow my medical advice, even when the facts available to support that decision are limited. As a researcher, I write a grant with the goal of enhancing the perception that my ideas are worth pursuing.

In politics and law, even more so than in medicine and science, simple “yes/ no” answers are difficult to come by. Available data is usually complex, and determining how reality should impact policy is far from clear. I spend a fair amount of time working with policymakers and always try to keep this in mind. For me to believe that this time is well-spent, I start with the understanding that political advertising that has bombarded me for the past several months does not fully reflect the depth of thought that our political leaders use to make policy. I need to assume that the best politicians understand the distinction between perception and reality and rely on reality and facts as a foundation for decision-making.

There is no doubt that there is a full spectrum of politicians with respect to how they understand the balance between perception and reality. As an advocate, I adjust my approach to talking to policymakers based on where I think they sit on this spectrum. For some, I focus on providing facts to make them aware of reality. Others seem less influenced by facts. For those individuals, I do my best to change their perception of what they view as reality.

After all, when it comes to setting policy that impacts us all, the reality is that perception is reality.

Scale

When I give a talk about cancer research, I like to highlight both the diversity of cancer research and that it is a continuum. One way to do this is by showing a scale that, going from smallest to largest, includes cancer research focused at the level of molecules, cells, tissues, organs, patients, clinical trials, cohorts, and communities. Much cancer research spans various points on this scale. I can take any two points on this scale, and talk about an important research project at Holden based on those two points. For example, molecular epidemiology involves taking samples from a large number of individuals in a group of cancer patients and evaluating them at the molecular level in order to improve our ability to predict how specific changes in genes might impact an outcome. Identifying new cancer drugs requires we screen large numbers of compounds to see which have the most promising effects on cancer cells, then after appropriate testing in the laboratory, assess the effects of these new drugs on patients in a clinical trial. Continue reading

The Academic Difference: George Weiner On How America’s Cancer Centers Are More Valuable Than Ever

Last week, I had the honor beginning a 2-year term as President of the Association of American Cancer Institutes (AACI).  Instead of writing a separate blog this week, I am copying an editorial that appeared in The Cancer Letter describing a new initiative of the AACI that goes by the name of  “The Academic Difference.”

This is reprinted with permission from The Cancer Letter.


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Medicine, roots and sunshine

Earlier this week, I had the honor of attending the 127th annual meeting of the American Clinical and Climatological Association in Tucson, Arizona as a new member. This organization was founded by a group of leading physicians who were interested in advancing patient care with a particular focus on the impact of climate on health (hence the name of the organization). Much of their effort was geared towards tuberculosis which was a scourge of the times and was treated at the time by placing patients in sanatoria where they could be exposed to fresh air and sunshine.

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Privacy

Recently, I signed on to Facebook and found that my daughter had tagged me in a picture she took of me relaxing at home slouched on the couch holding a glass of wine. It was nothing scandalous, and I don’t mind that my daughter posted it.

On the other hand, it made me bit uncomfortable to think of that picture being available for the whole world to see. I therefore untagged myself. (For the sake of staying focused on the topic at hand, I am skipping the part about how difficult it was for me to figure out how to remove my name from that picture.) When it comes to Facebook, my daughter and I have different perspectives on privacy.

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Just say yes…

I just watched a rerun of “the office.” On this show, as on TV and in the movies in general, administrators and supervisors are often portrayed as ignorant buffoons who have no idea what they are doing. True confession – there have been times when I have felt that way about those above me on the organizational ladder. I also understand why others might feel that way about me as a supervisor, particularly when they present me with a multidimensional problem that seems to have no good solution.

On the other hand, there are times as an administrator when the answer is clear immediately. My favorite example, and one that I am privileged to experience often in my current role, is when asked for something by someone who I know is very careful about what they ask for, and has a track record of success when given the support they request. This describes many of my colleagues at Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. When I receive requests from such colleagues, I don’t ask myself “why should I say Yes” Instead, I ask myself “why would I say No.” On occasion, lack of resources has limited my ability to give a positive response. However, that is the exception and not the rule. Almost without exception, when I say “yes” to such requests, I have not been disappointed.

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