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Captivating Courses: “Cancer Chronicles” Looks at the Science, Study and Impact of the Disease Through a Broad Lens

Welcome to “Captivating Courses,” a new Villanova news feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. Twice a month, we’ll give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. The first installment of “Captivating Courses” highlights a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ course called “Cancer Chronicles.”

Word clouds representing words students associate with cancer.

Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. John Schmidt takes an atypical approach to course assessment in “Cancer Chronicles.” He asks students to write down three words they associate with cancer on an index card at the beginning and the end of the course. The task is simple -- the change is profound. (Note: pictured above are side-by-side examples of word clouds showing how the words students associate with cancer change from the first day to the last day of class)

“Often on the first day of class, I see words like death and scary,” Schmidt noted. “At the end of the course, I see words like complex, prevention and progress. It shows a greater understanding, as well as a sense of hope.”

“Cancer Chronicles” is designed to give students the opportunity to examine various aspects of cancer—what it is, what causes it, how it’s studied, and how it is identified, evaluated and treated. It also addresses the impact of cancer on individuals, families and society.

“The topic of cancer is a heavy one,” said Schmidt, who has taught the course now for five years. “A lot of the time the students have had a family member or relative touched by the disease. Cancer is something that’s relatable to every single person and many take the course because they want to have a greater knowledge of cancer for those reasons.”

The number of people who will develop cancer during their lifetime is staggering. In the United States alone, one half of men and one third of women will develop cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, “in 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 609,640 people will die from the disease.”

“Cancer is something that’s been present my entire life,” said Connor Kovacs, a Villanova junior majoring in Humanities. “My grandfather died of cancer when I was younger, and my dad was diagnosed with cancer six months ago. From a statistical standpoint, the numbers blew my mind. One in every two men. One in every three women. Cancer is present in so many more ways than I would have expected. Learning the science behind cancer and things like how to recognize early symptoms is really important.”

In “Cancer Chronicles,” students explore the biological basis of cancer, including the characteristics of cancer cells that differentiate them from normal cells; the chemical, physical, genetic and infectious causes of cancer; and the fundamental rationales for cancer prevention and treatment. For instance, Schmidt has his students examine protein structures created using a 3D printer to see the subtle differences in shape and better comprehend why some cells might be immune to treatment options like chemotherapy.

This knowledge, Schmidt says, gives students a better understanding of how to think about the science and the complexities of cancer. With a firmer grasp of the science behind cancer, students can more clearly relate this information to the societal impacts of the disease such as environmental safety, health care, politics and the economy—as well as the human impacts.

“Students don’t have to memorize the names of every gene,” Schmidt noted. “But the course gives them an understanding of how to think about the disease and how to approach it. It helps drive home concepts about how cancer impacts.”

Students pitch their cancer non-profit organizations to Professor John Schmidt (pictured in the center) and classmates.
Students pitch their cancer non-profit organizations to Professor John Schmidt (pictured in the center) and classmates.

Course Material

While Schmidt uses a traditional textbook at different stages during the course, one of the main texts used is “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, the book—which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction—is written in the format of a novel, with historical perspectives, patient perspectives and doctor perspectives.

“My reasoning for using this book is that it gives students a broader view of cancer by mixing in social sciences and humanities,” said Schmidt. “A large population of society has been impacted by cancer. There’s also a large population of cancer survivors who go on living with the knowledge that cancer could come back at any time. We discuss the experiences of cancer survivors and the psychological impact of cancer on families.”

Hands-On Learning

One of the main projects this semester has students investigating and debating strategies pursued by non-profit organizations in the fight against cancer. Students choose a non-profit organization to research and examine the organization from their financial structure to where they direct the funds they raise. At the end of the project, students pitch their non-profit to the class, with fellow students choosing which charities for which to hypothetically donate.

“We are bombarded by a lot of organizations,” Schmidt said. “While most of them are doing very important and worthwhile work, they’re not all identical and the money isn’t going to the same areas. There are a variety of different organizations—some raising money for research and others for patient support or education. This project helps students learn how to navigate through an array of organizations and evaluate the charities.”

Big Ideas

A key goal for Schmidt in teaching "Cancer Chronicles" is making the subject matter relevant to his students’ lives. Earlier this semester, students viewed a sample of their own blood to identify the different types of white blood cells and then compared it with slides showing cancer cells. In another class, students brought in an item of their choice to test for carcinogens. The aim of the test was to see if the chemical compounds of select items—such as artificial sweetener, makeup and cigarettes—have the ability to mutate DNA.

“The course gives students a better understanding of cancer,” noted Schmidt. “It gives them a sense of hope by taking away some of the unknown—the scary aspects of the disease—and helping them conquer it with knowledge.”

“Cancer Chronicles” is part of a series of thematic science courses at Villanova called the Mendel Science Experience (MSE). Students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, regardless of major, must take two natural science courses with an accompanying lab. Students not majoring in the natural sciences or mathematics typically take two MSE courses. Although these courses are topically diverse, they share a common approach—incorporating four critical components: problem solving, laboratory or field experience, use of technology, and application of quantitative tools and interdisciplinary understanding.