Opinion: Bridging Science and SMU

May 6, 2010 by · Comments Off 

By Kathryn Sharkey and Amy Andrus
ksharkey@smu.edu, aandrus@smu.edu

Scientific researchers, Nobel Prize winners, medical professionals, and two Southern Methodist University undergraduates. One of these things is not like the other. So how did two SMU undergrads end up getting a free trip to San Diego, California for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting from February 17-22?

SMU, in its attempt to improve their scientific programs, sought out undergraduates to attend the meeting. We ended up being the lucky two chosen to go- a journalism student, Kathryn Sharkey and a psychology student, Amy Andrus. AAAS’ purpose for the meeting was to bring together media professionals and science professionals to learn how to communicate with each other so that they could in turn collaboratively educate the public on scientific issues and research. SMU’s purpose in sending students was to not only provide exposure for the university, but also to help undergraduates get excited about science.

Both students had very different experiences. Sharkey saw passionate arguments between scientists and the media, whereas Andrus witnessed the progression of research in cognitive science.

Sharkey’s Experience at Lectures in the Relationship Between Media and Science

Whenever I was young and I thought of a scientist, the picture of Albert Einstein with his crazy hair always came to mind. After attending the AAAS lectures in science and the media, I know why Einstein’s hair was so out of control; he was pulling at his hair from frustration. The recurring theme I saw at all of the lectures was the frustration science professionals and researchers felt for how their work and discoveries were presented to the public by the media.

Their main problem, especially with the issue of climate change, is that instead of presenting the facts of the research, the media focuses on the politics of the issue. The media also presents the opinions of dissidents to the mainly agreed upon scientific theories with as much, if not more, air time than those who agree with the majority. I attended several lectures about climate change and several simply about the relationship between science and the media. Even at the more general topical lectures, climate change would be brought up and debates between audience members and panelists almost always ensued.

I was impressed and shocked by their passion. Their passion not only to make sure the public gets the real, true scientific information; but also to make sure that the public understands science’s impact on their daily lives. The role of relaying that message lies with the science reporters, which is a heavy burden that many of lectures proved is not being borne properly. There is an essential disconnect in how journalists approach a topic and how scientists relay the topic, so that there is guaranteed distortion in how that topic is presented to the general public.

It seems to be a conundrum that researchers and the media are working to correct, which was the inspiration for the name of the AAAS symposium- Bridging Science and Society. With some work, hopefully scientific issues can reach the public in a better way.

Andrus’ Experience at Lectures in Cognitive Science

When you think of science, psychology is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind right? I didn’t think so either until I discovered that the AAAS’ meeting would be offering symposiums over advancements in research in cognitive science. It was enriching to learn about the different research that was being done in the field.

For example, there seems to be much expansion in the field of neuroscience due to the discovery of a new possible deterrent for brain damage: progesterone. Who would have thought that a female hormone could possibly help protect against brain damage?

Another interesting discussion was the matter of allowing Magnetic Resonance Images (MRIs) in the courtroom. AAAS’ demonstrated this by role-playing a case in a pseudo courtroom. Real judges, lawyers, and neuroscientists came in and demonstrated how a case on the subject may play out and the audience served as the jury. A man committed murder against his ex-girlfriend and his defense attorney argued it was only because of lesions in his front lobe; i.e. brain damage. The frontal lobe is the cortex that controls our decision-making. There are some cases where a person with a brain injury classified as “mild” experienced a change in personality and began to not function properly psychologically, but there are also cases where there was not much change if any. This is just one complication the experts explained when it comes to the reliability of using MRIs in the courtroom as evidence.

There were other interesting symposiums to attend ranging in topic from the role of sleep to developmental psychology to old age. Here, they explained the importance of rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep. Studies have shown that people who take naps with REM sleep have an increased cognitive ability.

These were just some of the presentations on the new, upcoming research I was privileged to attend. In the field of psychology, there were also lectures on how music is interpreted in the brain, the process of language learning in deaf children, stress and it’s central role in the brain, and many more. It will be interesting to see what new research discoveries will be made over the next year and what symposiums the AAAS meeting in 2011 will offer.

SMU Goal Achieved

SMU’s goal in sending us to this meeting was to help get young people involved and interested in science. We would have to say their goal was met. We came away with some fascinating information to help guide us in our futures. Sharkey already planned to be a science reporter, so hearing the critiques on the media was especially powerful. Andrus was searching for an area within psychology to focus on and found neuroscience especially interesting at the lectures. It is our hope that in the future SMU will be able to find a bigger delegation of students to send to the next AAS meeting and others like it. If you’re interested in attending a lecture, talk to your school’s dean to see if the opportunity will be there next year.

Young Survivors Feel the Effects of Cancer

February 3, 2010 by · Comments Off 

By Kathryn Sharkey

The phone rings. It’s senior Southern Methodist University student Emily Epstein’s sister. Emily holds her breath. Could this be the call she’s been dreading?

Emily’s sister Jessica was 23-years-old when she was diagnosed with an abnormal form of stage three melanoma. One year later, after surviving the melanoma and lymphoma that followed, she’s in remission, but she and her family still feel the effects of cancer.

“Every time I get a call now, I hold my breath because I worry it’s her telling me it’s come back,” Epstein said.

When it comes to cancer, “it’s so much more common than people know, because I don’t think I know anyone that hasn’t been affected by it in some way or another,” said Epstein.

According to the National Cancer Institute, close to 65,600 people between the ages of 15 and 39 were diagnosed with cancer in 2005. NCI states that only homicide, suicide, and unintentional injury claim more lives than cancer. The most common tumors for that age group are breast cancer, lymphoma, germ cell cancer, thyroid carcinoma, sarcoma, cervical carcinoma, leukemia, colorectal cancer, and central nervous system tumors, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Germ cell cancer includes testicular and ovarian tumors. Sarcoma is cancer of the bone and soft tissue.

Emily and Jessica’s mother took the diagnosis especially hard.

“My mom, sister and I always went to the tanning bed together probably a couple times per week so we all felt personally responsible,” said Epstein.

Emily went with her sister for some of her chemotherapy treatments, including her treatment on Christmas day because it was crucial she didn’t miss a treatment.

She saw many people at the treatment center, but no one quite like her sister.

“The nurses called her the baby because she was the youngest one there,” Epstein said.

The American Cancer Society states that about 77 percent of all cancers are diagnosed in people of age 55 or older.

However, young people are not immune. The NCI says that although leukemia, lymphoma, and central nervous system tumors are more common in those in the younger range of 15 to 39 years old, cervical, colorectal, and particularly breast cancer actually increase in frequency in those between 20 and 39 years old.

Young people have a preconceived notion that nothing harmful will happen to them and that they are invincible, when the reality is that it could happen, said a 21-year-old senior SMU student, studying psychology, sociology, and Spanish. The student did not want her name published for personal reasons.

Young people also face many problems with cancer that older patients do not.

In 2005 to 2006, NCI in a partnership with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, conducted a review of cancer treatment in adolescents and young adults (AYA) to find any needed improvements. The study found that the progress in that area of oncology has suffered because the focus on cancer research and treatment is on older patients.

NCI also states that compared with younger and older age groups, AYAs have experienced little or no improvement in cancer survival rates in more than two decades.

The reasons? NCI says that it may be because AYAs have the highest uninsured rate in the country as well as the medical community’s struggle to recognize and treat cancer in that population. There is a problem with delayed diagnosis, inadequate treatment practices and settings, poor understanding of how the cancer shows up and attacks them, inconsistent treatment and follow-up guidelines, and little call for prevention or early detection methods. In addition to that, there are few clinical trials designed for younger patients and there is low participation in those that do exist. As a result, there is little data gathered to help doctors effectively treat these patients.

As much as cancer is characterized as an older disease, there are many young patients fighting cancer and struggling with the impact it has on their lives.

The 21-year-old psychology, sociology and Spanish student was just ten years old when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

She remembers when her parents had to tell her about her diagnosis.

“They came to my hospital room, brought my favorite stuffed animal, a lollipop, fruit roll ups, and many other sugary snacks to prevent me from worrying,” she said.

She was too young to fully grasp what was happening to her and said she just thought she was different, not suffering from a fatal illness.

She is currently cancer free and said the main thing she has taken away from her experience is not to take health or life for granted.

“My parents are always telling me that life is too short, take in everyday that we are living and seize the moment,” she said. “I’m not a victim of cancer but I am a survivor of cancer. And that only makes me stronger and makes me see things more clearly about life in general.”