Fighting an Infection with an Infection: Using Herpes to Treat Cancer

herpes fighting cancer.jpeg

My students recently came across this article in their search for new cancer treatments. I mean, how cool is this?! They’re putting a vector on a herpes virus and then injecting it into the tumor. The virus infects the cancer cells, causing them to burst just from being virally infected, but the vector in the virus also stimulates the immune system to kill the cancer cells, so it’s like a 2-pronged attack. Amazing.

Part of what I also find fascinating about scientific ideas though is the way they’re portrayed and to what audience–my students (in 3 different groups) found 3 different sources for this, all of which have different target audiences.

  1. For everyone: an article in The Guardian
  2. For people seeking science knowledge: an article on Popular Science
  3. For scientists seeking science knowledge: the article from Nature

Teaching Cancer is Exhausting

Today I came home and I was just dead on my feet. And I was thinking about why that was, and I just didn’t get it–my lessons were normal, there were no huge labs, I was in the office, I had some frees… what was different? The content.

Teaching cancer is exhausting. And it’s not that we have super amounts of activities–in my one class, they did a cool introduction to the hallmarks activity, and in the other they researched cancer treatments, but I think what’s exhausting about it is being so emotionally aware all the time–students ask me a lot of personal questions, and it’s so hard to be sensitive to where they’re coming from, and to be truthful, and to not insert my own opinions or stories into the matter.

We were talking about how you get cancer, or rather, how you get the mutations in your cells that can lead to cancer, and someone mentioned radiation, so we were talking about where radiation came from–the sun, X-rays, and some cancer therapies, and then someone said the killer, “But wait a second–if we’re using radiation to cure cancer, wouldn’t that just make more cancer?” And those are the times that I’m left speechless because yes, there is a potential to cause more cancer, but also no–sometimes radiation is the best treatment option. It’s just so hard with a topic that comes so close to home. For everyone.

Then while we were having that radiation conversation, someone mentioned that radiation on your skin could cause melanoma, and then I let it slip that someone close to me had recently died of it. And all of a sudden, I had this rush of emotions, and I was thinking about my friend, and I was on the verge of tears, and there I was in front of the whole class.

“I’m sorry. I love my train of thought.” And then in those couple of milliseconds I felt so… exposed. Because just then they weren’t talking, and they weren’t zoned out, and they weren’t doing whatever else they normally do–they were 100% watching me pull myself together.

It’s very…it feels soul bearing when that happens in front of the kids. Normally I’m Miss S and I laugh and joke about and have everything under control. But when that falls apart and they see something other than their happy teacher, it’s very jarring because it’s no longer part of “the act”–I’m no longer a teacher, but a person. And THAT they pay attention to.


That Class

I have this one class that I literally cannot wait to teach each and every day. The combination of kids is just… magical.

Individually, they are good, but as a whole, they’re awesome. The thing with them is that there is such a good mix: there are the couple of students who think differently–who care about why we’re learning and not just what we’re learning, there are the students who are super focused on the specifics and why things work the way that they do, there are the students who are genuinely interested in biology and what I’m teaching, and then there are just the funny students who ask the bold questions that no one else dares to, and who make it fun.

And together, they drive me each and every day to be a better teacher, because each student pulls at a different part of the lesson: so all in one, I’m teaching, the people who are interested, the big picture, the details, the application to the real world, and the fun of it. It’s such a thrill/

And the thing is that I gave them all a survey on who they would and would not like to work with on a project, and not one of them put anyone in the category of people to not work with.

And the question now is–how can I create more classes like that? Is it sheerly the combination of people or is it the way I structured the class from the beginning?

I guess it’s just about enjoying it while it lasts.

A Plug for Sex-Ed

…because when I met my neighbor’s new dog today, I found out her name was “Vulva.” Someone had clearly slept all the way through their sex-ed class, and now their poor dog will receive covert giggles every time someone hears its name… Goodness.

On Teaching Cancer

types of cancer

Cancer is one of my favorite units to teach. That may sound strange, but here’s the thing: nearly every student that I have has some kind of connection to someone who has/had some form of cancer, and everyone can relate to it. My first year teaching, I had each student choose a type of cancer an do a mini-project on it, and one student wrote “RIP Aunt _____” at the very end of his breast cancer presentation. *here’s where my heart breaks*

But nearly no one knows anything about it. And so I love teaching this unit because it is so personal.

The only hard part about it is trying to figure out where to go with it–should I talk about the types of cancer? The treatments for it? How cancer works? All of the above? This year, I’m lucky enough to have 2 days for it, so here’s my plan:

Day 1:

  1. Cell Cycle 101
    1. Notes: What is the cell cycle? What are the stages in it? What do the checkpoints in the different stages do?
  2. Cell Cycle POGIL
  3. Class Discussion: What happens when one of the checkpoints in the cell cycle mutates? What if it doesn’t work?
    1. Cancer
  4. Cancer 101
    1. Class Discussion: what they already know about cancer/what cancer actually is (abnormal growth of cells)/how we get cancer (mutations in the cell cycle)
    2. Reading from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (p.216): “‘Some war,’ he said dismissively. ‘What an I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It’s a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.”
  5. Mini-research activity: Students will go online and find the answers to the following questions:
    1. What causes cancer?
    2. What are the most common types of cancer?
    3. What are the most lethal (deadly) cancers nowadays? for men? for women?
    4. Find one novel research technique that we’re using to treat cancer (can’t be chemotherapy!)
  6. Homework: Read pgs. 128-129 in the textbook and answer the following questions
    1. What causes a normal cell to be converted to a cancer cell?
    2. What is the difference between a benign tumor and a malignant tumor?
    3. When do you have cancer?
    4. What is metastasis?
    5. What are the 3 ways that we currently treat cancer? Give an example of each.

Day 2:

  1. Starter: Look up and define “metastasis,” and “apoptosis.”
  2. Review Homework in a Class Discussion:
    1. what is cancer? how does it work? how are we currently treating it?
  3. evolution and cancer
    1. first students will do the WebQuest on the hallmarks of cancer
    2. secondly, they will do the simulation in which they are the cells and they acquire mutations over their “lifetimes” and then they see how the mutations build up over time to develop into a cancerous cell

Just as a side note, I’m really excited about this Evolution and Cancer activity. I’m hoping they get to see that a cell can have many mutations over its lifetime, and only when it has certain mutations or when it has too many does it become cancerous.

We’ll see how this goes!

Friday Presentations

One of my colleagues started doing this and loved it, and I decided to try it, and it’s honestly the best thing I’ve implemented in my teaching. The idea is simple: each Friday throughout the year, I have one student in each class make a 5-minutes presentation on any topic in science that they think is fascinating using this Friday Presentation Rubric.

And kids LOVE IT. They look forward to this every week, and to be honest, I do to. It’s neat to see what the kids are really interested in especially because at the end, I have them say what field of science this is, and why it interests them.

Yesterday alone, my 4 classes learned about:

  1. The 9th super planet
  2. The Environmental Effects of Compulsive Tail-Chasing in Dogs (AKA Canine OCD)
  3. The Biology of Schizophrenia
  4. How The Drive for Success in Schools is Making Students Sick (she had the whole class take this quiz, which was fascinating–she didn’t ask them to reveal their results, but it caused a lot of self reflection)

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A Perfect Day

I wish I could take today and bottle it up, and then open the cap on bad days and get just a tiny glimpse of that bliss and happiness I felt all of today. Like sunshine in a bottle.

I just felt like I was getting compliments all day long, and they weren’t even coming from anywhere!

First there was an impromptu conference with a parent of a student that just opened my eyes in so many ways. This particular parent, whom I had assumed was a high-striver and didn’t care for the well-being of her daughter, was so compassionate. She was so worried that her daughter was doing too much and she was asking what she could do to help her, and it was just so heartening.

Later that day, I saw that same daughter in a class, and one of the girls was saying that today I really looked like a certain character from Big Hero 6 (see below).

And then I told them that I’d also been compared to the female from the show “Arrow,” to which one of them said “Just take any female superhero, and that’s Miss S.”

My cup overfloweth.

In another class, I tried a brand new activity with them, and they loved it, and they went with it, even though it was completely out of the blue, which was awesome. Don’t you ever just have those time when you think–this is so awesome that I have to try it. Now.

The female a capella group is finally beginning to get their songs together and ramp up the sass in it, which is so awesome, and then my day ended like this: it was a department meeting, and we were hearing news from all the departments, and then someone in the science department said that everything was boring in science. The head of school then looked at me and said “She’s not boring.” And after I laughed super loud, the person sitting next to me smiled and said “Well, you’re not.”

What did I do to deserve this life?