University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Studying the Biography of Cancer

Mateo Cortes, left, is looking at Pap smears with another student, Meredith (Meri) Lackie, and Dr. Christopher Landry on a recent visit to the pathology lab at Fletcher Allen Hospital

When Dean Antonio Cepeda-Benito secured funding for a new teaching initiative, the Enhancing Excellence through Interdisciplinary Experiential Engagement or EEIEE, the hope was to have high-impact learning practices (e.g., first-year seminars, learning communities, service learning, internship experiences, undergraduate research, capstone experiences) that not only fostered student engagement and deepened learning but also improved retention, persistence to degree completion, and postgraduate attainment.

Faculty in the College saw an opportunity with this new initiative to go outside their usual course structures and invest in a different type of classroom environment.  One of the first proposals to be granted funding was titled A Biography of Cancer.  Citing that popular media frequently poses questions about cancer, there was no single undergraduate course at UVM that addressed those questions directly.  The proposal, co-authored by College of Arts and Sciences chemistry professor Christopher Landry and College of Medicine biochemistry professor Christopher Francklyn, offered to use a multidisciplinary approach to describe the identity and treatment of cancer in a manner “challenging enough for our highest undergraduate achievers, but accessible enough for non-specialist.”

The course meets three times a week and has proven to be a success for students and faculty alike. Ali Watson, a first-year student from Maryland, signed up for the course because her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and Ali wanted to know more and understand her aunt’s condition. Ali was also attracted to the idea of hands-on learning, such as viewing the pathology lab, or writing a lab report on a tissue sample examined under a microscope. “Since I am a hands-on learner, I found this aspect of the class refreshing, especially since all of my other classes are lectures that test your knowledge through exams and quizzes.”

Mateo Cortes, a first-year student from Santiago de Cali, Colombia and living in Miami since he was eleven, was hooked by the course’s promise of integrating knowledge from different disciplines to produce a more complete, holistic understanding. “I was interested in how we were going to analyze and learn about cancer from a historical, sociological, and biochemical point of view.”

Mateo added, “The course has solidified my love for the health sciences and careers that involved helping people with medical conditions, especially in the oncology area.”   The course has also caused Ali to reconsider her four-year plan. “I went into the course only considering to become a trauma physician or orthopedic physician, but now I am considering becoming an oncologist, a physician's assistant, or even a nurse. The course opened up my interests in the medical field, and I realized much more goes into helping patients back on to their feet, which includes much more than the word of a doctor.”

Dr. Landry, whose current research emphasis is nanomedicine—modifying inorganic nanoparticles to load them with drugs and target diseased tissues—says the course has been a gift.  “Teaching chemistry can get pretty routine after a while, because the basic topics in the first couple of years don't change that much. How often can a course be taught that includes lectures by medical professionals from the hospital, sociologists and chemists from Arts and Sciences, and biochemists and pharmacologists from the College of Medicine? And I definitely feel that I am learning very detailed information about cancer and health care right along with the students.”

Landry is one of four faculty members (two from the basic and applied sciences and two from the social sciences and humanities) to be named a University Scholar for 2013-2014 in recognition of his distinguished and sustained excellence in research and scholarly activities. University Scholars are selected by a panel of faculty scholars, based upon nominations submitted by UVM faculty.  Dr. Landry’s recent lecture can be found here.

Dean Cepeda-Benito expects more of these types of interdisciplinary courses to be developed in the years ahead. “Landry and Francklyn’s collaboration is a wonderful example of the value of interdisciplinary teaching. They have met and exceeded the most ambitious expectations of our very talented and spirited students.  I must continue to support our students’ well-guided demand for unique, meaningful, engaging, and fulfilling learning experiences. This is why we are now in the midst of a call for proposals to enhance excellence at UVM through the Interdisciplinary Experiential Engagement program. I can’t wait to read the new batch of proposals!”

If you’d like to help support this initiative, please consider giving to the Interdisciplinary Experiential Engagement Fund.