Why research? The personal foundations of cancer research

Author: Sara M. Nolte, 05/30/13

My interest (maybe even fascination) in cancer began when I was six years old: I was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia (a cancer of white blood cells), and am now able to say that I am a childhood cancer survivor. After realizing that I was no longer interested in going to medical school to pursue my childhood dream of being a pediatric oncologist, I decided to get my Masters of Science in a brain tumour research lab. At the time, I felt as though I had a personal vendetta against cancer (it didn’t matter which type), and I imagined myself making a discovery that would change the lives of patients with brain tumours.

I think I was drawn to the Singh lab, aside from the research topic, because my supervisor was a pediatric neurosurgeon; she, too, had a bone to pick with cancer (brain tumours in children), as she could see the effects of the disease on a daily basis. When I started in the lab and met my co-workers, I realized that we were a group of people who had had a personal encounter with some form of cancer. One member had a brother who had survived a childhood brain tumour; another’s father had passed away from glioblastoma (a highly malignant brain tumour in adults); and I was a leukemia survivor. It was clear that we had chosen research based first on our experiences, and then it just happened to suit our science-oriented personalities.

Working in research can be highly frustrating, and occasionally, heart-breaking. Not making the life-changing discovery I hoped for is disheartening. What can be even more disheartening is when others also start losing hope – especially those we are trying to help. Sometimes it feels as though people are losing their patience with cancer research, and are becoming more frustrated with the rate of progress (don’t get me wrong; we have made substantial progress in cancer therapeutics and diagnostics, but perhaps just not as much as expected, given the time and funds invested). Who can blame them? As someone involved directly in research, I think we have more frustrations with our own work than we let the public believe. Would they be more understanding and sympathetic if they knew we often have personal ties with the disease?

But rather than reveal such personal motivations, it seems researchers attempt to placate the frustrations. We often say, “Don’t worry, we’ll get there – we just need more time and money to get this working.” Perhaps this leads to some believing that we are a group of high and mighty academics keeping knowledge to ourselves, satisfying our thirst for understanding how things work, at the expense of patients’ lives.

While yes, we find a profound sense of fulfillment in understanding development of disease, in my experience this is neither the only, nor the most important, factor motivating our work in cancer research. What about prestige – a Nobel Prize? Sure, we’d like these things (who doesn’t like a little recognition?), but these are not necessarily the primary motivations of researchers.

I would hazard to guess that there are a number of scientists and trainees in cancer research who, like my former colleagues and I, have found themselves there because of a personal encounter with the disease. I also wouldn’t limit this to the cancer field; it is just as likely a common element in fields like cardiovascular disease, AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s, etc. What I am trying to say is that while we are scientists, we are not cold-hearted, and we have not forgotten the personal element of disease. We are keenly aware of patients’ lives, and take the daily frustrations and limitations of our work personally. We, too, wish progress could be faster, that things could work as promised right away. We don’t do it to satisfy a need for knowledge, or for money, or for recognition. We do it for the survivors, the people we’ve lost, and for the lives we hope to can save in the future.

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Sara M. Nolte

Sara Nolte holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences and Masters of Science in Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences from McMaster University. Her MSc research focused on developing of cancer stem model to study brain metastases from the lung. She then spent a year working on developing cell-based cancer immunotherapies. Throughout a highly productive graduate career, Sara became interested in scientific communication and education. She is now involved in developing undergraduate programs and courses in the health sciences at McMaster, and is looking for ways to improve scientific communication with the public. Outside of science, Sara enjoys participating in a variety of sports, and is a competitive Olympic weightlifter hoping to compete at the National level soon!
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