Heroic "Pattern Seekers"
When my high school students complain that they cannot find anything on a topic they've been told to look up I often tell them that the word "research" means re-search as in look again. This is intended as a joke, but for cancer researchers this may adequately sum up the process, as they have to search continually into the root causes and types of cancer.
Scientific progress depends upon two distinct types of thinking. The first involves research, the painstaking process of discovering new facts. The second requires a human mind to make sense of those facts, in essence to see patterns that prove to be useful.
Cancer parents have a tendency (rightly) to celebrate the doctors they come immediately into contact with. My son, Ben, was immediately saved from a malignant brain tumor by the steady hands of his surgeon (and my hero) Dr. Joel Boaz. However, it was also research in the fields of physics and cancer genomes that has made his long-term remission possible. Researchers found that proton therapy treatments could eradicate cancer cells in the tumor bed of patients' brains, and do so in a way that prevented the cognitive destruction which came from traditional radiation.
Riley patients like Ben are treated not just by the physicians and nurses they come into contact with, but by the researchers who toil away through Riley's medical research program - the Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research. (The website for the center is located at www.wellscenter.iupui.edu) Research increases the amount of information available to oncologists, who really are professional pattern-seekers. In his prodigious "biography" of cancer, Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee writes of an oncologist named Dr. Vogelstein whom he admires "characteristically, where others see only daunting chaos in the littered genetic landscape, Vogelstein sees patterns coalescing out of the mess."
Seeing patterns in messes of information- oncologists are trained to do it but they need to have access to as much information as possible, and this means making a crucial investment into research. By all means, let us celebrate the staff at Riley, but let us not forget (or forget to donate to) the researchers who search, again and again, for information that drives the process of advancement.
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