Emotional investment in cancer research – how much is necessary for good research?

One of the thought-provoking articles that has come up repeatedly in my twitter feed this week, is an article in the NY Times about (and written by) a young woman who found out that she carries a BRCA1 mutation. After discussing the reasons behind wanting to know whether she carried the gene mutation, she mentions enrolling in a cancer biology class taught by a

“professor [who] filled his slides with dark oncological puns, lecturing with the almost robotic detachment I sometimes see in those who work closely with cancer”…

Reading this paragraph as a cancer researcher, I asked myself to what extent do I portray the robotic detachment she mentions, and does this lead to better research?  Its now a few days after I read the article but I don’t think I really have an answer yet.

To elaborate, my work now is really translational – if you ask me what the measure(s) of my success over the next few years is, here’s my answer: I would have designed a biomarker-driven treatment strategy for IBC patients that still appears promising after rigorous preclinical work including animal model testing and a clear understanding of mechanism. My data so far on my main project is coming along very nicely!

In addition, because I am in the TRIUMPH postdoctoral training program, I have the unique opportunity to be exposed to clinical issues at a deeper level than virtually any other PhD-track program in the country.  This year, in parallel with my lab research, I am engaging in rotations with various specialties within MDACC (pediatrics, medical oncology, radiation therapy, phase 1 trials, surgical oncology). In reflecting on my experiences so far, and talking with my peers, it is crystal clear to us why we are here.  Papers in nice high-IF journals, awards, invited talks etc are nice (and desirable qualifications for those of us who want to stay in academia), but at the end of the program, many of our goals include being able to see our work translate directly into patient care.

On top of these IRL opportunities, I have enjoyed interacting with a group of cancer survivors and patient advocates on social media and reading blogs, which has given me a deeper understanding of the impact of cancer on people’s lives than the average lab scientist, and made me even more driven to do clinically-relevant work. Time will tell whether time invested in such activities above and beyond my long days in lab, will actually make me a better researcher – but I have my suspicions it will.

In contrast, when thinking back to my PhD which was in a much more basic science-driven department, my success was measured by how elegantly I could prove a mechanism for some biological process (in my case how oxidative stress and DNA damage signals to particular pathways to regulate cell survival/death), and by most people’s definition, I was successful in this endeavor. Looking back at some of my peers I have to admit that I saw some of the “robotic detachment” mentioned in the article, not only from those who worked in cell lines/yeast on fundamental biology questions (like understanding all the binding partners of protein X or what genes ABC transcription factor regulates). Perhaps it was just such fundamental (and SLOW!) research combined with the struggles of grad school that made even the brightest students to sometimes appear uninspired.  However, even some of my colleagues who worked on mouse models of XYZ cancer seemed to care only enough to do their project to their committee’s satisfaction.  To be fair, some superficial level of detachment is probably necessary for working with animals that have to be sacrificed during/after the study, especially after the researcher induced disease (in the most humane way possible).  However deep down, I think that most cancer researchers aren’t very detached from their work. After all, cancer touches us all at some point whether individually or people close to us.  heart-robotMaybe its just a question of degree instead of a black-and-white detached or not attitude. Hey, maybe we can be robots WITH hearts – if that’s what it takes to make a real difference!


What do you think fellow biomedical researchers? Do you feel detached from your work i.e. is it mainly just a fun/interesting way to make a living or are you deeply invested in the broader implications of your work?  Or is the reality of the disease you are working on so depressing that you need some objectivity to survive.


Filed under Biology/science, Cancer research, Personal

5 responses to “Emotional investment in cancer research – how much is necessary for good research?

  1. Sabine

    You also have to keep in mind that this is our career – it is fine to say that we should have a burning passion for the underlying problem that is cancer, but if that passion isn’t mitigated, it will lead to burnout. What looks like detachment may be someone who has devoted their life to this problem, and has stoked that fire to something that can be sustained day after day, year after year, and decade after decade.

  2. Keyomarsi,Khandan

    Dear Angela:

    Just read your post and really liked it (as usual).

    I can tell you of my own experience with this issue.

    A week before I was to start at MDACC, my sister calls me with the news that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time she lived in Mobile, Alabama. I instructed her to hold off on any treatments, until I set up appointments for her at MDACC. At the time, I only knew Tom Buchhulz, so I called him and he, within 2 hours, set up all her appointments, including her surgery with Kelly (that is how I met Kelly!). The treatment my sister underwent was the works, sugary, intense chemo, another surgery to generated clean margins, radiation and then Tamoxifen followed by AI. She was Luminal B. She is now an 11 year survivor. During her treatment, I had to be her rock and answer her questions and not be emotional. I, had to be emotionally removed. I remember that one day driving home alone, I allowed myself to react to her disease as her sister, and I became an emotional mess-could not stop crying. I realized, then and there, that the only way I can be the support that she needs is to be the voice of reason, logic and information. Years later when my mom was diagnosed, I reacted the same way and put her through the most effective treatment available. I was there, and continue to be, her support for any medical need she may have. The only way I could have done this for both my sister and my mom, is a bit of emotional detachment. So, yes, I do think that it is necessary. However, the emotions that their diseases fueled in me, is the reason for the path that I have taken in my research. I totally agree with you, that we need the high impact papers to move forward in our careers, but at the end of the day what is important is if we have translated our findings to the clinic. However, I also believe that if our findings are indeed translated and effective that we will have our high impact papers. So, in essence by engaging in translational research, you get to have your pie and eat it too.



  3. Richard Turkington

    Thanks for such a great blogpost! I am a clinical academic in Belfast so I get to see things from both the medical and scientific sides. I completely understand what the lady in the article means when she talks about some people having a ‘robotic detachment’ and not appreciating the impact this disease has on patients/families. I have met many scientists who are caught up with the pursuit of the next grant/paper and only view patients as a source of tissue for their next project! As a clinician I try to get them to see the person at the end of the research and the potential benefits. More worryingly I have also met many clinicians who have a detachment or coldness in their dealings with patients and this is harder to understand. I think we have to removed to a point because otherwise we would be emotional wrecks having to deal with all this suffering. However, a doctor without empathy and who does not ‘get it’ is not a good doctor in my eyes. It’s great that your program brings you into contact with patients and, although basic science is very important, I think if we all focused on approaches which will benefit patients our research would be much more effective. Keep up the blogging and tweeting!


  4. Pingback: Emotional investment in cancer research – how much is necessary for good research? | Science ethics - éthique des sciences | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: How social media led to my current research in IBC via twitter and blogging? | thecancergeek

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