Connecting Cancer Researchers with Cancer Patients

-by Bob Riter

A unique partnership between Cornell University and the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes connects students and cancer researchers with individuals in the Ithaca area personally affected by cancer.

Now in its sixth year, the program began with a focus on doctoral students in the basic sciences and bioengineering engaged in cancer research. The intent was to provide budding researchers with a better understanding of the human side of cancer and to provide opportunities for them to practice communicating their research with non-scientists.

The partnership was initiated by Bob Riter, then executive director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, and Bob Weiss, professor of molecular genetics and associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Peter DelNero, Ph.D. '17, and Alexandra McGregor, Ph.D. '18, then doctoral students in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, were instrumental in bridging the researcher and patient communities. DelNero and McGregor’s article about their experience, “From Patients to Partners” was published in Science.

At first, the collaboration was informal with students regularly presenting cancer research in lay language to an audience of patients, family members, and the general public. In addition, a few students became regular participants in the support groups of the Cancer Resource Center. They often researched scientific questions for patients and had the opportunity to observe the cancer experience in real time.

Funding from Engaged Cornell helped establish a four-course curriculum leading to a Cornell Graduate Certificate of Engagement in Public Communication of Science and Technology. This institutionalized the partnership and made it an ongoing part of the Cornell curriculum.

The spring 2019 class, Community-Based Cancer Research Presentations and Discussions (BIOMS 5665), was the largest ever and attracted undergraduate and master’s students in addition to the doctoral students and community members. It’s likely one of the most diverse classes on campus.

The partnership received a Cornell ToGo (Town-Gown) award in 2013 and continues to evolve in creative ways. Patients visit undergraduate bioengineering courses to suggest how engineers might improve the delivery of cancer care. And community members judge posters presented by doctoral students, awarding the “People’s Choice Award” based on the students’ ability to explain the science in a clear and accessible manner.

The fall 2019 semester began with an informal panel presentation by cancer patients, survivors and family members, targeted to graduate students beginning research careers. The semester-long class will next be offered in the spring of 2020.