Tonight was the first of three sessions in which my Cancer Biology students present their final team projects. The assignment was simple: create a public work, using any medium of your choosing, to demonstrate understanding and add meaning to the Hallmarks of Cancer. The six hallmarks of cancer, as first articulated  by Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg in a paradigm-shifting Cell paper in  2000, had been the focus of our class all semester.

My students had taken off in all sorts of different directions with this assignment, and I had seen outlines and bibliographies along the way, but it wasn’t until tonight that I would see the final products and the fruits of their labor.

I wanted this evening to be special. When teaching a subject like cancer, there is always the danger of irreverence, of getting so caught up in molecules and mutations that we disrespect those suffering from the disease. I definitely did not want to do that. I wanted tonight to be special. Event planning resides on the long list of tasks I undertake as a faculty member and they definitely did NOT teach me in graduate school, so I was a bit stressed out trying to get the programs from the printers at the last minute, test the A/V equipment and set out some food. And candles.

I decided the best way not to forget the people with cancer was to remember them – explicitly. So I made a little shrine, a place to light a candle and leave a note in remembrance of someone lost to cancer or in honor of a survivor. Because my daughters helped with the shopping, the candles were not novena-white, but rather a lovely palette of colors and smells.

Phew, 5:55. I had the room ready just in time. I quickly wrote my father’s name on a slip of paper and dropped it into the jar and lit a bright blue candle – the color of his eyes. Then the first students entered the room.

Remarkable. That’s the closest I can come to describing these student projects. Here’s a recount of just a few of them:

Team Totally Radical started the evening with a presentation on antioxidants and cancer. Their public work was a meal plan whereby fellow Virginia Tech students could follow a diet rich in antioxidants by choosing foods available in the dining halls. Their medium was simple but time-and-again proven to be the most effective mode for communicating with Virginia Tech undergraduate students – little cards that get placed on every table in the dining halls, particularly suited to this project.

The Fantastic Four Minus One (long story) were next. Early in the semester, this trio had latched on to the idea of writing a story book explaining the hallmarks of cancer for children who were dealing with cancer. Their metaphors were spot-on and the illustrations just delightful.

Next up was Team Pap Smears, who had created an educational brochure on cervical cancer, including critical information about prevention and human papilloma virus. The team passed out ribbons in cervical-cancer-teal (nice touch). They were dressed to the nines in coordinating black and white outfits. As they talked about safe sex and vaccinations, I couldn’t help but think of my own daughters with whom I would need to have these discussions soon. As a mother, I want the best for my daughters. I want them to be strong, intelligent and beautiful like these six women who were standing in front of me.

And now for something really amazing….  “What if we want to do something different than covering the hallmarks of cancer?”, Team for a Cure had asked me early in the semester. “As long as it’s truly awesome, better than what I assigned, them I’m OK with that,” I replied. That’s practically the last I heard from Team for a Cure. “How are you doing?” I would ask periodically. “Fine.”   Then last week, I got an e-mail from a colleague whose graduate student was mentoring this group. “Jill, I think we might be able to publish their project. How do you feel about that?” I was stunned. Tonight, I was just about speechless as the group provided an overview of a detailed set of analyses they have performed using a variety of publicly available genomics databases to explore  (and ultimately disprove) a popular hypothesis regarding aneuploidy (the loss and gain of chromosomes) and cancer. At the end, they described their plans for the next phase of the project. “Hello- this is your final presentation. Classes end tomorrow.” These students don’t care. They aren’t doing this for the grade. They aren’t doing this for ME. These are scientists, with a passion, on a mission. They are conducting original, authentic research, research that matters to them, and apparently to the world. “We put our presentation up on the web today, and we already have 100 hits.”

WOW! I’d love to take credit for this deschooling within school, but honestly, I didn’t do anything, except to create an assignment which they pretty much ignored to go off and do something better.

As you can see, it was quite the evening and I haven’t even described all of it, including the blog readings, which to be poetic, deserve a blog post all their own.

After the final presentation, I begged off the students’ offers to stick around and help me clean up and carry the leftovers to my car. “Thanks, but go on. I, um, need to check my e-mail before I go.” The truth of the matter was, I needed to be alone in that space for a little while. Since my fortunate return from the tragic Boston Marathon, I’ve pledged to live most fully in the present and to take nothing for granted. To take no one for granted.

I walked over to my little shrine.  My dad’s candle had extinguished but many others were shining brightly. I dimmed the lights then lit one more candle, a sunny yellow one, and said a little prayer of thanksgiving for my students and for the hope that they give me for our future.