The Gustavian Weekly

56th annual Noble Conference preview: Cancer in the Age of Biotechnology - The Gustavian Weekly

By Emily VanGorder - Staff Writer | October 2, 2020 | News

The 56th Nobel Conference will take place virtually on October 6 and 7, and will be available to livestream through the Gustavus website.
Planning for the 56th Nobel Conference began in 2018, when Professor and Conference co-chair Dwight Stoll emailed Professor and Conference Director Lisa Heldke about the idea of a conference focused on biotherapeutics and biotechnology. Faculty from different departments are recruited for each conference to brainstorm topic ideas.
“We thought we should focus the discussion on cancer as well because a lot of these new drugs are being developed for cancer,” Stoll said.
Stoll first became interested in cancer through his work as an analytical chemist.
“[My research began to shift] in the direction of looking at these biotherapeutics and biochemicals…as my group got more involved in that work, I started going to conferences about these kinds of therapies and the molecules and methods people are using to characterize them…it’s a really exciting, but really complicated area and that’s how I got to thinking it would make a good conference topic,” Stoll said.
Once a topic was chosen and narrowed down, the conference started to take shape.
“We started thinking about who our speakers might be. We found our speakers through a combination of reading scientific papers, looking at who had won really important awards [and watching] some talks. We’re incredibly happy with the lineup of speakers that we have,” Professor and Conference co-chair Laura Burrack said.
Burrack’s own research on the intersection of basic and cancer biology made this conference topic particularly interesting for her.
“[In the last ten to fifteen years, there has been] an explosion of new cancer treatments…mainly in the form of targeted therapies, immunotherapies and biologics. [Due to] their increased personalization and increased complexity, [they are] more specific and less likely to have side effects, but it also makes them more expensive to produce,” Burrack said.
In addition to increased financial costs, there are other issues that arise when thinking about cancer.
“If you think about [treating] cancer as switching from a terminal disease to a chronic disease, then there’s all sorts of issues about mental health and long-term well-being that need to be taken into account,” Burrack said.
Furthermore, there are ethics involved, such as the racial disparities in cancer treatment.
“Why are there cost barriers for so many different people? We [Burrack and Stoll] became interested in this through a combination of our shared research interests…we recognized that it was really this incredible convergence of science and liberal arts of aspects of psychology, sociology, economics and ethics,” Burrack said.
After planning for two years, changes had to be made quickly when COVID-19 came onto the scene.
“Even around April/May we were still kind of thinking we could have the speakers on campus. There was a gradual shift in thinking to where we are now,” Stoll said.
Provost Brenda Kelly approached Director of Institutional Events in Marketing and Communication Barb Larson Taylor and Professor and Conference Director Lisa Heldke to develop various plans.
“We came up with a best case scenario and a worst case scenario. At the beginning, we hit somewhere in the middle, but as things have continued to get worse we’ve moved…though we’re still nowhere near the worst case,” Heldke said.
“[The COVID-19 pandemic] has highlighted some of the issues we’re going to be discussing at the conference. If you look at cancer, there are a lot of the same racial disparities that you see in COVID-19. You can see how there’s a lot of the same structural and societal factors… you can see broader healthcare impacts” Burrack said
“We realized that our idea of having a small gathering of presenters on campus with a small audience [that we] live streamed wasn’t going to work, because all these people were medical professionals and they were not being allowed to travel,”Heldke said. The conference then became an all-online event, which required working out the details of how speakers could present and ways in which the conference could still engage viewers.
Consideration was also given to what was special about the conference, and how those aspects could be maintained.
“We’ve had to reframe…how we’re thinking about engagement…we still kept things, but we also thought of it as a chance to try out some things that we had maybe wanted to do but had never done before,” Burrack said.
This year, Heldke has been hosting a podcast leading up to the conference with the purpose of interviewing researchers.
“We’ve been thinking about a podcast for a while, and this seemed like a really good year to do it,” Heldke said.
The podcast’s focus is to make researcher’s work more clear to a general audience, investigate why they chose their field and to learn more about the relationship between science and ethics in their field.
This year, there will be student-narrated powerpoints about cancer, original spoken word pieces by faculty members about their experiences with cancer, a History of Cancer mini lecture series, yoga demonstrations, healthy cooking demonstrations and a dance performance.
The dance is a result of collaboration between nursing and dance students.
“The nursing students did in-depth interviews with people who have cancer and the dance students used that as the foundation for their dance,” Heldke said.
High schools interested in participating in the conference were sent ‘experiments in a box’ to help engage them in the content.
“[Due to the online format] many high schools are going to be able to use the conference who normally can’t come,” Heldke said.
While the conference traditionally takes place over two days, this year there has been a lot happening in the weeks leading up to the main event, and things won’t end after that.
“After [the conference], there’s going to be a lot of ways people can engage…in ways we simply didn’t do before,” Stoll said.
Burrack is especially looking forward to the panel discussions.
“These experts, and people who don’t necessarily talk to each other every day, get a chance to exchange ideas,” Burrack said.
Stoll agreed.
“I don’t think this year will be any different in that regard…the spirit of that, what happens in those conversations, will still be there,” Stoll said. “I participated in a conversation like that with a Nobel prize winner (in graduate school), and that was really impactful for me…I think that’s a great piece of what’s happening this year,” Stoll said.
Heldke noted that she attended the conference when she was a student.
“I always went to the Nobel Conference and I was always starstruck by it…I really hope that students can realize that this is like a huge rock concert. I’m excited to watch them talk to each other…I think it’s probably these moments where humans are going to talk to other humans live in the moment I’m so excited for,” Heldke said.

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