Did you know that for the past five years the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received more funding from the National Science Foundation than any other university? After spending two years there, and the last seven months working as a public affairs intern for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, it makes sense to me – there are so many bright people there making important contributions to science. During my first semester at the university, I decided to take a course on science reporting. From a young age, I’ve been interested in science – starting with a curiosity about what makes the human body and mind work, and then, later discovering a love for chemistry through baking.
Despite my scientific curiosity, I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. However, by covering science, I’ve come to realize that we need more people working as translators between researchers working in the lab and those of us reading the news in our living rooms. There’s a gap between them, and if a bridge isn’t present, it can lead to misinformation and even unjustified panic.
And I’m not immune to that panic. In fact, I experienced it when I started working on a story that later went on to win a Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award. Earlier in the year, I’d watched a news segment on dogs in research in Illinois, and was astounded to see the number of research dogs at my university. My family owns a beagle – one of the most common breeds of dogs in research – and though she doesn’t have a research background, it still hit me hard to hear about them.
A few months later, I learned about clinical trials that were beginning in humans to test a drug called PAC-1, which researchers hoped could be used to treat human cancer. It was previously tested in dogs! I was particularly concerned, having seen the earlier piece, and I wondered what would happen to them once the research was complete.
As it turned out, my worrying about dogs needlessly suffering for the betterment of humanity was unnecessary.
Timothy Fan, a veterinary oncologist, and professor at the college of Veterinary Medicine at the university, became interested in seeing how PAC-1 could help his patients – cats and dogs with tumors. Because we share environments, pets are exposed to many of the same carcinogens as people and can develop similar cancers. Clinical trials in pets with cancer can offer a more accurate look at how a drug could work for us. Once researchers observed how PAC-1 worked in the pet dogs, they began to study it in people. Both species are benefitting from this research.
After learning this, and talking extensively with the researchers, my anxiety faded – they did have dogs bred for research purposes, yes, but they are helping other dogs by being involved in the research process. I was further encouraged when I learned that the dogs used for research were adopted by many of the same researchers who worked on the study.
Even Dr. Fan, who headed the research, adopted one of the dogs – a hound dog named Ember. Ember is not only a wonderful pet to Dr. Fan, but also represents hope for so many who suffer from cancer.
It was after writing this article that I realized just how much I loved reporting on science. Moreover, it taught me how important animal research is to both our two-legged and four-legged friends.
About the Author: Susan Szuch is a rising junior studying news-editorial journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is focusing on science writing and communication. She is a public affairs intern with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and was formerly copy chief of the independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois, The Daily Illini.