Cancer gets a 'bad' rap

Cell meets song when rap musician and cancer scientist connect to create new music video

May 26, 2020

When it comes to helping understand cancer, Athena Aktipis wants to get her point across — not just to other researchers, but to anyone who will listen.

A cancer researcher at Arizona State University, Aktipis is also co-founder of the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE) at ASU, launched in 2018 with a grant of $8.5 million from the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute. ACE is one of 13 international hubs for helping researchers understand cancer through the lenses of evolution and ecology.  Athena Aktipis is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and director of ASU’s Cooperation and Conflict Lab. Professor Aktipis studies cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer. Download Full Image

Aktipis is also associate faculty at ASU’s Biodesign Institute  and an associate professor of psychology. As scientific director of ASU’s Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative, Aktipis' research focuses on how evolution shapes cooperation and conflict at the level of genes, cells, groups and whole societies.

But Aktipis doesn’t leave science at the laboratory door — or in the halls of academia.

“I see science itself as a creative expedition,” she said. “We can’t make progress in science without expanding our minds and looking at things from different perspectives. Science and artists have a lot in common — we all are trying to understand and make sense of the world and then share that with others.” Aktipis is also the host and producer of the science and humor podcast “Zombified.” 

One creative collaboration resulted in the creation of a new rap video, “Revenge of the Somatic.” Aktipis worked with internationally known rap music artist Baba Brinkman to tell the story of how cancer connects to evolution. Brinkman released the song “Revenge of the Somatic” on his 2015 album, “The Rap Guide to Medicine.”

The recent publication of Aktipis’ book, “The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer,” presented a new opportunity for Aktipis to meld her interests with Brinkman’s talents. Working with animator Dave Anderson, they brought to life the world of a cell that rebels against the multicellular body, transforming into a cancer cell and then growing and dividing as the cellular rebellion grows.  

Video courtesy Baba Brinkman. Note: Some of the lyrics are mature in nature.

“As a middle-class white Canadian, I’ve always been a fan of politically radical rap music but never really had the kind of firsthand experience with oppression that the artists articulate in their lyrics,” Brinkman said. “So when Athena reached out and told me about cancer as a form of cellular rebellion, my first thought was ‘This calls for some rebel music!’”

Working with veteran U.K. producer Mr. Simmonds, Brinkman crafted a “freedom song” with a twist, making the protagonist a cancer cell yearning for the freedom of its wild ancestors who didn’t have to conform to the oppressive “corporate system” of the multicellular body.

Baba Brinkman is a New York-based rap artist and award-winning playwright, originally from Vancouver, Canada.

“I can honestly say that Baba's creative way of presenting the challenges of cancer through the eyes of a cancer cell affected how I thought about cancer as I worked on subsequent research papers and my book,” Aktipis said. “This is a brilliant case of science influencing the arts, as well as vice versa.”

According to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer, “Baba Brinkman's song about cancer is blisteringly clever, summing up complex biological concepts in irresistible rhymes.”

“Revenge of the Somatic”

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Listen to Brinkman’s "Rap Guide to Medicine"

Written by Dianne Price

After a break to play pro golf, graduate returns to earn degree

May 26, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Skyler Hong first attended Arizona State University in 2008, but after a semester, decided to leave and pursue a career in professional golf.  ASU grad in laboratory Photo courtesy of Skyler Hong Download Full Image

Hong played golf for the next several years, competing in small tours across Asia and the PGA tour in China in 2014. But he said uncertainties of a career in professional golf and a desire to pursue a career in dentistry led him to return to The College Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU in 2016.

“During my time playing golf, I felt really nervous for not having a backup plan in case I never made it as a successful player,” said Hong, a recent graduate of The College’s School of Life Sciences with a degree in biological sciences (neurobiology, physiology and behavior).

Hong came back to ASU and met with an adviser who helped him get enrolled again for the next semester.

“Coming back after taking a break from school was definitely challenging,” he said. “However, I think the challenge was really in my head.”

Being an older-than-usual undergraduate student made Hong worry he’d feel out of place at ASU.

But that’s not what ended up happening.

“I feel extremely fortunate because my first semester back actually gave me a lot of confidence throughout the next four years,” Hong said. “I knew I could succeed because ASU supplies students with amazing tutoring centers, supplemental instruction sessions and thoughtful professors to help us do well in class.”

Hong answered some questions about his time at Arizona State University.

Question: How has The College prepared you for success? 

Answer: ASU and The College prepared me for success by supplying me with the best professors and tools to feel ready for dental school, which is where I want to go after graduation. I have had multiple professors who love to give examples of how their class is useful in our future line of work. Sometimes, it was the most unexpected classes where I learned the most! In addition, there were times when I felt exams were quite challenging, but later on, I realized how important it was to have that knowledge for future classes. 

Q: What’s been your motivation to succeed?

A: I was a regular volunteer at a homeless shelter called André House of Arizona as well as Brighter Way, a nonprofit dental clinic I spent two years at. During these years, I realized how little care is put into oral health for those who are struggling financially. I would like to one day give back to the community by helping those who need dental services.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I feel my “aha” moment was when I took BIO 201: Anatomy and Physiology I, and I learned an introductory level of how parts of the brain work and how they function. I wanted a major which focuses on just that, and when I shared that with my adviser she suggested neurobiology, physiology and behavior.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Something that I learned time and time again is how everyone struggles. There are times when you feel everyone is smarter than you, but I realized everyone struggles and that whoever studied the most efficiently does well in class. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: It's really difficult to single out one professor because I feel each of my professors has taught me something very important. If I had to choose one professor, it would be Dr. Rizal Hariadi. He was my research professor and he taught me not to get lost in the little things and to enjoy what I'm passionate about.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a graduate degree?

A: I’ll be attending the University of New England’s dental school in Portland, Maine, as part of a four year program. The reason I picked University of New England was because of more clinical experience I would receive and also because we’ll get to work with drills and hand pieces on our first week of school. UNE was definitely my first choice and I am grateful ASU helped me reach my goal! 

Christopher Clements

Marketing Assistant, The College Of Liberal Arts and Sciences