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Cancer Wars: Alumna and students tackle science, policy in new Honors College course

—By Lianna Farnesi ’18

This fall, 20 students from FIU’s Honors College and one influential alumna are charting a new course for education at FIU in Washington, D.C.

The Cancer Wars is a year-long class — taught virtually by Kate Houghton ’06, CEO of Critical Mass, the Young Adult Cancer Alliance — which will bridge policy, politics, history and solutions along with direct engagement, featuring national thought leaders and an experiential capstone next Spring.

The weekly class lectures investigate the interactions between patients and policy and federal agencies, the legislative branch, the White House and outside influences such as public opinion, donors and lobbyists. Many of those influencers will join the course throughout the year as guest lecturers.

“The value of this experience will be in going beyond students’ individual discipline and exposing them to various aspects of decision-making and decision makers,” explained Houghton.

As it turns out, this first cohort is entirely made up of biology students, most hoping to become doctors.

“The opportunity to be able to have this discussion with them and get them to think outside of the scientific sphere, just for even a semester, is where I think FIU will be able to create really wonderful practitioners.”

The first semester of the course will  tackle the history of the disease, beginning in 400 A.D. The second half of the course will assign students case studies in which they will track the disease’s initial discovery to public awareness campaigns or even legislation that has emerged as a result.

Houghton is just one example of FIU alumni making an impact in Washington who also want to help educate future generations in a practical, experiential manner. As FIU academic programs in Washington grow, it is expected many more alumni will also become short-term adjunct professors.

“The course is a product the relationship between the Honors College and the Washington, D.C. office. They brought me together with Kate, and I knew she should be teaching with Honors,” said Juan Carlos Espinosa, dean of the Honors College.

Espinosa and Houghton

“The Honors College is proud to have Kate Houghton teach this extraordinary course on the politics of

cancer. She is a dynamic leader, policy expert and cancer survivor who is also an FIU alumna,” Espinosa added.

For Houghton, this course and her mission are personal. An expert on both the biological and political viewpoints on healthcare, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia when she was 27 while working on the Hill with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schulz. She fought the disease and eventually led Critical Mass – a D.C. based, non-profit dedicated to transforming cancer care and advocating for “the invisible cancer population” — young adults.

Teaching others about how health care and policy correlate and complement each other is a goal Houghton has been pursuing for years. Now Professor Houghton, together with inquisitive students, aims to go beyond textbooks and understand the full spectrum of what it takes to make change.

This story originally appeared on FIU News.

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