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 Arizona State University, 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.
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.”
Her latest collaboration resulted in the creation of a 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 had 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.
“As a middle class white Canadian, I’ve always been a fan of politically radical rap music, but never really had the kind of first-hand experience with oppression that the artists articulate in their lyrics,” said Brinkman. “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 UK 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.
I can't escape it, but god damn I can make it sick
And spread the dream of freedom like a rumor
Spread it like a Tasmanian facial tumor
So what if I'm a cell from the somatic line?
You can stick your limitations where the sun don't shine
“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,” said Aktipis. “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.”Contact: Cristina BaciuArizona Cancer Evolution CenterArizona State Universityhttps://cancer-insights.asu.edu/
“Revenge of the Somatic”:
Watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/80vc4G0ipi8
Listen on iTunes: https://apple.co/2T6aqAC
Listen to Brinkman’s "Rap Guide to Medicine"
About Athena Aktipis
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. She co-founded the International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer and is also the Director of the Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative at ASU and co-Director of The Human Generosity Project.
When she’s not researching cooperation and cheating across systems, Professor Aktipis is working on understanding the science behind zombification in nature (when one organism hijacks another). In this capacity, she is the chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting and host of the Zombified Podcast. Professor Aktipis’ new book, The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer, was published in March 2020 by Princeton University Press.
About Baba Brinkman
Baba Brinkman is a New York-based rap artist and award-winning playwright, originally from Vancouver, Canada. To date, Brinkman has written six hip-hop plays, which have toured the world and enjoyed successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and off-Broadway in New York. He is best known for his “Rap Guide” series, the first of which, Rap Guide to Evolution (“Astonishing and brilliant” – NY Times), won a Scotsman Fringe First Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination, and was featured on US national TV on The Rachel Maddow Show and at the Seattle Science Festival opening for Stephen Hawking. Baba is a recipient of the National Center for Science Education's "Friend of Darwin Award" for his efforts to improve the public understanding of evolutionary biology.
More about music producer Mr. Simmonds:
More about animator Dave Anderson: