Ken Burns Classroom

Women In Science

Ken Burns Film: Emperor of All Maladies

Collections: Contemporary United States (1968-present)

Subject: Science

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods

In this lesson, we focus on the women in science featured in the documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Students will review the following clips and discuss the questions as a group or class.

  1. Suzanne Cole, MD, Oncologist, Charleston Area Medical Center, Charleston, West Virginia, discusses the role of palliative care in relapsed and metastatic cancer.
    • Segment: Palliative Care Some doctors and patients need to deal with end of life prognosis and choices.
    • Segment: Dr. Suzanne Cole Dr. Cole works with patients who are dealing with end of life choices.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What is palliative care?
      • What is the difference between a curable and a treatable disease? What is meant by the term “good death”?
  2. Mary-Claire King, PhD, Prof. of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, discovered the genetic mutation that causes breast cancer proving that certain types of breast cancers are genetic diseases.
    • Segment: Mary-Claire King In the 1970s Mary Claire King began investigating genetic links of breast cancer in families.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What were some of the challenges King faced in trying to prove that cancer could be inherited?
      • What are some preventative steps you could take if you knew you carried the BRCA mutation?
  3. Dr. Lori Wilson, Surgical Oncologist, Howard University Cancer Center, Washington, DC, is an oncologist who was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived and continues to practice as a surgical oncologist.
    • Segment: Bonding between Doctor and Patient Dr. Lori Wilson discusses her philosophy in treating her patients.
    • Segment: Dr. Wilson Dr. Lori Wilson is a surgical oncologist that has double breast cancer.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What are some advantages and disadvantages of an oncologist getting cancer?
      • What might be some of the complications of having two different kinds of breast cancer at once?
  4. Doctors and researchers discuss cancer.
    • Segment:  Researcher Montage
    • Segment: Dr. Susan Taylor Doctor and Hospice Care American Cancer Society Dr. Taylor lost her brother at a very young age to cancer and uses his memory to help others face death. 
    • Discussion questions:
      • Write down three new facts you learned about cancer. What new questions do you have about cancer?


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health, Changing the Face of Medicine, Celebrating America’s Women Physicians

Caring for the Symptoms of Cancer and its Treatment, American Society for Clinical Oncology symptoms-cancer-and-its-treatment


Benchmarks for Science Literacy

1A/H3bc* In science, the testing, revising, and occasional discarding of theories, new and old, never ends. This ongoing process leads to a better understanding of how things work in the world but not to absolute truth.

12A/H5 (Grades: 9-12): Curiosity motivates scientists to ask questions about the world around them and seek answers to those questions. Being open to new ideas motivates scientists to consider ideas that they had not previously considered. Skepticism motivates scientists to question and test their own ideas and those that others propose.

Next Generation Science Standards

Disciplinary Core Idea:

All cells contain genetic information in the form of DNA molecules. Genes are regions in the DNA that contain the instructions that code for the formation of proteins. (HS-LS1-1)

Crosscutting Concepts:

Science is a result of human endeavors, imagination, and creativity.

Individuals and teams from many nations and cultures have contributed to science and to advances in engineering.

Science and engineering are influenced by society and society is influenced by science and engineering (HS-LS3-3).

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