Mixed Signals: A New Exhibit at the Mütter Museum

Main exhibit label for Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer

If you haven’t visited The Mütter Museum in a while, this fall is a nice time for a return to The Birthplace of American Medicine. On October 17, 2019, The Mütter Museum unveiled Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia, a large new exhibit examining the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, how it affected Philadelphians, and the ways the deadliest outbreak in human history influenced public health to this day.

This month, students in the The Karabots Junior Fellows program made their own addition to the Museum. Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer offers Museum visitors an overview of cancer, how cancer behaves, various ways it is treated, and ways you can help reduce your risk. The exhibit was a joint program between The Center for Education of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Swarthmore College and was made possible through a grant from The National Science Foundation.

It was the product of a year’s worth of careful planning and meticulous research by students in the fifth cohort of The Karabots Junior Fellows program. We have covered the exploits of the Karabots students numerous times here. For the uninitiated, The Karabots Junior Fellows Program is a three-year after-school and summer internship program for Philadelphia high school students from underserved communities with an interest in pursuing careers in healthcare, medicine, and science.

The project began in August 2018 with an intensive two-week summer program where the students built up their knowledge of cancer and cell signaling. Brad Davidson, Associate Professor of developmental biology at Swarthmore, and his student assistant, Allie Naganuma, taught our students how cells grow and develop by sending and receiving signals. If these signals are disrupted through mutations, cellular miscommunication can lead to an overgrowth of abnormal cells. These abnormal cells build up over time to form tumors. If they are not detected and treated early, these growths can affect how the body works, eventually spreading to other parts of the body and adversely affecting a person’s health. The Karabots students also met with experts in a variety of related fields, including cancer biology, pathology, and treatment; biomedical research; hospice and palliative care; physical therapy; and mental health. Their work over the summer gave them the necessary tools to tackle such a complex subject and apply their knowledge to and share what they learned with others.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program take part in an activity about cancer biology by assembling walls made of Legos

When the students met for their weekly sessions for the 2018-2019 school year, we divided them into two teams: Exhibit and Outreach. The exhibit team worked together to select materials from The College’s collection, including biological specimens and medical tools as well as physical and digital objects from the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Over the course of the school year, they conducted research, drafted labels, and worked with professional exhibit designer Jordan Klein to bring their exhibit to life. The culmination of all their hard work was Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, which officially opened to the public on November 5, 2019.

Meanwhile, the Outreach team was hard at work distilling what they learned into a lesson designed to teach middle school students about cancer. Together they developed a presentation, created and tested interactive activities, and crafted a lesson plan. In Summer 2019, two of our students–Lamina and Chaka–traveled to Swarthmore to deliver their lesson to a middle school youth program. They also had the opportunity to mentor the newest cohort of Karabots Junior Fellows, delivering their cancer lesson to the new students later in the summer. The lesson, also called Mixed Signals: A Study of Cancer, is currently available to visiting field trips to The Mütter Museum (book your field trip today).

Lamina and Chaka, students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, deliver a lesson on cancer to students in the latest cohort in the program

Our students learned a great deal along the way. In addition to applying their medical learning, they strengthened their aptitude in valuable skills they can apply to any future career they pursue, including collaboration, independent study, and oral and written communications skills.

If you are thinking of visiting the Mütter Museum again or for the first time, be sure to see our new exhibits.