CSUN professor teaches class about cancer, students conduct research

Adria Brodie

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Dr. Steven Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, works with Blaire Brokal, one of his students, on cancer research. Photo Credit: Katie Grayot / Staff Photographer

CSUN community members now have the opportunity to learn about cancer through a class taught by a CSUN professor.

Dr. Steven Oppenheimer will teach “Biology of Cancer” every Monday during the Fall semester from 5 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., in Eucalyptus Hall 2132.

“There’s a tremendous importance for public awareness about cancer,” Oppenheimer said. “The topic of radon is especially relevant for cancer prevention. Everyone should test their homes for radon.”

Oppenheimer said some homes in the U.S. have so much radon, a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas, that it is estimated in posing a cancer risk equivalent to smoking 50 packs of cigarettes a day.

Alexander Tishbi, a radon expert for Indoor Safety, Inc.will present in Oppenheimer’s class on Nov. 29 and will discuss the hidden dangers of radon throughout U.S. households.

Oppenheimer said CSUN students can register for his class and if space permits, the public audit the class.

“I wouldn’t mind if the public sat on the floor if it meant more people could learn about cancer,” Oppenheimer said.

He said this Fall his class has the biggest enrollment in over 30 years.

“I’ve taken every single class because he is a pioneer in the field,” said Hamid Davoudi, 27, master’s student of cellular microbiology.

Davoudi added Oppenheimer was very encouraging and positive in the lab.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have done undergraduate research,” Davoudi said. “He inspired me.”

Greg Zem, an award-winning K-12 teacher of science at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth, Calif., said Oppenheimer’s recent award by President Obama for the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring was well deserved.

“I wrote a letter of recommendation as one way to pay him back,” Zem said. “He is dynamic in every way.”

Caleb Flan, 32, molecular biotechnology major, said he has been a research student for three weeks and appreciates the opportunity to work with Oppenheimer.

“I’m excited he has a solid background because you want to learn from the best,” Flan said.

Flan said because of his mathematical background and previous work experience, Oppenheimer gave him a major project to troubleshoot the High Pressure Liquid Chromatography instrument that separates compounds in a solution.

“I’ve never given an undergraduate a major project, but he was so enthusiastic,” Oppenheimer said.

Flan added he admired Oppenheimer’s commitment to encourage and inspire all students.

“He challenges us to achieve our dreams regardless of our GPA,” Flan said.

Oppenheimer said he believes every student who is qualified in basic biology and interested should have the chance to do research.

“What makes me different is I deal with large numbers,” Oppenheimer said. “I might take 50 students where someone else may take two or three.”

Monica Medrano, 26, cell biology major, said she has learned a lot about biological systems and how the human body functions in Oppenheimer’s class.

“It gives me humility to know how we were created,” Medrano said.

Medrano added Oppenheimer was an approachable professor.

“As a well-known scientist, Professor Oppenheimer is very humble,” Medrano said.

Zem, former student and colleague of 20 years, said Oppenheimer makes science exciting.

“The greatest accomplishment at CSUN is to take his lab,” Zem said.

In addition to mentoring college students, Oppenheimer provides K-12 students with experience in research and publishes their abstracts in “The New Journal of Student Research Abstract” where the best are chosen to present at CSUN, Zem said.

“Kids get an idea of what other kids do through competition,” Zem said.

Zem added most of the K-12 students go further in science fields.

“This gives them direction in high school and I’ve had some kids go to Ivy League schools,” Zem said.

When asked what he wants his legacy to be, Oppenheimer paused for a second and then responded.

“I’ve tried hard to involve as many students as possible in doing hands on research and make them excited to go into science as a career,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s as simple as that.”