Joyce Ker’s “Dear Cancer” project combines the humanities and science research

In our inaugural PURA student spotlight, we interviewed Joyce Ker a third-year student at JHU studying Medicine, Science, and the Humanities and Biology. The PURA program was established in 1993 with a generous endowment by the Hodson Trust, which supports Hopkins undergraduate students as they engage in independent research and scholarly and creative projects. A Best New Poets and Pushcart Prize nominee, Ker has also received recognition from the Lex Allen Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Joyce’s PURA project is titled “Dear Cancer.”

  1. Could you briefly describe your research?

As a student who has had a profound interest in creative writing since high school, and now as a pre-medical student, my research interests lie in the medical humanities and specifically narrative medicine. My research, influenced by past and present illness narratives, involves developing a writing workshop curriculum tailored towards cancer patients. In recent years, art therapy for patients in the form of painting and drawing has gained prevalence, but the use of creative writing as a therapeutic venue is still in its infancy. I hope to change that through research that champions the use of poetry, fiction, and memoir as healing art forms. Regarding the value of art and specifically creative writing in medicine, I think the journalist Farah Mohammed said it best: “Storytelling and narrative medicine enable patients to take control of their illness in a way that pharmaceuticals can’t.” Stories heal through engaging patients in the creative process, by fostering connection and empathy, and by giving them a sense of agency, among others—my research aims to explore these multi-faceted ways of healing.

2. Why did you decide to apply for the PURA awards?

First, the process of drafting a research proposal was a learning experience that I wanted to take on. Looking back, it was a fulfilling process that pushed me to thoroughly review existing literature to inform my mode of inquiry, think critically and creatively about my research questions, and convey my research plan effectively through writing. Additionally, I think that humanities-oriented research tends to be independent in nature, which means that you are responsible for setting your own deadlines and meeting your research goals on time. I feel that receiving formal funding can help keep you on track, especially when things get tough. Through PURA, I also have two wonderful and generous mentors with whom I can consult on my project. Lastly, I knew that the PURA funding would give me the freedom and financial means to put my ideas into action. 

  1. What are your next steps for your research?

I am continuing to research secondary sources on the illness experience and the language used to describe it. Some books I will be reading include Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor; Lorde’s Cancer Journals; Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. I’m reading a lot of poetry related to sickness, illness, and recovery. I’m also reading literature that is not explicitly about illness, revisiting classics such as Of Mice and Men; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Odyssey, as well as more contemporary works as A Natural History of the Senses; How Much Of These Hills Is Gold—because they are not focusing on the illness experience, such works require that I, myself, make connections with health, illness, and mortality through a close reading of their nuances and complexities.

  1. What recommendations/advice do you have for future PURA recipients?

Above all, be bold and unrelenting in your pursuit of research. I believe that the most worthwhile research is that which makes you think, “Can I do it?” That feeling of challenge, doubt, and uncertainty is a necessary part of the research process, so don’t feel discouraged. I will be frank and say that I’d written several research proposals in the past, many of which were not funded—yet each failure taught me something new about the factors that do and don’t constitute a compelling proposal, ultimately enabling me to write a proposal that I was proud of for PURA. It also helps to reach out to potential mentors early. Revise your proposal diligently—send it to trusted friends and mentors for feedback. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun!

  1. How do you believe JHU helped you cultivate your research skills?

JHU’s research-oriented culture pushed me to not only engage in research but also to find my niche. Coursework in the theory and methods of science studies and medical humanities, as well as poetry and fiction, provided me with a foundation upon which to expand my thinking. Perhaps most significantly, I am still in awe of the availability of resources here, and the fact that there are professors, librarians, and other mentors who are always willing to help you out—it is truly a privilege to be at JHU.

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