Lujain Al-Saleh, Sustainability Fellow, May 2017

UCSF Advocates for Science on Earth Day

In the early morning hours of this year’s Earth Day, nearly 200 people clad with “Stand up for Science” shirts and buttons, gathered at UCSF’s Genentech Hall to reaffirm and support science at the UCSF “Stand Up for Science” teach-in and rally. Despite the early morning and the imminent threat of these politically uncertain times, enthusiasm and excitement filled the auditorium.

On April 22, 1970, about 20 million people around the U.S. participated in the first Earth Day that was envisioned by former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Organized as a national environmental teach-in, Earth Day was centered on grassroots mobilization in the shift towards a more sustainable future.

Over the past 50 years, Earth Day has contributed to key pieces of legislation such as the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Despite the progress that has been made, the same, grave concerns around the politicization of climate change and its impacts on public health, are alive to this day. Scientific facts are denied on a daily basis and climate skeptics continue to hold powerful positions in political office.

“As a public university, UCSF is firmly grounded in the belief that the expansion of knowledge through scientific discovery is necessary for our society’s freedom and prosperity,” said Chancellor Sam Hagwood in his introduction. “We also believe very strongly that our strength as a university stems from a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion.”

The teach-in featured eight, prominent UCSF faculty members that are actively working to advance this mission in the face of clashing political sentiments and values. The panel was moderated by, Mike McCune, MD, PhD, professor of medicine in UCSF’s Division of Experimental Medicine, who has been diligently working to find the cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for over 35 years.

Before introducing the panel, McCune shared that advocating for science “is not an easy task” as “it takes patience, perseverance, persistence, and a dollop of idealism.”

What does it mean to be an advocate?
From threats to research funding to the process of fighting for diversity in the scientific field and advocating for local, national, and global policies, each panelist discussed their hands-on experience with a wide range of issues.

Despite the continuous struggle, all faculty members shared a similar sentiment in how to actively and effectively use your voice in the face of adversity.

Susan Fisher, PhD, professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, is no stranger to this struggle.

Shortly after the publication of one her studies which involved the use of human embryos, Fisher received an email from the U.S. Congress asking for her to specifically clarify what research was funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I was amazed that they were watching what we did so closely,” said Fisher. “We abided by the rules and used non-federal funding for this work.”

With the Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding for the NIH by 20%, research like Fisher’s is becoming increasingly jeopardized.

Along with Fisher, Esteban Burchard, MD, MPH, professor of bioengineering in the School of Pharmacy, who studies health disparities in asthma between racial and ethnic groups, is currently working to advocate on behalf of the NIH.

“This is not the time to cut the NIH,” said Burchard. “We are making significant advances in inclusion of diverse populations and inclusion of geographically diverse populations.”

Burchard went on to explain that over the past twenty years, less than 5% of the NIH’s pulmonary research was focused on minority populations. According to Burchard, as of today, 96% of all modern genetics and biomedical research is centered on populations of European descent. Inevitably, this inherent bias within the scientific and medical field extends into the prevention and treatment of various illnesses. For example, the number 1 blockbuster drug for heart attacks and stroke does not work on 50% of Asians and 70% of Pacific Islanders.

Due to the ethnic, racial economic, gender, and geographic disparities within the field of research, Burchard has devoted a significant amount of his time to not only advance the NIH, but promote diversity in health-related studies. Burchard has found that continuously meeting with elected officials has helped to generate awareness and a better understanding of these challenges.

Similarly, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, professor of radiology, explained that “showing up to the right table is a really important part of science if we want to get to the goal of improving healthcare.” To share her research on the risk of cancer associated with ultrasound and CT imaging, Smith-Bindman jumped on opportunities to speak with U.S. Congress members, local and national agencies, and the press, about these issues.

“If you really want to move beyond the science, you need to move towards teaching people and raising awareness,” said Smith-Bindman.

Cherri Boyer, PhD, has been working to prevent and provide diagnostics on sexual transmitted diseases and HIV, particularly among young adults and military personnel.

Boyer directly worked with the U.S. Military Preventive Medicine Department and provided eight hours of training on prevention that was effective in changing how this particular branch of the military dealt with the reproductive health of women.

“We changed the culture there,” said Boyer. “And when we left, there was something in place for them to hold on to until this day.”

Along with Boyer, James G. Kahn, MD, PhD, has also contributed to meaningful HIV prevention policies on the local and global scale.

Based on his experiences, Kahn shared that “humility in science is a better selling strategy than certainty. Or perhaps a persistent focus on saving lives is what matters.”

To save lives, Andre Campbell, MD, stressed the importance in advocating for [your] patients, advocating for issues [you’re] passionate about, and advocating for institutions [you] believe in. Campbell is passionate about ending gun violence and has been instrumental in demonstrating how it is a public health issue.

Like gun violence, our everyday exposure to industrial chemicals has been overlooked and understudied.  Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, has been advocating on behalf of children and pregnant women in preventing these chemical exposures.

In order to do so, Woodruff explained that it is critical to connect this science in an actionable, meaningful way by showing why the issue is a problem while using a language that everyone can understand. Science cannot be exclusive.

“We need to do more to advocate on behalf of our patients, including public policies to prevent these exposures in our environment,” said Woodruff.

The last panelist, Suneil Koliwad, MD, MPH, who studies the prevention and treatment of diabetes, shared that “when we make ourselves more human as scientists than our arguments to fund science hold weight on a different level.”

“Right now, today, we have the opportunity to think about funding for scientific research on all of these various fronts,” said Koliwad.

Whether it comes to solving public health issues, fighting climate change, and expanding diversity within the field of research, each panelist stressed the importance of consistent advocacy and determination.

Rallying for Science
Shortly after the panel discussion, hundreds of people from the community gathered outside Genentech Hall for the rally, which was organized through UCSF, the California Life Sciences Association and the UCSF-affiliated Gladstone Institutes. The crowd cheered as the keynote speakers stood atop the Genentech Hall stairway and stressed the crucial importance of research funding and diversity within the field.

The speakers included Hana El-Samad, associate professor in the UCSF department of biochemistry and biophysics,  R. Sanders Williams , president of the Gladstone Institutes; Paul Hastings, CEO of OncoMed; and Regis Kelly, PhD, Byers Family Distinguished professor at UCSF and director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

Echoing the panelists, the rally speakers called for diversity within the scientific community, securing research funding, and remaining a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants.

Paul Hastings explained that the majority of researchers in his lab are immigrants and that we must recognize that this nation was built by immigrants. image

As we march on, we must also acknowledge that social justice issues are scientific issues. Science and social justice are not mutually exclusive as they both are required to improve the health and wellbeing of our local and global communities.


Marching for Science
Inspired by the teach-in and rally, members of the UCSF community joined the tens of thousands of protesters that marched from the Justin Herman Plaza to the San Francisco Civic Center with signs of all shapes, sizes, and messages.

Some protesters wore lab coats and some wore scrubs. While we all come from different backgrounds, we all came together on this Earth Day to celebrate our science, our research, our diversity, ourselves, and most importantly, our Earth.