Eva Harris Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Science Accessible: Conversation with Eva Harris, Professor of Public Health, UC Berkeley; 3/15/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Beauty of Science

Going into science, when did that magic moment happen? Was it at Harvard?

I struggled a lot with my major at Harvard because I'm interested in everything from political economy to French literature, and I minored in art history. All of this was very interesting to me, and I had a hard time deciding. But science is such a huge area that I felt that all the courses I took added into one pile. So I took half of my courses in science, and that made one large element. And then the rest of my courses in everything else, like all the humanities.

One of the things that really moved me or drew me to science, and this is a little off the wall, was the way the cell works. For me, it's absolutely a beautiful system that I see as a model for human society. Because if you understand how all the molecules work [you see that] there's this incredible energy conservation. There's a feedback loop that actually works. All the elements work together for the greater good of the whole. All of these really beautiful principles are played out, and that's how we are able to exist, all organisms. There are so many kind of mottoes that we dream about in a just, human world, [which] are actually being played out every instant in our own bodies. So I was really drawn to the beauty and the harmony of molecular and cellular biology.

That's interesting, because most people think of science as cold and distant, and inhuman, in a way. Whereas, you're suggesting that, if you see the simplicity and the beauty, it inspires the way you think about the world and the way you act in the world.

Yes, it's incredible. [When] you get into how molecules and cells know what to do, it's gorgeous. And especially [with] infectious diseases. Boy, when we get to that, it's really exciting. I mean, [parasites and viruses] are so cool, you know. It's really wonderful [to study them]!

So the dichotomy between research and activism is not inevitable, it's what you see and the way you act on it?

Kind of. What I just described to you is kind of a vision. But then, I was stuck with the reality of science and the lab, and I was an activist in college. It was the 1980s -- Central America -- and I was at Harvard during the divestment issue -- South Africa. And so, [science and activism] were very separate. There was my work in the lab, and then the work in the streets.

But my dream was somehow to bring them together, to bring my politics into my work. And, again, I'm being much more forthright in our interview now than I am usually, because I came to the point where I would talk about it as "science for [infectious disease] research in developing countries." Anyone who wanted to read between the lines could read between the lines. And if not, it was just, "Isn't this nice, bringing science to the people," in a very generic way.

It's important that we emphasize that you're not saying that whatever values you have affect your science. You're still doing the science. It's really about what you see, once you've done the science in a very scientific way.

Absolutely. It's for whoever wants to pick up on that. And it's my motivation. But I don't bring it out into the forefront. So, it's objective science. These people come to our courses. They come from all walks of life, from all political backgrounds, whatever they want. They learn, and we are very professional; certainly in my work here (basic research) as well as in the technology transfer issues. But what's underneath it is empowerment. It's not just about giving someone a few pipette tips or tubes or whatever. It's about learning. It's about transferring the knowledge. It's about transferring the decision-making capability to say, "Yes, we want to do that technology. Or we don't. But it's our choice here, not because it's being imposed from the North or anywhere else." Essentially, it's what you read into it.

What does it take to be a biological scientist? It sounds like you have to be inventive. It sounds like you have to persevere. What other characteristics, virtues, are part of the business?

Well, again, not to be too idealistic; I mean, my path is quite unusual. Really, in academic science, it's pretty narrow, and you have to be incredibly good in your field, and be politically savvy, and go to the right meetings and talk to the right people and make the right connections and all that stuff. But I hate to look at things that way. I just can't. It seems too utilitarian. I choose to ignore it, and probably to my own detriment.

I need to see a value system and a motivation that's beyond my own career. Not to put other people down, but generally, people are successful because they are interested in the science and also their egos to a certain extent. So the most successful people are the people who know how to work the system and who are good. I mean, you have to be good to succeed. The more specialized one can be is what's selected by the system.

Of course, I like to be good at what I do, but I see it much more as an interdisciplinary approach to life and to science, which is difficult, because one has to be successfullymultidisciplinary. People kind of bandy that word about, but what it means is being excellent in a number of fields. And if you can't do that, then you have to know whom to collaborate with.

The biological revolution is raising a lot of ethical issues about what a human being is, what we can create, who patents the rights, who gets access to the material. Has it been important for you that you come to science with a value system?

It certainly is important to me. It's interesting; I find that the people who are drawn to my lab, even the basic research graduate students, have a value system inside them, which is what I love, because that's what I want to perpetuate. Even if they don't speak Spanish or they're not going to go out into the field or revolutionize the world or whatever, they still have this side that cares about the rest of the world.

Is that because it's the School of Public Health that you teach?

Partly yes, because we have access to more students who have a value system. But also because that's what I do and people know about it. But of course, when I give seminars, it's pure science. So I can masquerade as a pure scientist also.

As you made this career charge and got into the biological sciences, how important was the revolution in science with regard to DNA?

Essentially, it made everything possible much faster. I did my Ph.D. here in Molecular and Cell Biology and I worked in yeast genetics. Yeast is this gorgeous system where you can do anything, because it's been worked out for you and you can move really quickly. So I had a very nice experience where I had a very solid training in all aspects of molecular and cell biology at my fingertips. And now I've been able to use all that to research little-known viruses, and also in the technology transfer area, and base it on that [training]. And that's all possible because, essentially, when I started, all fields were merging -- DNA and biochemistry and ...

And the key to this is PCR [polymerase chain reaction]. Explain to us what that is.

PCR is the revolution that came along in 1987 or so. diagram of DNA amplification through PCRThere was the molecular biology revolution, which was earlier, the sixties and seventies.

Which is the discovery of DNA.

DNA and restriction enzymes and cloning and all that. PCR was invented in this country in approximately 1987, and it's a method for amplifying, or multiplying, a single copy of DNA billions of times, so that you can visualize it, and then work with it. There are myriad examples for its use in the basic sciences. It's very useful for detection in what we call diagnostics, as well as for characterizing organisms, or anything that has a DNA or RNA genome. So it's an incredibly versatile technique. And I saw that as a way to put into practice this philosophy of technology transfer, and so used it as such in the field of infectious diseases.

Let me clarify one thing for people who, like me, aren't scientists. What you're doing is taking a little strand, and by creating many copies, you are able to amplify what you see. Is that a fair way to say what this is all about?

Yes. DNA is obviously very, very small, and we can't work with individual molecules. And so, by taking a specific piece of it and copying just that piece billions of times, suddenly you have workable material, either to see, like, "Does this sample of someone's blood contain the DNA of this virus?" Then we would say: if it does, then they're infected with it; if it doesn't, then they're not. So something that straightforward. Or, it allows you to work with the DNA. So then, you say, "Okay, I want to amplify this piece [of DNA] billions of times. Now I can get enough of it to physically pick it up and put it in a tube and, say, clone it or sequence it." It's a way to get or grab hold of DNA, and the beauty or the revolutionary aspect is that you can design what piece you're going to look at, and then get enough of it to do something with it.

Now, let's do a specific example. In the introduction to your book, Professor Riley comments on a case in Nicaragua where there was a mini-epidemic. And it was thought that it was dengue, but, in fact, using this technique, it was discovered that it was actually leptospira. Is that right? So by bringing this technology, implementing it, you're making quite a difference. For this particular disease, there was an antibiotic.

Right. What we're doing is bringing the technology to places that didn't have it otherwise, but with the knowledge of when to use it and when not to use it. I just have to add as a caveat, because PCR has become so trendy -- when I first started, ten or fifteen years ago, nobody [in the countries where I was working] knew what DNA was and nobody knew what to do. Then with PCR everyone thought, "This is what it's all about." Well, within about three or five years, PCR had become so trendy and so commercialized that I spent most of my time saying, "No, no, no, no. You don't have to use it here." You have to understand what both the advantages and the limitations are.

But one of the great things that we've been able to do, for example in this case, is to allow people to diagnose and to understand when something is there. Meaning: this is dengue. But it's equally important to understand when it's not a particular infectious disease. And that's what happened in this particular epidemic you referred to in Nicaragua, where everyone thought it was dengue. When we looked for the genome of dengue virus, it wasn't there. That showed us that it was not dengue. Now, they weren't able, using this, to find out what it was, but it raised a red flag, and medical and scientific professionals came to Nicaragua from the international community and were able to find out, "Oh, yes, this in fact is a bacterial disease called leptospirosis." And that actually put this new disease on the map. And now the CDC has an entire branch devoted to it and it's now recognized as a major emerging disease in its own right.

Next page: Technology Transfer

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