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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Technology Transfer

You went to graduate school and, while in graduate school or before, you developed your own program, which is a technology transfer program in which PCR is brought to the world. How did that come about? Was it just natural for you to make this major leap as a lowly graduate student?

It's funny, because now I can look back-- hindsight's great -- and I can say, "Oh, look at this nice story," and I can make it seem as if I knew what I was doing. In fact, most of the time I was just going forward blindly, following a vision. I loved lab work and I mentioned that I loved the biology and the molecular, blah, blah, blah, etc. But then, I graduated from Harvard with a degree in biochemical sciences, and I thought, "What does this mean in the world?" I had a vision, but I wanted to have my hands in the world, in the real world. "How do I bring science to real-world problems?" It was completely unclear how to do that.

There's international health. You become a doctor and you have skills that are useful in the rest of the world, in developing countries and what-not. But when you're a scientist, what do you do? I wanted to create what I call "international science." And so what happened was that I took a year off. Even though I had gotten all these fellowships and I'd gotten into all these universities for grad school, I decided to stop and take a year off. I was naïve; all I knew was that I wanted to try and do something with science somewhere where it mattered. I had done a lot of traveling in my life, but never in the developing world. I didn't want to go as a tourist; I wanted to go to work. workshop participants in Nicaragua, 1992I had organized enough demonstrations that I felt like, "Okay, the next step is for me to go somewhere and put my money where my mouth is." And so all that kind of came together -- I went to Nicaragua, where at the time, you were able to volunteer -- so I worked for a while.

This would have been what years, by the way?

In 1988. I decided to go, and I said, "I want to work in science." I went with an organization, nominally, that placed computer people for two weeks. I said, "Well, I have three months and I want to do biological science." Nobody knew what to do with me. I learned Spanish in Spain, which, of course, was Castillano Spanish, so by the time I got to Nicaragua, I felt like I'd learned the wrong language. But anyway, I just got plopped down in the Ministry of Health -- there are roosters running everywhere, and there's a war going on, and I've been trained in Paris, and was schooled in Harvard -- it was the most frightening experience of my life, that I actually had to teach these people, who were running their lives and their revolution.

So you could make the transition from the salon to the labs very easily, by rolling up your sleeves and remembering what you learned.

Absolutely. So that [transition to the developing world] was a real eye-opener. But the point was that I was moved by the urgency of the issues there. And so when I came back and started graduate school, all I knew was that there was so much research and knowledge here and so little there, I had to be involved, somehow, in transferring it. So that was the vision. It was completely unformed.

I stated to my future mentors that I was going to keep doing this, period, and I would join their lab if they were fine with it, and I wouldn't if they weren't. And they were like, "Okay." So while I was in graduate school, doing a yeast genetics Ph.D., I was going down and learning about infectious diseases and trying to support what these people were doing in the Ministry of Health [in Nicaragua]. Then PCR was invented right at that time. And, all of a sudden ... I don't want to go too much into the story, but essentially, it kind of all came together.

Then it turned out that they didn't want me to just support what they were already doing; they wanted to learn molecular biology. I said, "Well, that's great. But, you know, there's barely running water here." And then it was this philosophical dilemma: if someone doesn't have the ability to do something, can you just say, "Well, you shouldn't learn about it?" Or do you say, "Okay, I'll teach you, but you can't do it?" At that point, PCR was simple enough that we thought, "Wow! Maybe we could do this here. And maybe there's an application to their own problems," which was detecting microorganisms, infectious pathogens.

And so we started it. The first time was just this incredible experience, where we were able, without much running water and with intermittent electricity, to manually amplify and see a band of DNA. It was just this moment that will live in my mind forever. Eva Harris and workshop participant Dr. Luiz Enrique Plaza preparing samples for amplification, Ecuador.Very exciting.

So this is a creative moment for you ...

Totally.

... where it all came together. What, exactly, is coming together? It is the notion that, here's the technology that it can be implanted or placed in a ...

Simplified.

... simplified in a developing country. And you do that by adapting to the social and economic conditions that are there.

Right. Essentially, demystifying and breaking down this supposedly sophisticated technology such that it can be done under these conditions. And you do that by working it out under these conditions and applying it to local problems.

And problems, say, of infectious disease?

Exactly.

So, suddenly, going back to that example we talked about before, you can suddenly say, "Oh, using PCR, [we see that] this infectious disease is not what we thought it was."

This is what we thought. And we discovered new diseases by using this technology onsite. So yes, that was an epiphany, where it actually worked.

What were your feelings? Give me a greater sense of that. Is it you're suddenly seeing that same simplicity and beauty that you saw in the cell, but in a social setting?

Maybe. Essentially, what you're seeing is a band of DNA. And you're just like, "Wow!" There was this hubbub and everyone was so excited, and everyone pushing each other to look through the goggles and see the DNA. Suddenly it just became, "This is possible!" I mean, it was just that, "Ah!" And everyone loved it. So I kept organizing these little courses [in molecular biology].

But then I finished my Ph.D. and I was supposed to go on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Stan Falcow's lab at Stanford, who's an incredible scientist. He is the father of microbial pathogenesis. I thought, "This is so beautiful, and I can use the genetics I learned in yeast, but in infectious disease problems." But I decided to take a year off, because by then, I had given talks at international conferences, and there were all these other countries clamoring to do this in their own country. And I thought, "Well, I can't just go on with my career and ignore all this excitement that we've engendered, so I'll take a year and make good on my promises, and then go back to my scientific life."

After a year of investing in this and doing another set of workshops in Ecuador, it just kind of snowballed and it got written up in Science magazine. And hundreds of people wrote, people from here, from there: "Can you give ... " It got completely out of control. It was so urgent and exciting and gripping that I just cancelled my post-doc and went with this thing, and ...

And wrote a book at this point, right?

Well, actually, later on. I just kind of went with it. I was really lucky to have someone supporting me at UCSF, who said, "Why don't you just do this in a coherent fashion -- create a program of technology transfer that incorporates the kind of sustainability and vision that you see fit?"

Of course, I did that in total collaboration with all my Latin American colleagues, and came up with something, which was this AMB/ATT [Applied Molecular Biology/Appropriate Technology Transfer] program that you mentioned, which is completely virtual. Instructor Giovanni Garcia and workshop participant Nataniel Mamani discuss data during the Phase1 course in Bolivia.It was just me and hordes of volunteers from here, from there, from other countries. We had this wonderful thing going, but no money for ten years. I finally was running out of any resources because it was beyond itself. And then, right then, when I really didn't know how I was going to pay the rent and was on my way to Bolivia anyway, I got a call on my way to the airport that I got the MacArthur award. So that was just an incredible moment.

Which is the "genius" award, which is a recognition for the work you're doing, but allows you to be self-sustaining financially.

Exactly.

But as you're describing this, I'm reminded of your description earlier of what you saw when you were exposed to the world of cells and the beauty of that world. Now in the technology transfer work, you're actually creating an equally beautiful world in international society.

Yes, you're right. And by addressing public health issues where there's not a lot of funding, you essentially self-select for people who have a value system and really care about people, and are willing to work hard, not for their own profit. It was just beautiful, because I would get the best people, la crème de la crème, people who were dedicated to bettering humankind in whatever country, whether it was here, because they wanted to help, or there, because they're willing to devote themselves to projects over and above their own work to further infectious disease work in their own country to deal with the pressing problems. It was wonderful and I loved it, and I wished that it could go on forever, but you need resources. And so I knew during this whole time that I had to eventually pick a pathogen and start a whole basic research program at a university.


Next page: Research on an Infectious Disease

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