TAG: "Public health"

Shining a light on a secret shame: suicide


UCLA professor Mark Kaplan says raising awareness about suicide is a key to preventing it.

Mark Kaplan, UCLA

When people think of public health, they do not often think of suicidology — the study of the causes and prevention of suicide. Historically, public health has been either associated with Hollywood-style images of government workers investigating disease outbreaks or mistakenly equated to local health departments responsible for restaurant inspections and bureaucracy.

But more recently, the ever-changing public health field now faces a growing list of problems, including, chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Mark Kaplan, professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is working to ensure that suicide, the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, is on this list.

While the causes of suicide are complex, during his 20-plus years studying it, Kaplan has become a leading suicidologist working to understand the range of determinants that lead to suicide.

At the heart of Kaplan’s study is one motivating factor: “to do work that can save lives.” In many of his conversations, Kaplan mentions two statistics that tumble off his tongue with the speed and familiarity of someone who has spent years laboring under them. Nearly, 40,000 people die by suicide every year in the United States and more than half of all suicides involve firearms.

“In general, we underappreciate the impact that suicide has on our country and even globally,” Kaplan said. “Not only is the victim of concern, but scores of others are affected, such as family members. A colleague of mine at my former university took her life at the peak of her career and left behind a very young child. We have all been touched by suicide.”

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Making maps to predict malaria


UCSF, Google Earth Engine fighting infectious disease with cloud computing.

A sample risk map of malaria in Swaziland during the transmission season using data from 2011-13.

UC San Francisco (UCSF) is working to create an online platform that health workers around the world can use to predict where malaria is likely to be transmitted using data on Google Earth Engine.

The goal is to enable resource poor countries to wage more targeted and effective campaigns against the mosquito-borne disease, which kills 600,000 people a year, most of them children.

Faced with a multitude of public health needs, countries often make the mistake of cutting their malaria efforts just when they are close to eliminating the disease, said Hugh Sturrock, Ph.D., M.Sc., an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and a researcher in the Global Health Group, which is a part of UCSF’s Global Health Sciences.

“This can have disastrous consequences, since malaria can quickly rebound, putting years of expensive control efforts to waste,” he said. “But with these maps, health workers will know exactly where to target their scarce resources. That way, they can keep fighting the disease until it’s eliminated within their borders.”

Google Earth Engine brings together the world’s satellite imagery — trillions of scientific measurements dating back almost 40 years — and makes it available online with tools for scientists, independent researchers and nations to mine this massive warehouse of data to detect changes, map trends and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface.

With the malaria prediction platform, local health workers will be able to upload their own data on where and when malaria cases have been occurring and combine it with real-time satellite data on weather and other environmental conditions within Earth Engine to pinpoint where new cases are most likely to occur. That way, they can spray insecticide, distribute bed nets or give antimalarial drugs just to the people who still need them, instead of blanketing the entire country.

By looking at the relationship between disease occurrence and factors such as rainfall, vegetation and the presence of water in the environment, the maps will also help health workers and scientists study what drives malaria transmission. Google Earth Outreach, which helps nonprofits use Google’s mapping technology, is giving UCSF $100,000 to develop the new platform.

The new tool will be piloted in Swaziland, a country in southern Africa that has limited malaria to a few small pockets across the country through the malaria elimination program it launched in 2008 with help from the Global Health Group. Plans are to make the tool available to health workers in other countries working with the Global Health Group’s Malaria Elimination Initiative. The tool could also be adapted to predict other infectious diseases.

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Taking preventive health care into community spaces


Bringing health care to non-traditional locations increases use of preventive services.

Janet Frank, UCLA

A church. A city park. An office. These are not the typical settings for a medical checkup. But a new nationwide study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research shows that providing health services in unorthodox settings helps underserved adults get preventive care.

With support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study’s authors reviewed 142 outreach programs nationwide and identified 20 that successfully used non-traditional settings, such as churches and parks, to promote or deliver preventive services (such as bone density and cancer screenings) to older underserved populations.

“The research shows that health providers might need to think outside the box on how and where to deliver health services,” said Janet Frank, lead author of the study and an adjunct associate professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “The programs that fared the best did not wait for patients to come to them — they went to where the patients were.”

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Breastfeeding may delay onset of puberty in girls


Girls with early-onset puberty at risk for multitude of health challenges.

Julianna Deardorff, UC Berkeley

In a recent study, maternal and child health researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health looked into the idea that breast feeding may serve as a protective mechanism to delay onset of puberty in girls. They found that, in some cohorts, girls who were predominantly breastfed (as opposed to predominantly formula fed) showed later onset of breast development.

Girls with early-onset puberty are at risk for a multitude of health challenges, including greater risks of obesity, hypertension and some cancers. Early maturation is also associated with lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression and norm-breaking behaviors, and lower academic achievement.

“These findings are unique in suggesting that exclusive breastfeeding may delay onset of girls’ pubertal timing,” says Julianna Deardorff, assistant professor of maternal and child health and co-author of the study. “Given the limited number of modifiable factors influencing puberty, this is a promising area of research for intervention.”

The study was led by Aarti Kale, M.P.H. ’11, who analyzed data from a population of 1,237 girls recruited across three geographic locations — New York City, Cincinnati and the San Francisco Bay Area. Breast feeding practices were assessed using self-administered questionnaires with the primary caregiver. The girls were seen on an annual basis to assess breast and pubic hair development. In addition to breastfeeding correlating with pubertal onset, duration of breastfeeding was also directly associated with age at onset of breast development. However, a stratified analysis showed the association only in the Cincinnati cohort.

“The results varied across the sites, suggesting that unique characteristics of these cohorts and their environments modify effects,” says Deardorff. “Further research into the contexts within which breastfeeding and girls’ development occur would potentially illuminate sources of variability.”

The study was published in the Journal of Maternal and Child Health.

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Water conservation strategy should consider health, cost, community concerns


UCLA study says careful planning needed to avoid unintended harm.

In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order asking residents to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. That hasn’t happened. Since then, the state’s dry conditions have worsened, with more than 80 percent of California now in an extreme drought according to the National Weather Service.

As a result, officials are getting tough on water wasters: The State Water Resources Control Board recently adopted regulations giving local agencies the authority to fine those who waste water up to $500 a day.

But efforts to hit Brown’s target might have unintended, and potentially harmful, consequences for the health of Californians and their communities.

Now a health impact assessment, or HIA, issued by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s Center for Health Advancement provides short- and long-term recommendations for urban water conservation that save water while also protecting and promoting public health. The report was funded by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Sharply increasing the cost of water use for the consumer could impact poorer households,” said Brian Cole, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental sciences at the Fielding School and lead author of the report. “Access to valuable urban park and green space, for example, which already tends to be in short supply in poorer communities, could be lost if cities stop watering public spaces. This is exactly what happened during a recent drought in Australia when delays and insufficient water conservation left some cities no choice but to let their parks turn brown.”

In addition, generating more energy to pump and treat water could increase emissions, which would adversely affect air quality; in some areas, urban heat islands could be worsened if vegetation isn’t sufficiently watered.

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Study finds health claims misleading for sports, energy drinks


‘Health halo’ around popular drinks obscures risks to children.

A new report by UC Berkeley researchers questions the health claims of popular energy, sports, tea and fruit drinks on the market.

In a report released today (Aug. 6), the authors evaluated 21 popular drinks with health claims — from immune boosters to energy enhancers — on their labels and in their marketing materials.

“We often see labels on energy and sports drinks that tout health benefits, but the sugar levels in these products rival that of sodas,” said lead author Patricia Crawford, director of the Atkins Center for Weight and Health and UC Berkeley adjunct professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology. “They are essentially sodas without the carbonation, but they give the misleading impression that they are healthy.”

The report, “Looking Beyond the Marketing Claims of New Beverages,” was commissioned by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Click here to access the full report, fact sheets and press release.

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Hall of Fame inventor cooks up projects to serve the neediest


Berkeley Lab’s Ashok Gadgil puts engineering to work for humanity.

Ashok Gadgil demonstrates use of the Darfur stove to Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)

By Kate Rix

When Ashok Gadgil arrived in Washington this spring to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a quote on the back of the event program spoke directly to his own personal philosophy.

It was from Abraham Lincoln: “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

“This is the first time the body made a decision not just to recognize patents which have led to improvements in the developed world, but also began to say, what do invention and patent do for the bottom 3 billion people?” Gadgil says of his induction, seated in his office above the UC Berkeley campus. “It signals to those of us who work on problems not because they’ll lead to corporate profit or a better weapons system, that this is another important role of creativity.”

Gadgil was one of 15 inventors admitted into the Hall of Fame this year. He was inducted specifically for UV Waterworks, a disinfecting device that uses ultra violet light to generate the electricity needed to kill pathogens in water. The technology provides safe drinking water for 5 million people every day in deep rural communities of India, the Philippines and Ghana.

Gadgil (pronounced GOD-gill) directs the Energy and Environmental Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His other inventions include a fuel-efficient cookstove and a method to remove arsenic from groundwater. Overall, his body of work has helped millions of others, in the spirit of what Lincoln called “the fuel of interest” combined with humanitarianism.

Safe water for mere pennies

UV Waterworks systems provide safe drinking water a cost of about 2 cents for 12 liters.

“My goal was to see what people could pay if they make $1 or $2 a day,” Gadgil says. “We are asking for 2 cents for 10 liters, so they can avoid getting diarrhea several times a year.”

UV Waterworks has saved an estimated 1,000 children’s lives, Gadgil said. “That’s not too bad, though the number could be 10 or 50 times larger.”

While Gadgil invented the system, the UC Regents hold the patent and the publicly traded corporation WaterHealth International lined up investors, including Johnson & Johnson and Dow Chemical.

Fuel-efficient stove lessens women’s risks

Also making an impact is the Berkeley Darfur Stove, which replaces the traditional “three stone” cooking fire for Darfuri refugees in western Sudan. The old method of cooking required women to walk — for up to seven hours, five times a week — outside the safety of the camps to collect wood. Encounters with armed militia during those treks almost certainly result in rape.

In 2005 Gadgil led a fact-finding mission to Darfur, interviewing women and observing how they cook. He realized he could design a stove that uses 75 percent less fuel to cook the same amount of food in the same pot, reducing the number of firewood collection trips.

The stoves were designed at Lawrence Berkeley Lab but are manufactured in a factory in Darfur and sold for $20 each, generating income for factory workers. Some 15,000 cookstoves are in use in Darfuri camps, plus additional stoves modified for use in Ethiopia.

Gadgil’s team continues to refine the cookstove technology, in pursuit of even cleaner ways to use biomass fuel. Another project, however, hearkens back to clean drinking water. Gadgil and his lab developed a method to remove naturally occurring arsenic from groundwater in Bangladesh and India, binding iron to microscopic arsenic molecules so they become large enough to be captured by a filter. The technology recently was licensed to an Indian business with a plan to install filtration plants in villages where the water will be sold.

The existence of a business model is core to Gadgil’s guiding principles as an inventor. While some of his colleagues in science turn their nose at the idea of making a profit from research, Gadgil — who applied to business school before engineering graduate studies — sees sustainability and potential in financial gain.

‘A model where everybody prospers’

“You cannot go to scale and help a billion or 2 billion people without everybody along the way making a dime,” he says. “Charity is critical to filling cracks in the system, but there is not enough charity to go around. If you want to lift people from an existence we consider beneath human dignity, you have to have a model where everybody prospers.”

Gadgil was not always so focused on using his skills to help people in the developing world. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur he worked hard, did well in school and that was enough.

In 1971 Gadgil had an acceptance letter from every university to which he had applied, except Berkeley. He was about to start courses at CalTech when the letter came from Berkeley to say that they had secured funding to offer him a spot in the graduate civil engineering program.

“A friend of mine told me that Berkeley is a deep and vast ocean and that I would not experience the intellectual depth anywhere else,” he recalls. “He was right. I took courses in everything under the sun. I could sit in the back of the room and take classes in political economy of development.”

He recalls a lesson from one of his professor, former Cal physicist Arthur Rosenfeld: A good scientist takes in the bigger picture of how the real world works.

“I was just very, very good at physics,” he says. “Being here doing my Ph.D. changed my thinking. I credit that to the Berkeley experience.”

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Tweet your way to better health


UCSF study of social media shows potential to convey health messages.

Eleni Linos, UC San Francisco

Twitter and other social media should be better utilized to convey public health messages, especially to young adults, according to a new analysis by researchers at UC San Francisco.

The analysis focused on public conversations on the social media site Twitter around one health issue: indoor tanning beds, which are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. The researchers assessed the frequency of Twitter mentions related to indoor tanning and tanning health risks during a two week period in 2013. During that timeframe, more than 154,000 tweets (English language) mentioned indoor tanning – amounting to 7.7 tweets per minute. But fewer than 10 percent mentioned any of the health risks, such as skin cancer, that have been linked to indoor tanning.

That offers a potentially valuable forum for conveying important health information directly to the people who might benefit the most from it, but the authors said further research is needed to explore whether that would be effective.

The analysis will be published as an editorial letter in the July 12 issue of The Lancet

“The numbers are staggering,” said senior author Eleni Linos, M.D., Dr.P.H., an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Dermatology. “With 500 million tweets sent each day and over 1 billion Facebook users, it is clear that social media platforms are the way to go for public health campaigns, especially those focused on young adults.”

Linos has previously published influential research on the harms of indoor tanning beds. The research found that indoor tanning beds can cause non-melanoma skin cancer, with the risk rising the earlier one starts tanning. Indoor tanning has already been established as a risk factor for malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

In their social media study, the researchers used a Twitter programming application to collect in real time all tweets that mentioned indoor tanning, tanning beds, tanning booths and tanning salons. During the study period in March and April 2013, more than 120,000 people posted at least one tweet about indoor tanning. Altogether, more than 113 million Twitter “followers” were potentially exposed to tweets about indoor tanning, the authors reported.

“Indoor tanning has reached alarming rates among young people,” said Linos. “And tanning beds account for hundreds of thousands of skin cancers each year. Through social media, we now have an opportunity to talk about these health risks directly with young people.”

Co-authors include Mackenzie R. Wehner, a Doris Duke Research Fellow at UCSF; Mary-Margaret Chren, M.D., professor of dermatology at UCSF; Melissa L. Shive, a medical student at UCSF; and Jack S. Resneck Jr., M.D., associate professor and vice chair of the UCSF Department of Dermatology.

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Eat, tray, love? Not for L.A. school kids and their vegetables


Many students didn’t even eat a bite of new, healthier items added to school lunch menus.

Cajoling, pleading, even blackmail — just a few of the tactics parents have used when their children refuse to eat vegetables they haven’t tried before. Now it appears that the nation’s second largest school district is facing the same problem.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves more than 650,000 meals each day, has become a national leader in offering healthy foods to its students. In September 2011, LAUSD launched a new lunch menu that features a variety of more wholesome food items, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, vegetarian items and a range of healthy ethnic foods.

Two months after the new menu was introduced, researchers from UCLA and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health wanted to understand how students were responding to the new offerings. Their research, conducted at four Los Angeles schools, found that many children didn’t eat even a bite of the new, healthier items.

William McCarthy, a professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and colleagues, measured the quantities of food left unselected in cafeteria food lines and the amount of food left over on students’ lunch trays. Almost 32 percent of students in the cafeteria lines did not select fruit, and almost 40 percent did not select vegetables. Among those who did select a fruit or vegetable, 22 percent threw away the fruit and 31 percent tossed vegetable items, without eating a single bite. Boys consistently threw away more fruit and vegetables away without tasting them than did girls.

The results appear in the current online edition of the journal Preventive Medicine.

“Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day is essential for optimal health, and implementing changes to school menus, as has been done by the LAUSD, is an important first step to increasing students’ repertoire of acceptable fruits and vegetables,” said McCarthy, the study’s co-senior author. “But increasing students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables is clearly a challenging task. Given the rising rates of obesity among children in this country, getting students to expand their range of acceptable fruits and vegetables is an important goal.”

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Diabetes linked to a third of state’s hospitalizations


UCLA study highlights impact the disease is having on California’s health care costs.

Patients with diabetes account for one in three hospitalizations in California, according to a comprehensive new study on the prevalence of diabetes in hospitals and its impact on providers and spiraling health care costs.

The study of hospital discharge records, conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research with support from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, found that among all hospitalized California patients aged 35 or older — the age group that accounts for most hospitalizations — 31 percent had diabetes.

Although diabetes may not be the initial reason for these hospitalizations, the disproportionate share of patients with diabetes highlights the impact this disease is having on California’s health care costs.

The research also showcases the percent of hospitalizations of patients with diabetes and related costs by county.

“If you have diabetes, you are more likely to be hospitalized, and your stay will cost more,” said Ying-Ying Meng, lead author of the study and a researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “There is now overwhelming evidence to show that diabetes is devastating not just to patients and families but to the whole health care system.”

Diabetes is one of the nation’s fastest-growing diseases and one of the most costly. It adds an extra $1.6 billion every year to hospitalization costs in California, with hospital stays for patients with diabetes costing nearly $2,200 more than stays for non-diabetic patients, according to the study. Three-quarters of that care is paid through Medicare and Medi-Cal, the study authors found, including $254 million in costs that are paid by Medi-Cal alone.

The disease is responsible for a long list of complications, including blindness, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, amputations and premature death. Since 1980, diabetes cases have more than tripled nationally to 20.9 million. In California alone, diabetes cases have increased by 35 percent in 10 years.

“For far too many families, diabetes has become a common and painful reality,” said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “In very stark terms, this study shows local health care providers and policymakers the enormity of the diabetes epidemic in their counties.”

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Big Ideas@Berkeley launches new generations of social innovators


Winning entries demonstrate strategic blend of technology, social innovation.

Berkeley Ph.D. student Pablo Rosado, part of a team that developed ReMaterials to bring roofing systems to impoverished communities, explains the project at last week’s awards celebration.

Every year, thousands of students come to Berkeley with vague ambitions to change the world. The annual Big Ideas@Berkeley competition is inspiring some of them to do just that — by launching globally life-changing innovations even before they graduate. Last week, the program honored this year’s winning projects with an awards celebration at the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

From building Africa’s first wind- and solar-powered radio station to promoting yogurt for improved child nutrition in Nepal to creating an app to show the safest nighttime routes on the Berkeley campus, the competition’s winning entries all demonstrated a strategic blend of technology and social innovation.

“We’re teaching our students to face a challenge, take a risk and use their educations for real-world impact and social good,” said Phillip Denny, Big Ideas program manager and chief administrative officer at the Blum Center. “We’re helping them to get ideas out of their heads and to put actionable plans on paper.”

In contrast to most other business-plan competitions, Big Ideas@Berkeley is focused on social change. The yearlong program, started in 2006, offers training and mentoring for teams of undergraduate and grad students. They learn critical thinking, market analysis and presentation skills to develop real-world projects that are both feasible and scalable.

The competition is supported by several Berkeley centers and institutes, as well as key sponsors such as the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation, the Charles Schwab Foundation and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS. This year, the program also formed a new partnership with the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to better promote and fund the projects.

“It’s a very Berkeley-esque idea,” said sponsor and judge Andrew Rudd, who earned his MBA at the Haas School of Business. “These students are doing something positive with what they’ve learned, to bring the 21st century to parts of the world that don’t share our good fortune.”

The competition drew proposals from 187 teams of more than 600 students from 75 different majors, five UC campuses and four other universities nationwide. Judges recognized a total of 40 projects with awards from $1,000 to $10,000 across nine categories including open data, human rights, clean and sustainable energy alternatives, social justice and information technology.

“The diversity, quality and overall execution were really extraordinary this year,” said Denny. “The winning entries were chosen based on the combination of personal passion and a commitment to improving the world.”

Advancing the lives of those in poverty

First place in the “global-poverty alleviation” category went to ElectroSan, a system that improves public health and the environment by converting human waste into income-producing by-products. The process applies electrochemical cells to recover nitrogen from human urine and to disinfect feces, bringing affordable sanitation to poverty-stricken communities.

Inspired by a visit to the urban slums of Nairobi in 2013, Ph.D. student William Tarpeh seeks to introduce waste treatment to the 4.6 billion people in the developing world who currently can’t afford adequate sanitation facilities. The project is in the technology- development phase to ensure maximum nitrogen recovery.

“Connecting technology and international development was a great part of this experience,” explained Tarpeh, who’s working toward a doctorate in environmental engineering. “Big Ideas helped me to think at both the molecular level and the business-model scale to bring this to fruition.”

Rami Ariss, a junior in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Othmane Benkirane, a junior in energy engineering and structural engineering, won first place in the “clean and sustainable-energy alternatives” category. Their project, Solidge, is a solar-powered refrigeration system that doesn’t rely on an electricity grid. Refrigerators are the most sought-after appliance in low-income communities; by integrating energy generation, storage and use into the same appliance, Solidge enables users to store food, unsold crops or vaccines for longer periods. The project will initially launch in Benkirane’s native Morocco, but will ultimately be deployed in developing countries globally.

Benkirane credits the Big Ideas competition with changing his career focus from new technologies to pressing energy needs in developing countries. “The Solidge project taught us to really listen to the end user,” he said. “Whether they’re graduates of prestigious universities, blue-collar workers or rural farmers in eastern Morocco, all of these people have equal insights, and Solidge taught me to look for the hidden ones.”

Scaling up

“Scaling up Big Ideas” was the category for previous contest winners who are further along in implementing their projects. First place went to a team led by Charles Salmen, a recent graduate of UC San Francisco’s medical school, for a wind- and solar-powered radio station that reaches 200,000 listeners across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. An all-Berkeley team of Pablo Rosado and Hasit Ganatra, both Ph.D. students in mechanical engineering, and Caitlin Touchberry, a master’s student in development practice, took second place for ReMaterials, which provides roofing systems for communities in poverty.

More than a billion people currently live in slums worldwide, and adequate roofing is a critical issue for public health and comfort. The team has already developed a natural, recycled material mix and manufacturing process at the prototype level, and is now working on scaling up the manufacturing process, improving the supply chain and developing a sales and marketing strategy to attract investors and key partners.

“Last year we were focused on the engineering side, developing the materials and building small-scale roofs,” explained Rosado. “Now we’re looking for a mentor in law and finance to help us get the product to market. We’re going to India this summer to do a first round with our target audience.”

Participants uniformly credited mentorship as a critical component of the Big Ideas ecosystem. Tony Stayner, an angel investor and nonprofit board member, served as a Big Ideas judge and as a mentor to the ReMaterials project. He credited the program with increasing his own body of experience and his interest in social entrepreneurship.

“If you ever get depressed about the future of the world, go spend some time with the Big Ideas students,” he said. “They’re bright, creative, big-hearted and very passionate about making the world a better place.”

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Public health prep


Freshman thrives in research program.

Working with HERMOSA (Health & Environmental Research on Makeup Of Salinas Adolescents) helped build UC Berkeley freshman Maritza Cardenas' passion for research. (Photo by Robert Durell)

For Maritza Cardenas, life as a Berkeley freshman is exciting, and more than a little daunting. She is majoring in molecular and cellular biology, and plans to go to medical school. But there’s a minor hurdle: Freshman chemistry is the first laboratory class she’s ever had.

Growing up in the central California agricultural town of Salinas, Maritza didn’t get as much science prep as most of her fellow Cal classmates.

“I wasn’t very exposed to the idea of science in high school, but as I was applying to college and seeing how competitive it was, there was always this word ‘research.’ I think one of my main drives was being part of research — even though I really didn’t have a clear sense of what it meant.”

She got her chance to learn what it meant the summer after high school as one of 16 Salinas teens participating in a two-year program that trained them in public health and biomedical research while at the same time focusing on a potential health hazard to young women in the community.

The project, funded by UC’s California Breast Cancer Research Program, taught the students to design and carry out public health research and how to best reach out to their community to gather data and inform people about health risks. The teens also collected and prepared material for laboratory analysis.

The training focuses on potential dangers posed by chemicals known as endocrine disrupters, found in shampoos, face creams and other personal care products. Endocrine disrupters interfere with normal hormonal function, and are thought to pose a particular threat during the teen years when hormone-driven development accelerates.

The project, called HERMOSA (Health & Environmental Research on Makeup Of Salinas Adolescents), is a collaboration between Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a network of clinics providing primary health care to low-income and agricultural communities in Monterey County.

The team effort drew on a Salinas-based youth council developed by the public health school’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, or CERCH, where teens gain leadership experience and focus on environmental health issues of particular concern to the community. Public health school professor Kim Harley is a co-director of HERMOSA.

Kimberly Parra, the project’s other co-director and herself a Berkeley grad, praises Maritza’s discipline and persistence, but singles out one trait that she thinks has mattered most:

“The No.1 quality — the reason Maritza has been able to flourish — is that she really cares about her community and she’s very confident that she can influence it. She’s very humble at the same time.”

Growing up in Salinas, Maritza says her family was on Medi-Cal.

“We were receiving a lot of assistance. Being in that position, and seeing that it’s a big part of Salinas, I’m hoping to return home after medical school and start a clinic there.

“I see myself as the kind of doctor who has relationships with patients. I feel like I could be the kind of health provider that can educate patients, focusing on prevention, helping them help themselves.”

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