Awakin Calls » Eva Harris

Eva Harris: Global health leader, community builder

Jan 16, 2016: Making Science Democratic and Sustainable

Read: Call Transcript (Also: Expanding Reach!)

Dr. Eva Harris is a Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the School of Public Health and Director of the Center for Global Public Health at the University of California Berkeley.  She focuses her research efforts on combating diseases that primarily afflict people in developing nations.

While volunteering overseas during her graduate studies, Dr. Harris noted the lack of resources available to her local peers. Knowing that the necessary technologies and resources existed in the developed world, but were unavailable where they were most needed, she was inspired to introduce molecular diagnostic techniques and scientific literacy in resource-poor settings.  She abandoned postdoctoral plans in order to focus on scientific capacity building, and ran workshops in Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and Guatemala; she continued her work in Nicaragua.  According to Richard Cash, Senior Lecturer on Global Health at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, “Eva's commitment and dedication to the task of building research capacity in Nicaragua was total. … The world needs a lot more Eva Harris's, willing to share their scientific knowledge to improve global science, so countries have the capacity to solve their own problems.”  The New York Times has referred to her as the “Robin Hood of biotechnology,” for taking new discoveries in molecular and biological technology, breaking them down into their simplest forms, figuring out ways to replicate them at lower costs, and then transferring the information to public health workers in the developing world.

Dr. Harris, trained as a molecular biologist, has reached far beyond her laboratory to find solutions to global health problems. Her laboratory in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health continues to make significant discoveries about the pathogenesis of infectious diseases, specifically Dengue and influenza. However, she stresses the critical need to translate those discoveries into practical, effective and sustainable interventions.  Her work combines research in laboratories as well as involving human populations.  This has been possible through a close collaboration with the Ministry of Health in Nicaragua for over 28 years.  Her international work focuses on laboratory-based and epidemiological studies of dengue and influenza in endemic Latin American countries, particularly in Nicaragua.

“There are three levels - research, with an academic base; rollout into the community; and then policy,” says Harris.  She also emphasizes that these solutions are most effective when they are developed by an empowered local community in which they are needed.  “It’s about sharing knowledge, tools and resources... for them to develop their own solutions - not us giving them the model.  Our (US) model isn’t usually the best one.  We have to ask what works in their context for their specific problem.  There are also deeper issues here.  It might be a health problem, but what about the underpinnings for inequities and structural, economic issues?”

In 1997, she received a MacArthur Fellowship for work over the previous ten years developing programs to build scientific capacity in developing countries to address public health and infectious disease issues.  This enabled her to found a non-profit organization in 1998, Sustainable Sciences Institute, with offices in San Francisco, Nicaragua, and Egypt, to continue and expand this work.  Dr. Harris was named a Pew Scholar for her work on dengue pathogenesis.  She received a national recognition award from the Minister of Health of Nicaragua for her contribution to scientific development and was selected as a “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum.  She has published over 165 peer-reviewed articles, as well as a book on her international scientific work.

Harris received a BA in biochemical sciences from Harvard University in 1987 and a PhD in molecular and cell biology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993.  “I am still amazed by the beauty of the structure and processes of the human cell,” she says.  “I think of the cell as a molecular corollary of human life, with so many different structures and functions working together for the greater good of the whole.” Reflecting on her career to date, Harris is uncomfortable about being seen as a leader in the conventional sense.  “Leadership for me is all about the democratization of science; listening, problem solving, leading but not about being a leader,” she says.  “I'm not about being a star, I'm about making a difference.”

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