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An Interview with Public Health's Edward Penhoet
Dean Emphasizes Collaboration at Campus's 'Gateway to Health'

Posted February 16, 2000

Edward Penhoet became dean of the School of Public Health in July 1998, having served for 17 years as president and chief executive officer of the world's second largest biotech firm, Chiron, which he cofounded in 1981. Before Chiron, Penhoet spent ten years as a faculty member in the campus's biochemistry department.

In the following interview, Penhoet discusses the challenges and opportunities that face the School of Public Health, particularly as they relate to the recently announced campus Health Sciences Initiative. The effort is a new research and education approach designed to tackle health problems of the 21st century, and it will bring together biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers from around campus and situate them next to each other in two rebuilt research buildings, creating a unique synergy that promises breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, depression, cancer and infectious disease.

Q: Partnerships have been a motif of Chiron from the outset -- the Hepatitis B vaccine produced and marketed by Merck, deals with Johnson & Johnson, Danish and German pharmaceutical companies and so forth. Now you come to Public Health and the word that crops up is partnerships. Tell us about your vision for health science at Berkeley.

A: That's exactly the right question, because one of my greatest interests at Berkeley is to further enhance partnerships among and within different units on campus. Public health is very multidisciplinary, and we have resources, programs and good people on campus in many areas important to health.

For example, we already have an established program with the business school. I was delighted to see Laura Tyson become dean at the business school, because she has an interest in health care economics. Delivery of health care services today is in the hands of very large commercial organizations, and we have strong expertise in that area.

I want to enhance other relationships on campus like the one with the business school. I myself am a professor of both public health and molecular and cell biology.

Many of my colleagues in molecular and cell biology are doing things that have applications that are health-related. I also want to enhance relationships with other groups: psychology, social welfare, optometry, journalism, law. All of these fields are important to health, and real opportunities exist for us at Berkeley to expand collaborations in these areas.

Q: The number of ladder-rank full-time equivalent faculty (44.5) at the school make it relatively small compared to other public health schools across the country. At the same time, the school provides a wide-ranging curriculum and supports one of the most active research enterprises on campus. What kinds of challenges does this situation create, and without new funding to increase the faculty size, how can the school continue to evolve?

A: We're fortunate to be surrounded by partnering opportunities, which can complement and enhance the school's programs. Many of these opportunities are here on campus in the natural (biological and physical) sciences, the social sciences, and other professional schools. Throughout these areas we have colleagues who are deeply competent in their own fields, but also interested in the application of their work to health.

There are many opportunities to collaborate beyond the campus borders as well, such as with faculty at UCSF and Stanford, and with numerous individuals engaged in the research, manufacture and delivery of health care goods and services. By continuing to selectively partner in new and various ways, the school will be able to enhance its own programs, raise awareness about public health issues, and maximize the positive impact of our teaching, research and service activities.

Q: Do you envision these new partnerships as something different than the usual working relationships between faculty members? Isn't the notion of increased interaction between campus disciplines also at the heart of the campus's new Health Sciences Initiative?

A: Yes, I think the initiative's unprecedented emphasis on enhancing both the amount and quality of interdisciplinary work will be an engine that drives a number of our future breakthroughs in health-related research. To aid in this process, plans to construct two major new campus research facilities are moving forward.

It is a good time to do this. Many of the big science departments on campus have not in the past viewed their research as specifically health-related, but in today's world, many of our young faculty are very interested in enhancing the possibility that their work really will have an impact on the world. Also, the funding picture is different. The government is more interested in supporting projects with some relationship to direct societal benefit.

So my vision is both physical and virtual -- physical in that we will have a physical presence on campus to integrate many more of these disciplines, and virtual in the sense that we can establish programs and get people to work together, many times informally. We don't need a lot of overhead associated with this when we have a common area of interest.

Q: What do you foresee as the School of Public Health's role in the Health Sciences Initiative?

A: We have a very important role to play in the initiative. For more than 50 years, the School of Public Health has been the only unit on campus focused on the broad issues of health. As such, it serves as Berkeley's "gateway to health" and is expected to be the place on campus where health-related efforts are integrated. In this regard, it is important to note that the initiative is not intended solely for the natural (biological and physical) sciences and public health, but will involve many faculty and programs in the social sciences and professional schools as well.

Q: Your academic background is in the basic sciences. What other aspects of the public heath interest you?

A: While I come from a laboratory-science background myself, I have a keen interest to enhance the school and its relationships in many other areas, especially in the behavioral sciences. We're getting into a very interesting era now, where a more complete description of humans is emerging from a collaboration between behavioral science, environmental science and genome science. I think the school can position itself well in the middle of all that.

Q: As we've noted, lab research is a central focus of the Health Sciences Initiative. How would you hope to see the social and behavioral science aspects of the school -- teaching, scholarship and research -- incorporated into the initiative? Why would that be important?

A: Although lab research is a very important component of health and the Health Sciences Initiative, it is clearly only a part of the total health equation. Effective integration of the natural and social sciences will fuel many future research gains and continue to improve health. Our mission within the school is to ensure that work in both areas remains strong and is ongoing.

Q: You, along with Dan Koshland and others, publicly opposed former UC President Jack Peltason's 1993 plan to use UC funds to develop products from academic research. Why?

A: I'm opposed to the university becoming a business. I've had experience in both arenas, and I think that it's very important to keep the activities of the university separate from the business of product development. Because ultimately the demands of the commercial side will have a distorting effect on the direction of our research.... I'm not against partnerships with commercial enterprises, but I'm against the university becoming a commercial enterprise itself.

Q: You've served on government boards, you've run a company, and you've been a professor for ten years. From this broader view, how would you assess Berkeley's role in helping to promote and protect the health of the human population, which is the mission of the school?

A: It's a fact that at least half of all health problems in America are caused by behavioral patterns, things we deliberately continue to do even when we know the serious health impacts: smoking, people being overweight, people still suffering from hypertension even though there are good drugs available.

In the past there was an assumption that all we needed was knowledge. If people understood the health consequences of their actions, they would do something about them, we thought. Obviously this was an oversimplified view.

We now know there's a need to understand much more about the psychological and cultural as well as physiological basis of health. To develop effective programs we need to have a much broader view of health, which is something Berkeley is good at -- bringing expertise to bear from all kinds of disciplines.


February 16 - 22, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 22)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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