Medical research goes global

36dsc_1304_ucsandiegopublications_erikjepsenBy Marg Stark

For more than 30 years, Dr. David Shapiro has had a front-row seat to watch the growth and evolution of San Diego’s booming biotech community and its increasing impact on the world. Shapiro, who is the chief medical officer at Intercept Pharmaceuticals, a company focused on developing treatments for nonviral liver disease said the engine that drives the growth of the life sciences is clinical trials, which help to prove—or disprove—the efficacy of possible treatments. Over the years, he said, as biotech companies around the globe have raced to find treatments for a wide range of diseases, clinical trials have become more crucial and more rigorous than ever.

“The primary and secondary research endpoints have to be more defined at the outset; there’s more uniform coordination across the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and others, and less margin for error across the board,” Shapiro said. “Of course, even amid higher regulatory standards, we are always trying to make the pathway shorter. And drugs are now being tested globally much earlier in the development process, with patients being recruited for trials on multiple continents.”

To manage these intricacies, professionals need instruction that keeps up with a staggering pace of change and offers them global research insights. Because of the critical importance of having a talent pool with this expertise, Shapiro serves as an advisor to UC San Diego Extension’s clinical trials programs. He said the courses and certificates Extension offers in clinical trials and drug development allow professionals the opportunities to stay current and ensure San Diego continues as a leading hub in biotech and life science.

“Extension provides ideal training for professionals,” Shapiro said. “I’m extremely impressed with the energy and expertise of the program and the way it prepares students and rewards prospective employers.”

Robyn Leary is one of those professionals who has benefitted from Extension’s training. She had spent 14 years working in various roles in clinical research labs, but she yearned to see the results of her work in patients. Although Leary has a PhD, she said her lack of an MD thwarted her efforts to shift from “bench science to human work.”
So, while pursuing her second “postdoc” fellowship, Leary embarked on clinical trials administration studies at UC San Diego Extension. Within a year, she landed her dream job at Teva Pharmaceuticals, serving as a medical science liaison between the company and the outside community.

For Leary, learning the practicalities of how clinical trials are run and becoming versed in pharmaceutical industry lingo in the Extension certificate program proved essential to her career transition.

“Medical science liaison has become a hot job in the industry, and I would not otherwise have had enough insider knowledge to make the jump into it,” she said.

Shapiro said UC San Diego Extension works extremely hard to design programs that anticipate the constantly changing nature of research and clinical trials.

“Extension attends to innovations with a very fast-wheeling commitment to change and improvement,” Shapiro said.

To stay ahead of the curve, Grace Miller and Donna Stern, who oversee Extension’s clinical trials programs, travel the globe, attending international conferences and forging international partnerships. They also recruit instructors who are leaders in the field, refine curriculum, and add courses to keep the Extension program and its students at the forefront of the industry.

As an example, Miller recently noticed an uptick in interest in project management in clinical trials and attended a session on this topic at a conference in Montreal. Miller promptly recruited the instructor, who will soon teach the course for Extension. Similarly, Stern said, initial coursework in the Clinical Trials Administration Certificate Program will feature more information on the International Council for Harmonization of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) and other regulatory bodies, not just the FDA and EMA. Clinical trials studies are also offered in Spanish to accommodate the emergence of clinical trials in Latin America.

At Intercept Pharmaceuticals, where Shapiro is overseeing the development of an agonist in bile acid chemistry to treat liver disease, among other therapies, clinical trials are underway in 20 countries.

“That’s an amazing global reach for a small company,” he said. “But that is typical today in drug development.”

International trial recruitment comes earlier in the research process, and global trials are no longer pursued just by field giants such as Merck and Pfizer, both of which Shapiro worked for.

100dsc_1400_ucsandiegopublications_erikjepsenTrained in the United Kingdom, Shapiro said San Diego is the perfect training post for this fast-moving industry. Some of the seminal work on the nuclear receptor FXR, which Shapiro’s company is advancing, was performed two decades ago by UC San Diego professor Alan Hofmann and his team of scientists. UC San Diego’s intense study of this complex molecule, including examining bile samples from animals from the San Diego Zoo, paved the way for the practical-applications work Intercept is forging. If all goes well, patients across the world with liver disease will soon benefit from therapies created in San Diego.

“So often this is the case,” Shapiro said. “Biotechs here are building on the extraordinary basic science performed at UC San Diego and San Diego’s robust nonprofit research organizations.”

Indeed, UC San Diego Extension has partnerships that expose students to international research leaders, such as the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands.

“Our students spent a week at Utrecht as part of our summer intensive workshop,” Miller explained. “But more and more, students interested in our program want to come to San Diego for their classroom work, both for our weather and for the introduction to our international biotech hub.”

Having made her jump from basic to translation research, Leary said she keeps the binder from her Extension studies in her office at Teva and still calls upon it occasionally.

“Teva is an Israeli company with a very global perspective. For my work, I must know what the EMA does and keep up with the research in Europe and elsewhere,” she said. “I knew this day one because of the Extension program: all the agencies, how they differ, and how to look up all their regulations, not to mention the host of pharmaceutical abbreviations and terminology, which are not things you just Google and find.”

Having transitioned from academia to the private sector, Leary said she marvels at the considerable salary and benefits bumps she enjoys and the facets of her personality and interests she now indulges. “In the lab, my work was focused on going very deep. It was tough to find time to read the journals and get the big picture in medicine,” Leary said. “Today, I’m paid to do that—to read about scientific and medical developments and attend conferences to stay abreast of innovation. I consult and troubleshoot about clinical trials. I fly across the region, counseling doctors and answering questions for insurers and payers about the applications of Teva’s therapies. And I’m getting to see the results: the impact we are making around the world on the lives of patients who benefit.”

50 Voices of the Future: Margaret Leinen on advances in oceanography

leinen50voiceIn honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

As much as we know about our planet’s ocean, it contains countless mysteries we have yet to solve, countless secrets we have yet to decipher. Dr. Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, notes that “we have more images of Mars than we do of the bottom of the ocean.” Advances in technology, she says, will allow us to peer into the ocean’s distant past in order to forecast its future changes and the implications of those changes for the planet as a whole. “That ability to really see the ocean, and what’s in the ocean, and to see it changing in front of us, is probably the most exciting development in our field,” she says.

 Why is the work you do important?

I’m an oceanographer. The ocean covers 70 percent of the planet. It is the absolute driver of global climate. The ocean moderates the climate and keeps us from having really great temperature extremes. All of the precipitation originally comes from the ocean. The ocean is a huge food source for everyone and a major food source for 2 billion of the poorest people on the planet. Virtually all the goods that we think of as the basis for trade – big things like lumber and cars, small things like electronics — are transported over the ocean. Then of course there’s national defense – the Navy is a major player in defense. Then there are other things like the quality of the environment that makes swimming, diving, surfing, and sailing possible. Oceanographers look at all of those aspects. They look at how the ocean works, they look at the ecosystems within it, they look at techniques to be able to determine how the ocean is changing, they look at fisheries, they look at coastal issues like water quality, sea-level rise, etc. So it’s the sum of all those very important roles that oceanographers play.

What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

The ocean has been one of the most under-observed parts of the earth. We have more images of the surface of Mars than we do of the bottom of the ocean. But that’s changing. New systems are being developed that are autonomous and that have great capability of collecting and transmitting data. Even more important are new technologies for being able to get a global picture of the ocean itself – the interior of the ocean. We now have four thousand autonomous floats moving around the ocean every day, and every day about a fifth of those floats report back on profiles they’ve taken of the entire upper 6,500 feet of the ocean. We have a picture of the temperature, the salinity, the currents of the ocean that is so much more detailed than ever before as a result of ten years of these measurements. This new technology is completely revolutionizing oceanography. There are also new instruments for biology, enabling us to look at the genomics of the ocean, the microbiology of the ocean. The field is exploding so fast in capability that it’s hard to even keep track of. That ability to really see the ocean, and what’s in the ocean, and to see it changing in front of us, is probably the most exciting development in our field.

What’s the next big thing?

It’s hard to under-sell how important our new knowledge of the microbiology of the ocean is. In the last decade our understanding of microbes and viruses has completely changed our thinking. We now know that the genetic make-up of microbes holds keys to what the ocean was like in the past. Someone just described it this way: The earth’s history — since the time that there was an ocean — is written in the DNA of the microbes of the ocean in a language that we never knew and that we still don’t know how to speak.

How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

San Diego is a coastal town, has a huge economy related to the ocean – trade, tourism, fishing, Navy – and the region itself is very much a part of that. Even the biotech part of the San Diego economy has not yet profited by our understanding of all of this ocean biology. I think oceanography will play an incredible role in shaping the evolution of the biotech industry here, unveiling marine molecules related to new drugs or novel compounds that do interesting things that we need done. I think oceanography will also shape the future of San Diego in how we deal with sea-level rise and how we deal with pollution in our waters; oceanography is at the heart of that.

Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?

Oceanography will be even more interdisciplinary than it is now. This year we hired eight new faculty who have fully joint appointments with other parts of the university – the School of Medicine, the School of Engineering, the departments of anthropology, biology, and global policy and strategy. We need closer relationships with all of those fields to be able to attack the big questions and problems that we want to look at over the next decades. Also, our field will be saturated with technologies for observing the ocean that we don’t even know about now

Leinen is featured on UC San Diego’ Extension STEAM Channel as part of series The Constellation: Sally Ride Science Conversations. She discusses her career, leading the University of California’s delegation to the Paris Climate Conference and the impact of the new Research Vessel/Sally Ride.

UC San Diego Extension partners with PharmaSUG to bridge academics and industry


Some people see data as just numbers and figures, but turning large amounts of information into knowledge you can use is imperative to business success.

As the leader in business analytics software, Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS) helps organizations access and transform large amounts of data into insights and facts that can be used in the discovery of new and exciting opportunities. The software has applications in a variety of industries, including research, project management, quality improvement, forecasting and decision-making.

Bridging academics and industry, UC San Diego Extension has partnered with the Pharmaceutical Industry SAS Users Group, PharmaSUG, to host a single-day event on October 21, 2016. PharmaSUG consists of professionals worldwide in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries who use SAS software in their work. The non-profit’s primary purpose is to provide a forum for the exchange of information and the promotion of new ideas concerning the use of SAS software as it relates to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

psugPharmaSUG attracts the best SAS practitioners from around the country and allows participants – both professionals and students – to learn from industry experts on clinical analytic and health outcomes.

Rob Howard, CEO of Veridical Solutions, who also serves as an executive committee member of PharmaSUG and is a UC San Diego Extension instructor, said San Diego is a prime location to host this event because of its position as a leader in the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

“PharmaSUG wants to target hot areas of industry like the research triangle in North Carolina and here in San Diego because of its large presence in the pharmaceutical industry,” Howard said.

The growing utility of SAS has earned itself a top spot on the ‘must have’ list of skills for jobs across several fields, which translates into a high demand for SAS trained professionals.

UC San Diego Extension offers certificates in SAS programming and biostatistics, two fields in which statistical analysis is imperative to professional success. The SAS Programming certificate provides training for those seeking to gain a deep understanding of the powerful statistical language, and the industry neutral curriculum allows for students to apply knowledge to their field of interest. In addition, the Biostatistics certificate emphasizes the application of statistical techniques to the analysis of clinical data, which is important in such fields as medical imaging, ecological forecasting and statistical genetics.


“SAS has a global reach with broad applications, and this event will give students good exposure to the industry by interacting with sponsors and vendors,” said Howard.

Cindy Hanson, associate director of strategic initiatives and outreach at UC San Diego Extension, expressed the significance of UC San Diego Extension hosting this event.

“Many of our academic advisory board members and instructors are key players in PharmaSUG community, thereby reinforcing the need for Extension to provide a platform for this event,” she said. “We are honored that we could join forces with PharmaSUG by opening our campus for this worthwhile event.”

PharmaSUG single day event sign up


50 Voices of the Future: Lori Alexander on the boom in research and medical writing


In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Most kids don’t dream of a career as a medical writer. Instead, many fall into medical writing while following an alternate pathway. Some are scientists who prefer writing about medical research rather than conducting it while others start with a passion for writing and realize science is a topic they enjoy writing about. Lori Alexander, president of Editorial Rx, Inc., followed the latter path. “From as early as I can remember, I loved to write, and it didn’t matter what it was about. I then became fascinated with medicine when I started working in a community hospital. I had no idea there was a field out there where I could blend my two loves into one career.” Today, the field is more recognized, but still, medical communication is not a field that is well represented at school career fairs. Programs such as the one at UC San Diego Extension are helping to bring medical communication into the forefront.

 (1) Why is the work you do important?

My work—and the work of all medical communicators—is important because clear communication is essential to scientific research and to meaningful patient-physician interactions. My two primary areas of medical writing are continuing medical education for health care professionals and education for people with cancer. Continuing Medical Education is essential for improving the knowledge and skills of health care professionals and thus enhancing health outcomes for patients. The educational resources I develop help people better understand their disease and treatment options, which in turn helps them to make more informed health care decisions. Across medical writing settings, the goals are the same: to create clear medical communications that lead to better health and well being. In fact, this goal is the vision statement for the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

So many exciting things are happening right now in medical communication, and they’re related to unprecedented growth in medical research and publishing, changes in the stakeholders in the health care arena, and advances in technology. These developments are helping to create more and varied opportunities for medical communicators. The growth in medical research is reflected in the explosion in the number of clinical trials being conducted, which has increased from 25,858 in 2006 to more than 225,000 this year. Many medical writers are involved with developing the required documentation for the trials and the approvals of new drugs, as well as with writing reports on the trial results and implications. The number of scientific and medical journals is also increasing exponentially—about 2.5 million science, technology, and medicine articles are published each year. Medical writers and editors are needed to help prepare these manuscripts. Increasing discussions about the value and cost of medical products also is leading to new opportunities for medical writers in such areas as health economics and outcomes research, technology assessments and comparative effectiveness research.

Social media is also making its mark as it is changing how medical writers communicate with each other, how researchers communicate with each other, and how research is conveyed to various audiences. These developments not only increase the demand for medical writers but also call for medical writers and editors to enhance their knowledge in science and medicine as well as strengthen their writing skills. The Medical Writing Certificate Program at UC San Diego Extension is an excellent way for scientists to forge a pathway to these exciting opportunities.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

I think the next big thing is certification for medical writers because it provides a way for medical writers to legitimize what they do. American Medical Writers Association developed the first (and only) credentialing program for medical writers, and the examination is based on first-of-its-kind research into the key areas of knowledge, skills and abilities required of medical writers. Certification gives employers a way to feel confident in the credibility of medical writers who have earned this credential. Certification also raises the standard for medical writers and thus increases the need for educational programs to help scientists and others gain the core competencies needed for a career in medical writing.

(4) How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

The San Diego region is home to hundreds of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and California has large health care systems and a strong commitment to medical research. Medical writers and editors can help these industries further advance their goals.

(5) Hop in to your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

Medical communication will ride into the future along with medicine and health care. Physicians predict that technology will dramatically affect how people are treated in the next 50 years and medical communicators will need to keep pace with ways to make data actionable. How do we gather and interpret massive amounts of health data and turn that into information that helps scientists and patients alike? Also, as researchers gain a better understanding of the underlying biology and molecular bases of diseases, the field of personalized medicine will continue to grow. These advances mean that medical communicators will need strong critical thinking and communication skills to translate complex concepts into easily understood content.

clinicaltrialsLori Alexander, president of Editorial Rx, Inc., teaches Introduction to Medical Writing at UC San Diego Extension, which is part of the Professional Certificate in Medical Writing.

Photo credit (Lori Alexander’s image): Cindy Cone Photography

50 Voices of the Future: Tam O’Shaughnessy on STEM education


In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

As Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology in which no one knows anything about science and technology.” Tam O’Shaughnessy, co-founder of Sally Ride Science and executive director of Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, has worked for years to remedy that situation. As a career scientist and educator, she emphasizes the need to empower all students—especially girls and young women—to become scientifically literate and to master skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

(1) Why is the work you do important?

The work of Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego is important because our society depends on STEM. We need to make sure all students are literate in STEM so they can make informed decisions about their lives—their health, their communities and our planet.

Eighty percent of the fastest growing jobs in America require knowledge and skills in math and science. Our future engineers, software developers and data scientists need STEM skills, yet the workforce in these crucial jobs does not reflect who we are in America. Even though women make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, only 28 percent are employed in STEM fields. Historically underrepresented groups—Hispanics, African Americans, American Indians and Alaskan Natives—make up 26 percent of the U.S. adult population, but they account for only 10 percent of the workers in STEM jobs.

Science advances and grows when people from all parts of our society contribute. We face huge challenges—where will we get enough sustainable energy? How will we curb emissions of greenhouse gases? How can we contain disease epidemics? The solutions will come from science. We need to make sure we are tapping into the talents and creativity of women and men from all backgrounds to overcome those obstacles.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

STEM is at the forefront of the education policy discussion these days. Educators, parents, lawmakers and corporate America understand the need for a STEM-literate citizenry, and they are taking steps toward that goal. There is a critical mass of people building on what research and classroom experience show works best in STEM education. This includes improving teacher preparation and establishing consistent standards and curricula across states.

When we achieve excellence in science classrooms, teaching and learning are dynamic. Students work cooperatively to share ideas and participate in discussions. They make predictions and talk through explanations, evidence and relationships between hypotheses and data. Students review and evaluate their own knowledge and revise their ideas based on new information. In an excellent science classroom, students are immersed in doing science as it is done by real scientists.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

The next big things are equity and excellence—in STEM education and, in turn, in STEM fields. Our society will reap countless benefits if we enable all students to be their authentic selves. We need to provide excellent educational opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race, cultural or ethnic background, disabilities, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

(4) How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

Making sure that all students receive an excellent STEM education will play an enormous role in shaping the future of San Diego and the nation. Equity and excellence in STEM education will impact everything from productivity and prosperity to innovation and quality of life. STEM literacy empowers people to make informed decisions in their personal lives—selecting nutritious foods, evaluating options for medical treatment or adopting environmentally responsible habits. STEM literacy also enables people to weigh competing arguments and reach valid conclusions on issues facing our society. An understanding of basic STEM concepts prepares young people for the future by developing critical thinking skills that are invaluable in any field of study and in any career.

Not all students want to pursue advanced degrees. There are opportunities in STEM for everyone. For example, half of all STEM jobs don’t require a four-year degree. These jobs pay an average of $53,000, which is 10 percent higher than non-STEM jobs with similar education requirements.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

Fifty years from now, equity and excellence in STEM education will be realized. This is a lofty view of the future, but based on the progress we are making, we can achieve this goal. When we create a STEM-literate citizenry—and all that it entails—our country will be stronger socially and economically. Individuals, nonprofit organizations and companies can help realize this future by supporting their communities’ efforts to improve STEM education based on our current knowledge of how children and adults learn.

We invite you to more about Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego and other Pre-College programs that we offer at UC San Diego Extension.

East-West Connections: UC San Diego Extension helps forge new alliances across the Pacific

DSC_2318Bridging academics with industry is one of UC San Diego Extension’s hallmarks and its recent BioBeach Summer program was no exception. Through the unique program, 40 students from Zhejiang University of Technology were able to study at a world-renowned research institution while getting a firsthand look at San Diego’s ever-growing biomedical and pharmaceutical industry.

To develop the program, UC San Diego Extension partnered with Sino-American Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Professionals Association (SABPA) and Davidia Healthtech, a San Diego-based biomedical technology company. Both SABPA and Davidia worked with Extension because they knew Extension had the expertise to design a program that met Zhejiang University of Technology’s stringent scientific requirements as well as provide connections to a myriad of biomedical and pharmaceutical companies.

The visiting Zhejiang University of Technology students participated in a highly tailored program that offered classes in such disciplines as medicinal chemistry and drug development, taught by UC San Diego professors including Dr. Dionicio Siegel, associate professor, UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. In addition, UC San Diego Extension instructors and experts from the pharmaceutical industry lectured students on trending topics and scientific breakthroughs. To reinforce the classroom learning, the Zhejiang University students visited biotech and pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Dart NeuroScience.

BioBeach Summer Program 071Hua Deng, Ph.D., president of Davidia Healthtech and a former UC San Diego Extension student, said the program was able to link knowledge with practice in a unique way.

“UC San Diego Extension is able to connect an academic background with industry experience because the instructors are leading scientists and researchers themselves,” she said.

Dr. Yahu A. Liu, president of SABPA and an investigator at Genomics institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, said BioBeach also provided a window into one the most successful biotech clusters in the world.

“The students got to know the biotech industry, which is very famous here in San Diego. It expands the student’s vision and understanding of the industry,” he said.

Emphasis was not only placed on academics, the group also took a number of cultural fieldtrips to some of San Diego’s most famous attractions. They also spent an afternoon doing community service at SABPA’s annual picnic where they had the occasion to practice their conversational English.

Despite all the cultural and academic opportunities, the students agreed that the real highlight was San Diego’s preeminent attraction – the beach.

BioBeach Summer Program 277Because the BioBeach program was such a success – both for students and for the program partners – there are plans to continue and expand the program to offer more Zhejiang University of Technology students the opportunity to study the growing biotech sector with a San Diego perspective.

Reflecting on her first abroad experience, Yiwen Wu, one of the Zhejiang students, said the BioBeach program changed both the way she viewed learning and her educational goals.

“This experience impressed me a lot,” she said. “It taught me that I can go on to get a master’s and a doctor’s degree. What impressed me most was people’s attitude about studying here.”

For more information about UC San Diego Extension’s drug development and medicinal chemistry programs, please visit

Knowledge is POWER

5DSC_6838_crop_UCSanDiegoPublications_ErikJepsenAs the saying goes, inquiring minds want to know, and there is perhaps no more an inquiring mind than Larry Smarr’s.

The founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), Smarr has spent a lifetime exploring everything from black holes to bacteria in our guts and then developing computational methods to explain these mind-bending phenomena.

His pursuits have led to some pretty idiosyncratic endeavors. To explore how complex ecosystems work, Smarr once built a 200-gallon coral reef tank in his living room. Twenty years later he is exploring the dynamic ecosystem of his own human body, monitoring it by collecting and evaluating his blood and stool samples on a regular basis.

Yes, he’s inquiring—and dedicated.

Smarr’s inquiries have taken many forms and ventured down myriad avenues, but his intellectual quests started at a very young age.

“I always knew I was going to be a scientist from the first grade because that was what I was interested in,” he said, recalling how all his classmates would look to him for help on science projects such as constructing a model of the solar system.

“Whether it was a natural interest or a natural aptitude, it’s hard to say,” he added.

Smarr’s parents, who ran a florist shop in Columbia, Mo. were “supportive but a bit mystified.”

“There was never any reason about what I would study,” he said. “I would stumble on something, and I’d think ‘I can do that.’ I’d learn about it, study it and then move onto something else.”

As a teenager living in a college town, with University of Missouri close by, Smarr had easy access to the university’s library and was already taking calculus classes at the college by his junior year of high school. When it came time to graduate, he received both a master’s degree and a bachelor of arts in physics—a point of pride for Smarr, especially when it came to his undergraduate degree.

“I was one of the first physics students to be allowed to earn a bachelor of arts and not a bachelor of science because I wanted to have more electives,” he said.

From there, Smarr received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas using supercomputers to try to understand “dynamic, nonlinear coupled systems” from the astrophysics of giant galactic radio jets to the collision of black holes.

21DSC_6893_UCSanDiegoPublications_ErikJepsenBut in studying those systems, he realized that many other scientists could use supercomputing power to unlock a vast array of mysteries: from particle physics to living organisms to the universe. So Smarr worked with his colleagues to create the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was a professor.

It was love of cross-disciplinary research that brought Smarr to UC San Diego in 2000 to help found and then serve as the director of Calit2, a UC San Diego/UC Irvine partnership. He also holds the Harry E. Gruber professorship in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

In these roles, Smarr used Calit2 to organize interdisciplinary teams to study the digital disruption of health, energy, the environment, and culture. He oversaw building leading-edge information infrastructure from supernetworks to virtual reality and scientific visualization—which is the ability to make scientific findings more understandable through scalable interactive visual formats.

Through his work in these various fields, it became clear to Smarr that he and other researchers needed a new “big data” cyberinfrastructure. Because of that he has taken the lead in creating the Pacific Research Platform, a high-powered “information superhighway” dedicated to research and education, interconnecting West Coast universities. The Pacific Research Platform is expected to give participating universities and other research institutions the ability to move data 1,000 times faster compared to speeds on today’s inter-campus shared internet—something that is vitally important to be able to make sense of the increasing amounts of data and information that scientists and others must analyze.

Take, for instance, the study of microbiomes, which are the large and varied collections of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that live both within and around us.

Although it is a massive area of study, Smarr has tackled the subject, in part, by using a very personal approach. For the past several years, Smarr has obsessively monitored his own body—with regular analysis of his blood and stool samples—to better understand the complex ecosystem that is the human body. Smarr calls this effort the “quantified self”—an endeavor that he believes will form the basis for future personalized precision medicine.

While studying his own bodily functions might seem routine, Smarr said it actually requires a large amount of computing power. The data generated by the genomic analysis of a single stool sample, for instance, is about 35 gigabytes of data—or about 5,000 times larger than a digital photo you take on your smartphone. To computationally analyze the dynamics of his microbiome over four years while comparing it to hundreds of other people’s microbiomes, both healthy and sick, he and his colleague Rob Knight, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego with an additional appointment in the university’s Department of Computer Science, are currently burning through one million core-hours of supercomputer time on the San Diego Supercomputer Center. That is equivalent to running a laptop for over 100 years.

While Smarr and Knight have been on the forefront of computational microbiome research, many other groups are undertaking similarly large projects. In response, the White House announced a new National Microbiome Initiative in May to foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems, with Knight and other UC San Diego scientists in attendance for the announcement.

“This is now ‘The Next Big Thing.’ The study of microbiomes has tremendous potential to provide insights into health, diseases, and agricultural and environmental sustainability,” Smarr said.

Still, Smarr marvels at the speed with which microbiome research has grown. Just ten years ago, the world of microbiomes was relatively unknown with the research focusing on environmental microbiomes such as those J. Craig Venter studied across the planet’s oceans.

“You recognize how quickly it all moves from basic research to a White House initiative,” Smarr said. “Every time I live through one of these transformations, it takes my breath away how fast innovation can move from the first germ of an idea.”

But unlike many who view innovation’s dizzying pace as a threat or a cause for concern, Smarr sees it as a hopeful sign.

“It makes me optimistic, considering the whole planet is facing a series of steep challenges,” he said.

Those challenges and the persistent race to face them will require everyone—not just scientists and researchers—to keep pace with change.

Because of that, Smarr said, San Diego is fortunate to have UC San Diego Extension and other continuing education institutions that are dedicated to helping people reskill and upskill.

“With the Extension program, San Diegans have the opportunity to participate and retrain themselves to better work in the future that is coming,” he said.

“My father spent his whole life in one job,” Smarr added. “Those days are gone forever. In a city as vibrant as San Diego, its citizens must be able to adapt. Change is never going to stop—it’s just going to accelerate.”

50 Voices of the Future: Lauray MacElhern uses food as medicine


In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Our health depends on a variety of things, from our genetic make-up to our lifestyles. But only recently have medical professionals begun to recognize the value of taking an “integrative” approach to health care – which means, as one writer recently phrased it, “exploring new ways to treat the mind, body and spirit at the same time.” Lauray MacElhern, managing director of UC San Diego’s Center of Integrative Medicine, believes that in the future, health care will rely more and more not just on what medicines we take but how we control our stress, how we prepare our food, even how we manage our thought processes. She predicts that a few decades from now, the best doctors will be experts in all these things – and we’ll all be much healthier as a result.

(1) Why is the work you do important?

Integrative medicine is all about empowering each individual with active participation in their own health care, not just passively receiving treatments and cares. It’s about bringing together both ancient wisdom and modern science into one place; that’s kind of the beauty of it. This approach helps people discover their own prescriptions for care – through diet, mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, other things – usually starting with the most natural, least invasive types of treatments. We’re also educating the next generation of health care professionals to have this new view of health care and how it should encompass all possible opportunities for healing, not just the ones that have been in their traditional training.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

I’m very excited about the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health – more than 60 other academic health centers and health systems around the country that have their own centers of integrative medicine. To me, it’s very telling about the direction health care is moving because it’s what patients are demanding, not to mention it’s also improving health outcomes and saving money for the health care system. I’m also really excited about the way we’re doing research now in integrative medicine. We’re taking more of a practice-based approach, which is really looking at uniformly collecting patient outcomes and health data and then using that data to analyze and look for all sorts of best practices. I think it’s a new gold standard for integrative medicine.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

I think there’s a really big gap between science and practice. I think this is where the opportunity really is. There’s this extraordinary lengthy of time between when solid research findings come out and then when those research findings become standard practice in the world of health care. It’s usually about 20 years. There’s a related gap in the world of nutrition. Dieticians and nutritionists are usually trained in terms of biochemistry and nutrition science, but they leave out the practical elements of shopping, cooking, preparation and meal planning. Chefs are taught these skills but chefs aren’t really taught these skills in the context of how to use food as medicine. So none of these fields really draws upon ancient wisdom, connecting other parts of integrative medicine such as chewing well, stress reduction, inner wisdom. So there’s this gap between nutrition education, the practice of healthy eating and integrative medicine that I think really represents the opportunity for the next big thing.

(4) How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

At UC San Diego in particular, I think we’re uniquely poised to be a leader in integrative medicine, focused specifically on food as medicine. Southern California is hungry for this paradigm shift. Also, I think we draw upon a really unique position in San Diego. We’re right on the border with Mexico, we have this wonderful opportunity for cuisine and a rich cultural heritage to expand our thinking about food. We have extraordinary sea life; we talk a lot about the importance of sea weeds in our diet. Also, in California is such a rich agricultural hub. We’re surrounded by all these opportunities for learning and collaborative.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?  How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

I think integrative medicine will just be good medicine. I don’t know that it will even be called anything. We’ll have a health care system that will put health care at the center and healthy habits will be supported by our society. Health and nutrition coaches are a fast-growing field and likely to play an important role in this transformation. Restaurants, hospitals, schools and any facility where food is part of the system will be providing healing-oriented foods and menu items, which will be the standards so that if someone wants to add unhealthy items, it will take a lot more effort. So the default will be the healthy items and if you want unhealthy items, that’s going to take a little extra effort. It will be so expensive and uncomfortable to live an unhealthy life that rarely will anyone choose this path. The first step is to envision it. Once we do that, we can take steps in the right direction.

Learn more about the ideas Lauray MacElhern discusses in this article in a range of Healthcare courses and programs offered by UC San Diego Extension, including the Fitness Instruction/Exercise Science certificate program, and courses such as Human NutritionIntroduction to Nutrition Science, and Nutrition for Fitness and Sport.

50 Voices of the Future: William Mobley imagines life without Alzheimer’s


In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Dr. William Mobley believes a cure for Alzheimer’s disease is a distinct possibility. In 50 years “Kids will learn about it in school,” says Mobley, who chairs UC San Diego’s Department of Neurosciences. “They’ll say, in the old days, there was this terrible illness called Alzheimer’s disease, but treatments were discovered that prevent it in San Diego. That changed everything for dealing with that disease.”

If anybody can help make that happen, it’s Mobley, one of the world’s leading experts in neurodegenerative disorders. These days he’s hard at work trying to understand the way neurons communicate with each other. The occasional breakdown of these communications can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome and Huntington’s disease.

What are the odds of finding a cure for these diseases in the next 50 years? “Hard to state probability,” Mobley says. “Better not to be weighed down by probabilities – just do it.”

(1) Why is the work you do important?

Our focus is on the mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s diseases and Huntington’s disease and Down syndrome. The brain is a machine that links neurons together in networks. The integrity of those networks depends upon a two-way communication, from neuron #1 to neuron #2 and from neuron #2 back to neuron #1. We want to understand how it is, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease or Down syndrome or Huntington’s disease, how the system fails. Once we understand that, we’re in a position to basically reverse the disease process or prevent it.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

Exciting things include technological advances that will let us see how the brain works; advances that let us understand the underlying mechanisms by which neurons talk to each other and communicate effectively. We can devise systems that let us look at how neurons talk to one another and what information they exchange. That lets you look at normal communication, the changes that occur in disease models, and allow those models to teach us about what goes wrong. The other advances are the genetic and technical discoveries. The tools that allow us to modify genes, so we can understand what impact a mutation might have. It’s a wonderful opportunity to understand the underlying mechanisms and test therapies.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

I think the next big things are therapies to treat Alzheimer’s disease. I think we can have effective treatments by 2025. Why not? And that changes everything. Because now Alzheimer’s disease currently considered an oncoming epidemic, is aborted. Or at least it is made less severe in older people and in younger people perhaps completely prevented.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

I think we have a chance here in San Diego to do for other disorders what we’re trying to do right now for Alzheimer’s disease. So I could see UC San Diego and the other institutions on the Mesa – making really, really important observations in a number of diseases – Huntington’s disease and autism and a number of diseases that at present are underserved – this biomedical community is a kind of a paradise, for work of this kind. I would argue that San Diego could be not just a player but a frontrunner, a leader, for solving these problems, especially for the brain but for other disorders as well.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?  How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

In 50 years, hopefully Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and ALS – all of these really terrible disorders – are no longer a problem. We have treatments or cures for all of them. And then finally we’ll then be able to turn our attention to enhancing human life, using studies of brain science, to deal with issues of empathy, compassion, to learn the brain basis behind anger, dismay, hopelessness and to gain insights needed to deal with any number of issues that face society. Benefiting from great brain science, we can begin to deal more effectively with the human condition.

Explore the Science and Healthcare programs and courses that UC San Diego Extension offers including a range of certificate programs in areas such as Clinical Trials and Biotechnology Project Management, and discover more about neuroscience on The Brain Channel on UCTV.

50 Voices of the Future: Wesley Schultz on creating sustainable behaviors


In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Like most of the scientific community, social psychologist Wesley Schultz believes human beings have caused many of the environmental problems facing our planet. But Schultz’s research also shows that we can be the main factor in improving the health of our environment. The key is showing people that getting involved in conservation, recycling, and sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean sacrifice – in fact, healing the Earth can feel pretty darn good. Schultz teaches social psychology and statistics at Cal State San Marcos, and is teaching a course in Conservation Psychology at UC San Diego Extension this summer.

(1) Why is the work you do important?

It’s clear that our current level of consumption and degree of environmental impact is unsustainable. If you think about the environmental problems that we face, the problems are caused by human behavior, and so solving the problem then means that we need to change behavior. We need to change what we do, and there are a lot of different pathways that can move us to a more sustainable way of living, but all of these pathways involve people. Whether we’re talking about new technology like solar panels, or LED light bulbs, or local foods, or whatever the behavior is, it means that people need to do something different.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

Historically, conservation has been seen as sacrificing. If you’re going to conserve, it means giving up your personal gain in order to prioritize environmental protection. The new research is clearly showing that individuals can engage in environmental protection for personal reasons. In many cases, behaviors that have a positive environmental impact also have positive benefits to the person. People are happier, or they’re living a simpler lifestyle, or there’s the financial gain, or there’s improved social connections.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

One of the things that I see in my research is that programs that are really effective have some sort of social component to them. They make sustainability and conservation fun and engaging. With the explosion of new technologies and especially social media, there’s new ways of communicating, and this has opened up a large number of opportunities to engage people in sustainability. I think that’s a really exciting opportunity.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

One of the great things about living here in San Diego is that the natural environment makes for such a high quality of life, and people spend time at the beach, they’re in the water in the bay, they’re swimming, they’re hiking. We spend a huge amount of time outside, and it’s really a way of life here. People want to live in clean and healthy and safe environments.

If you think about our local region here, we’re already seeing a direct impact of human behavior on our local environment. Whether it’s sea level change, or water pollution, or air pollution, I think individuals in communities are going to really start pushing for change.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

Our field of study can help us achieve the vision I have for the future:

Where getting from place to place is easy and convenient, and it uses clean sources of energy. We have comfortable temperatures in our indoor environments using energy that generates almost entirely from renewable sources. We’re eating local food, and buying local products that support a strong ritual economy. There’s very little trash because almost all used materials are collected and recycled. There are clean, beautiful public spaces that are free from litter, and people are living in communities where they can work and play and have families, all in close proximity, and where they have a connection and an engagement with their neighbors and their community.

Learn more about our Sustainability & Behavior Change certificate program and explore the variety of Environment & Sustainability courses and programs we offer every quarter.