Marching for Science

BWH leadership, clinicians, researchers, postdocs, grad students and other supporters gathered on the HMS Quad and marched to Boston Common to join thousands for the March for Science

Cold and rain could not dampen the enthusiasm and commitment of BWHers as they joined thousands of scientists and science-supporters at the March for Science in Boston on April 22, one of more than 600 events held worldwide that day to celebrate scientific discovery and education.

At 11 a.m. a crowd of hundreds gathered on the Harvard Medical School Quad for a rally before marching to Boston Common to join Boston’s official March for Science. Thomas Michel, MD, PhD, of the BWH Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, welcomed the crowd and led them in singing an anthem titled “Stand Up for Science,” performed to the tune of “This Land is Your Land.” Michel, who wrote the song’s lyrics (download them here), provided an accompaniment on the accordion.

Listen to the crowd in singing “Stand Up for Science”

“How wonderful to hear voices joined in solidarity for science,” said Michel. “This is a march for science, not a march by scientists. It doesn’t matter whether you are a surgeon or a soprano, a chemist or a carpenter, a student or a senior citizen. We march together.”

“Science is for all of us”

Michel introduced a line up of speakers that included patients, clinicians, researchers and the dean of Harvard Medical School, George Q. Daley, MD, PhD. Among the speakers was Katherine Helming Walsh, PhD, who has been both a researcher and a patient.

“I went from being a researcher in one of the laboratories to being a very sick patient in one of the hospital rooms,” said Helming Walsh. “I would not be here today if it were not for the persistence, the creativity and the courage of the many scientists who came before us.”

“Thanks to an incredible team of doctors and nurses at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, my amazingly supportive network of family and friends and decades of dedicated biomedical research, I am here today cancer free and back in the laboratory.”

Fidencio Saldana, MD, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, greeted the crowd with remarks in both English and Spanish.

“Science is for all of us. Science affects all of us. La ciencia es para todos. La ciencia afecta a todos,” Saldana said. “I stand before you the child of immigrant parents who came to this country from Mexico with little more than a fourth-grade education, in search of a better life. Science has allowed me to give back to people like my parents, as a cardiologist to both Spanish- and English-speaking patients in Boston.”

“So with that, science is for people who want to make a difference in this world. And I ask you, is there anyone out there in this crowd today who wants to make a difference in this world? (Crowd cheers.) Well then, science is for you.”

Big Breakthroughs Begin with Basic Science

Elorm Avakame, an HMS/HSPH MD-MPP student, and Reneldy Senat both spoke about sickle cell anemia, a devastating disease that begins in childhood and causes bouts of severe pain. Avakame shared his perspective as a physician who took care of a young girl with the disease. Senat shared his experience as one of very few people who have received a stem cell transplant that has essentially cured him of sickle cell anemia. Julie Losman, MD, PhD, a hematologist at BWH and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, helped place these stories in context, explaining the unusual history of sickle cell anemia, and the discovery of its cause in 1949 by chemical engineer Linus Pauling – who was not a physician but rather a basic scientist. His work, Losman explained, laid the foundation for the entire field of medical genetics.

Losman also explained that the curative stem cell treatment Senat received, while very effective, is grueling and, unfortunately, isn’t an option for many patients with the disease. However, the new, powerful and precise gene editing tool CRISPR, which researchers in Boston are working to perfect, has the potential to be used to fix genetic mutations like the ones that cause sickle cell anemia. And much like sickle cell anemia, CRISPR was not discovered by a physician or by a researcher looking for a potential cure for a disease. Instead, CRISPR was discovered by microbiologists who were studying the bacteria that are used to create cheese and yogurt.

“The discovery of CRISPR and gene editing was not made by a geneticist. It was not made by a stem cell biologist. CRISPR was discovered by a bunch of microbiologists. Scientists who study bacteria and viruses.(Cheers from the crowd.) Good to see you guys here!”

“These stories represent so much of what today’s march is all about,” said Losman. “The lessons we should take away are that basic, fundamental research is absolutely crucial to advancing human health. It is only if we as a society value science and support science that we will achieve the extraordinary breakthroughs that promise to revolutionize medicine.”

Elizabeth Henske, MD, director of the Center for LAM Research and Clinical Care and director of the Brigham Research Institute, shared how science has transformed the lives of women living with a rare lung disease known as LAM. She noted that this treatment began with a seemingly unrelated discovery in fruit flies. Like Losman, Henske emphasized that it is impossible to predict what research will lead to medical breakthroughs.

“Improving human health requires a broad vision that’s shared by Harvard Medical School, the Harvard hospitals and the NIH. For LAM, we needed scientists studying fruit fly eyes and soil samples. Who knows what’s needed for the next breakthrough in asthma, diabetes or leukemia?”

Standing Up for All

Following the rally, the crowd marched from the HMS Quad to Boston Common, joining thousands in the city to hear remarks from students, physicians, researchers and others. Among the speakers on the Common was Altaf Saadi, MD, of the Department of Neurology, who spoke about being both a physician and an American Muslim woman. Saadi reminded the crowd that issues of sexism, racism and anti-Muslim discrimination are real.

“As scientists, we must fight these problems from within and take these issues just as seriously as we do federal budget cuts and other policies that threaten scientific research,” said Saadi. “Standing up for science means standing up for all scientists.”

“There’s a saying that goes even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. We are here today to show that we are not just sitting there when it comes to attacks on science. We also cannot just sit there when it comes to attacks on the diverse members of our scientific community, be they women, immigrants, blacks, Muslims, Latinos or LGBTQ members.”