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Research Spotlight: Dr. Lau reflects on March for Science

May 04, 2017

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Dr. Eric Lau is an assistant member of the Tumor Biology Department.

Dr. Eric Lau's innovative research programs focus on defining the molecular mechanisms controlling the development, metastatic progression, and therapeutic resistance of melanoma, with the goal of identifying novel therapeutic, diagnostic and prognostic modalities. He is a board member of Unity@Moffitt and recently attended the March for Science in Washington, D.C.

What motivated you to dedicate your time to the March
for Science?
 

I think that many of us in biomedical research ascribe to the belief that, whether we make landmark discoveries of novel therapeutic treatments or elucidate more specialized/focused biological mechanisms, we are all contributing in our own way to a greater good aimed at treating and curing disease. Each of us, no matter how big or small our discoveries, play important roles in advancing knowledge and improving the world. Along this line of thinking, I believe that if we are in a position of knowledge to help educate the community about specific issues through our experience and expertise, then it is part of our social and civic responsibility to do so whether we help to educate just one single person or a mass of people. I think that in times like these, when crucial political and governmental decisions are polarizing our society as the result of inaccurate information or alternative facts that are March for Sciencerapidly disseminated by news and social media platforms, it is the responsibility of those of us with real facts and evidence to step forward and help disseminate the truth. Just as it is our civic responsibility to vote, the time is now to step up to the plate, take accountability for our roles and responsibilities to society - to our country - and try to effect real positive change. Whether we write to or call our local representatives or march for civil rights, marriage equality and LGBT rights, women's rights, or for science, it is up to us to make our voices heard and to communicate the truth, ultimately to make our society the best that it can be for all, and importantly to make sure that those in charge of governmental regulations and policy make educated and evidence-based decisions. For me, the March for Science represented an opportunity to highlight how important science and facts are, particularly in light of impending governmental decisions that will negatively impact science and research in this country for years to come, with ripple effects worldwide.

Why did you choose science, and cancer research more specifically, as a career? 

Growing up in San Francisco, I was fortunate to live near the California Academy of Sciences. Of course, now, it is much fancier than it was when I was growing up (back then, they didn't have an indoor tropical rainforest, simulated Amazonian river, or tropical birds and butterflies flying all around you). Nonetheless, on a very regular basis, I was able to observe and interact with all sorts of animals - crazy fish, marine crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, penguins, you name it. I seriously thought that I would grow up to be some sort of zoologist. But then one day, when I was 12, my grandmother, who I had lived alongside with my entire life, fell ill. Within about 6 months, she passed from extremely aggressive metastatic lung cancer. Our family never had any history of lung cancer. Watching one of the strongest people that I knew succumb so quickly was one of the most frustrating and painful things that I had experienced. I knew at that point that I wanted to devote my life to helping people with cancer. So from then on, I volunteered and worked in hospitals and labs, and in college, when I realized that my mind was really not cut out for medical school, I applied for biomedical graduate research programs. On my first day of graduate school at the UC San Diego Department of Molecular Pathology, my department chair, Dr. Mark Kamps, said to our incoming class of 10 students, "You were all hand selected and admitted into our program because you're all weird. You all think in weird ways (and out of the box)." It was then that I knew that I was in the right place. To this day, I still hold Dr. Kamps's words close to me. And I tend to tell graduate students that they are weird (and that they should be proud of that. #nerdlife).

March for Science

What other types of scientists did you meet in DC? What did you learn from them? 

By and large, most of the scientists that I encountered happened to be climate scientists. Sometimes I find myself so entrenched in our own cancer research, that I forget that there is a huge world of different fields of research out there. It was really intriguing to hear about some really different areas of research, ranging from energy-related studies, to birds, to climate change. What was most impressive, though, was the sheer number of non-scientists that attended. After I boarded the metro from Alexandria (where I was staying), with each successive stop heading toward the march, group after group of marchers boarded. While there were students and scientists that boarded, there were also so many non-scientists - families, children, grandparents, tourists from other countries on vacation - science enthusiasts of all kinds. I spoke to a non-scientist couple and their daughter, who had come from central Virginia because "[they] are fans and supporters of science and wanted to make a family weekend trip out of this event." It was really encouraging to know that although scientists might represent a small proportion of society, we have many supporters who believe in our work.

Did you feel the march was a success and what should be our takeaway?

By and large, most of the scientists that I encountered happened to be climate scientists. Sometimes I find myself so entrenched in our own cancer research, that I forget that there is a huge world of different fields of research out there. It was really intriguing to hear about some really different areas of research, ranging from energy-related studies, to birds, to climate change. What was most impressive, though, was the sheer number of non-scientists that attended. After I boarded the metro from Alexandria (where I was staying), with each successive stop heading toward the march, group after group of marchers boarded. While there were students and scientists that boarded, there were also so many non-scientists - families, children, grandparents, tourists from other countries on vacation - science enthusiasts of all kinds. I spoke to a non-scientist couple and their daughter, who had come from central Virginia because "[they] are fans and supporters of science and wanted to make a family weekend trip out of this event." It was really encouraging to know that although scientists might represent a small proportion of society, we have many supporters who believe in our work.

March for ScienceDo you know of others from Moffitt that attended the DC event? 

Matthew Smith from Dr. Eric Haura's lab attended as well. Try as we might to meet up on the day of the march, there were so many people that we didn't end up finding each other.

Did you feel the march was a success and what should be our takeaway?

I hope that the march will elicit its intended effects. I think that in terms of showcasing the importance of science, the numbers of people at all of the marches - domestic and international -speak for themselves. I mean, there was even a "march" in Antarctica! In terms of whether the marches might have elicited effects on our politicians and legislators, only time will tell. The takeaway: complacency is not an option. Get involved. Be a part of positive change.

Note: May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Remember to apply a good quality (zinc/titanium oxide-based, paraben-free) sunscreen regularly and monitor your moles!