UCSC's health science programs are well established and highly regarded

Until recently, health-sciences research at UCSC has not had the same visibility as the campus's famed astronomy and marine science programs. Although UCSC scientists have made important contributions in many areas of health-related research, and many are leaders in their fields, awareness of their work remains relatively low among people outside the sciences, even on campus.

"For an institution of our small size, our impact on biomedical research is truly remarkable," said Stephen Thorsett, dean of physical and biological sciences.

UCSC researchers are working on cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and infectious diseases such as AIDS, cholera, and malaria. There are groups working on an artificial retina to restore sight to the blind, a glucose sensor for diabetics, and the toxic effects on humans and in the environment of heavy metals such as lead and manganese.

The campus has been especially effective at fostering creative, interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental human health problems. "Our secret advantage is the ability of our students and faculty to cross traditional departmental lines in order to tackle really tough problems," Thorsett said. "Bringing computer science and wet lab biology together to form a world-class group in bioinformatics and genomics is one good example of that."

The absence of a medical school at UCSC rules out clinical research involving patients. But clinical advances depend on discoveries in areas such as genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and toxicology. In these areas, UCSC has built strong programs and established an impressive record of accomplishments.

In a recent survey of published research in molecular biology and genetics, two UCSC scientists--bioinformatics pioneers David Haussler and James Kent--ranked among the top ten authors with the most high-impact papers in this area.

Harry Noller, the Sinsheimer professor of molecular biology, has won nearly every major honor in his field, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, for discovering the structure of the cellular protein machine. His findings are being used to develop new antibiotics to fight drug-resistant infections.

Much of the funding for health-related research comes from the National Institutes of Health, which provides more than $10 million in grants to UCSC researchers every year. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), meanwhile, has provided more than $9 million to fund the campus's growing stem cell research program. UCSC's ability to attract this level of funding through peer-reviewed grant programs is a testament to the quality of its health-sciences faculty and their ongoing research programs.

At the same time, the campus has created a comprehensive and innovative health-sciences major to prepare students for careers in medicine. Established in 2003 and administered by the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, the health-sciences program is the campus's fastest growing major and among its most popular. Designed with California's health care needs in mind, the program requires students to become proficient in Spanish and to do an internship in a community health care setting.

The Spanish-language component of the program teaches students both medical terminology and conversational skills, while the internship allows students to see the day-in, day-out practice of a working health professional. Health-care-professional schools are looking for people with just that kind of field experience, said Grant Hartzog, associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology and a member of the program's advisory committee.

"It's one way of measuring someone's commitment, and making sure people have a good understanding of what they're getting themselves into," Hartzog said.

The health sciences major complements the health-related research programs at UCSC. These successful programs benefit students, the state of California, and the world at large, Thorsett said. "Our faculty, researchers, and students are deeply engaged in research that will transform our understanding of health and disease, and our graduates are ready to help meet the increasingly complex technological, scientific, and social challenges that health care faces in California and the world."