Faculty Spotlight: Julie Nice

Before going to law school, Julie Nice worked as a domestic violence advocate. During our conversation, we discussed the importance of telling the stories behind cases, the interdisciplinary nature of poverty law, and how her students inspire her.

Julie Nice

How did you become interested in law?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied rhetoric at Northwestern, and I was fascinated by the power of words, the power of arguments, not just the process of persuasion, but also words as articulations of ideals and values. Law reflects and relies on the power of language. After all, the only way for courts to maintain legitimacy is to convey their reasoning in a way that is sufficiently persuasive to the public.

After my undergraduate education, I worked the overnight shift at a domestic violence shelter in inner city Chicago. I saw the inability to attack injustices without the credentials and credibility that come from knowing the language of the legal system. Nobody listened to me when I was a domestic violence advocate. My legal education enabled me to translate the stories of victims of domestic violence in a way that the system could understand. I always remind my students that you need to become proficient in the language of law, rights, and legal argumentation but you should never lose sight of the human story you’re trying to convey.

I represented mostly impoverished clients in Chicago, and I saw first-hand how the legal system completely and generally disregarded them.  I had so many clients that at the end of the hearing—before we knew if we had won or lost—often said, “Thank you for telling my story.” What mattered to them was that the system heard their story.  Just being heard by the system affirmed their dignity.

What are you working on now?

I’m comparing how the law regulates human sexuality and how the law regulates poverty and poor people.  Within constitutional law, the government must, at the minimum, have a rational basis for how it regulates us all, meaning the government’s means must be rationally related to serving some legitimate ends.  It usually takes some concerted effort by constitutional lawyers to teach legislators and judges to see the irrationality behind many of our cultural assumptions and prejudices.

We’ve made some progress in the past several decades in reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights in having legislation and judicial decisions that recognize that governmental policies regulating human sexuality have to at least be rational. If you’re going to ban same-sex marriage, what’s your reason, what are you trying to achieve? You need something that you can say the policy is at least rationally related to.  After twenty-five years of same-sex marriage litigation, it became clear that the government simply wasn’t able to defend the rationality of banning same-sex marriage.

At the same time, we’ve made almost no progress in getting legislators or judges to even think about whether the way we treat poor people is rationally based. The truth is that legislators and judges mostly think that whatever we do that denigrates or penalizes a person who is receiving welfare benefits might motivate them to go get a job, so they won’t be on welfare anymore. As this thinking goes, anything we do to poor people is rationally related to making them pull themselves up by their bootstraps and magically become not poor. This overarching ideology justifies our harsh and discriminatory treatment of poor people.

How do we change that narrative?

I have to say that I don’t really see much of a change happening, and one of the greatest disappointments for me is that I haven’t been more successful in helping to produce a meaningful dialogue about what economic conditions and system might be just. It is extremely difficult to get assumptions about class onto the radar screen and to get someone to see their own assumptions and examine whether these assumptions are rational.

The current cohort of undergrad and grad students are my inspiration because the inquiry and exploration I’m trying to do—both with my students and in my research—are speaking to the future, which really is in the hands of the people in the classrooms now. There is a glimmer of hope that this generation gets it more than prior generations have. It’s truly where I get my daily inspiration.

Are the discourses changing in poverty law?

In the late 1960’s, there was a spike of interest in how the law treated poor people, and a few poverty law textbooks were written. With the rise of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, however, these textbooks went out of print and poverty law was almost entirely extinguished in law schools.

When I started teaching at Northwestern law school in 1989, some students came to me and said, “We want to learn about poverty and law.” So I put together a set of teaching materials that were published as a new poverty law textbook. I am proud of helping to revive the field of poverty law, and there are now several textbooks and a lot of critical class scholars doing legal scholarship on issues of poverty law across the academy. Those young scholars also give me a lot of hope.

Those of us who do poverty law rely on people from various disciplines. I need economists and sociologists and political scientists and anthropologists. I use so much material from other disciplines to explain what is happening with regard to economic injustice right now. Then the question will be what do we want to do about economic injustice. We have to start by identifying the assumptions underlying our economic policies and considering whether those assumptions are rationally supported by data. But it takes political will to comit to conducting this analysis. It’s very much about politics.

Your students really do inspire you and give you hope. How do you bring this research and knowledge to them?

I work with each individual student on their interests and their career objectives and try to see how the student’s own interests and objectives intersect and interact with the subject matter. Whether they’re interested in intellectual property, tax law, estates and trust, family law, employment law, housing law, or criminal law—all of those things have implications related to economic justice. It takes a lot of one-on-one time, but I haven’t found any short cut that gets us to that genuinely engaged inquiry that creates educational magic.

I do find that real stories help to create that educational magic. I recently uncovered one family’s story behind the famous constitutional law case that established the precedent that courts do not have to look carefully at how the government treats poor people. In this case from 1970, Dandridge v. Williams, the United States Supreme Court said it wasn’t interested in hearing about how poor people might think they’re being treated in an unconstitutional way. The court basically said, “We’re hoping to keep these cases out of court; we really don’t want to hear them.” It’s a very famous case. The parents that brought this case were married parents of eight children, and the state of Maryland was giving their family of ten the same amount of welfare to live on as a family of two. The Supreme Court said the government’s policy might look harsh but it’s okay because it’s welfare and the states basically can do whatever they want to motivate families to get off welfare.

As part of this book project, we were getting the backstory of famous poverty law cases that were constitutionally based. The parents who brought this lawsuit had already died, but I found the grown children of that family, interviewed them, and discovered the real story of how that family had survived with their father and mother both disabled. The father took on work at a chicken farm and worked long hours when he was able, and he brought home chicken feet that the mother would use to create meals for this family of ten. The children regularly went without meals and without heat, but the parents somehow managed to keep the family together.  Unfortunately, you won’t find their story in the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court never grappled with the reality of this familiy’s struggle to survive. I was deeply affected by the family’s real story and thought it needed to be told.

I find that students are inspired by learning the real stories of people involved in Supreme Court cases. Most of the human aspect is long gone by the time the case has made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, but students really connect with understanding how constitutional issues affect people’s lives. In the end, law is always about the human story.  How law affects our lives is what justice is all about.

Faculty Spotlight: Mary Donnelly

School of Nursing and Health Professions Mary Donnelly lived all of the world before she started working at the University of San Francisco. During our conversation, we discussed how working and living abroad informed her nursing and practice and how she approaches collaboration in research.

Mary Donnelly

How did you first start in the field of nursing?

When I was in high school and beginning to think about college and talked about my goals with my parents who were both public school educators, and they gave me a choice—this was back in the ‘60s—I could be a nurse or I could be a teacher. Trying as a teenager to find my own unique way, I chose to study nursing, in Villanova, Philadelphia, where I completed my undergraduate degree in nursing. While an undergraduate student, I became aware of the social factors, which created barriers to access to care. From that moment, I became aware of health disparities I wanted to be part of the solutions to increase access to healthcare.  I worked with the Panthers and the Medical Committee for Human Rights. We provided sickle cell testing at health fairs in Philadelphia, PA and provided acute care and health promotion interventions to antiwar and anti-segregation demonstrators along the East Coast.   I wanted to learn how health care could be utilized and provided beyond the walls of hospitals and clinics and I wanted to respond to the health concerns and needs of social activists working in urban areas.

I moved back to upstate New York soon after graduating from Villanova to work at a Community Health Center in Lackawanna. I worked with community health workers and made home visits to a unique population of Bethlehem Steel workers from around the world. Our Health Center treated people from Yemen, Puerto Rico, Mexico as well as Southern African Americans who had all come for the hope of better wages. I went back to school, attending State University of New York at Rochester while working. I graduated as an adult nurse practitioner, and became the first adult nurse practitioner in Erie County. I was still on a quest to learn how best to provide community health so I entered the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University to get my Masters of Public Health. My life has provided opportunities that were often unexpected.  After marrying a Navy officer, I had the opportunity to learn about health care in Europe and Asia. I worked in Japan and Italy, and with the National Health Service in London. When my husband retired, we came back to the United States in 2005, and I continued my nurse practitioner practice and teaching at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

How did working and living abroad inform your nursing and your practice?

Japan was so different, and I had to learn the language and culture to be successful. I was providing occupational health services through the Department of Defense, and many of my patients were Japanese. One of my patients did not pass the hearing test, so I could no longer qualify him to drive a forklift in the shipyard. A hearing deficit could be potentially harmful when driving. Soon after, all of his co-workers came to my office and said, “He’s got to work; what can we do?” I said that he needed a hearing aid, and while wearing the hearing aid, if he passed the hearing test, he could work. His work team bought him a hearing aid and brought him back to take the hearing test. It was a group effort. They cared for each other, worked together, and supported each other. This incident was crucial to my understanding of Japanese culture. Keeping the team together was important to achieve work goals.  Each individual of that group was supported by the group’s efforts.

How do you approach interdisciplinary research?

Healthcare is so complex that we cannot live and work in silos, and we really need to reach out to all stakeholders involved in the provision of high- performing systems. Microsystem analysis utilizes a failure mode effect and analysis (FMEA) for potential risk analysis. I see FMEA as a reasonable and evidence-based approach to teach our students and to identify areas of research. We owe a debt a gratitude to W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician who is credited with the rise of Japan as a manufacturing nation, and with the invention of Total Quality Management (TQM). Deming went to Japan just after the War to help set up a census of the Japanese population. While he was there, he taught ‘statistical process control’ to Japanese engineers – a set of techniques, which allowed them to manufacture high-quality goods without expensive machinery. Deming insisted that we create a work culture, which would create a constancy of purpose towards improvement. This means we do not wait for failure or an error but analyze where potential benefits or efficiencies could occur.  I believe this campus is unique because it fosters partnerships across disciplines. Here, I have the opportunity to work with someone in the School of Education, and we are able to collaborate on research.

What brought you to USF?

The USF is a perfect place for collaboration. For example, I needed help looking at reliability, so I approached a colleague and asked, “Will you help me with those statistics?” I also like to work in groups. Writing group members may motivate each other while providing various skills and qualities. Personally, I am not terribly interested in writing alone. I might have a good statistician or I might know a person who is a good editor and we can learn from one another, at least that is what I am trying to establish here. We can continually help each other to produce research.

When I came to interview, there was a discussion on the similarities between Malcolm X philosophy and Jesuit philosophy, so I knew this was the place for me. I was also concerned about diversity, and my daughter-in-law’s aunt went to school here. She’s from Afghanistan, and they left because of the Taliban. I asked, “How were you treated? How did you feel when you were accepted?” She gave me good answers and she highly recommended coming to USF.

What are your different research interests?

I look at primary care topics, which are of interest to primary care providers, and provide up to date standards and case studies for application. I published a few articles last year on hyperparathyroidism—and one on the use of certain antibiotics and the relationship to Achilles tendon ruptures. Fluoroquinolone is a very common class of antibiotics and with certain populations there’s an increased risk of Achilles tendon ruptures.

I’ve been commissioned by the American Journal of Nursing to write about hypertension and to discuss the best approaches to treatment of hypertension. One of the newer items we need to consider is motivational interviewing because hypertension can be addressed by motivating people to change their lifestyles, which are associated with risk factors. I talk about treatment standards, which are pretty well established, and how are we approach the patient and how we can help patients toward better outcomes. Motivational interviewing is evidence-based and there’s a lot of research indicating that this is an effective communication technique has the potential to effect changes in patients’ behaviors.

How do you bring your research into your teaching?

Teaching, writing, and working with our nursing clinical groups keeps us on our toes, and healthcare as a profession continues to change. Our population changes, and in primary care, we’re at the front line treating anything that our patients come in with. I try to teach my students that we need to look at our practices and at the evidence to support them. Motivational interviewing is supported by research. It takes a lot of time to learn it, and it’s hard in a busy primary care practice to develop those skills when you might only be given fifteen minutes to interview a patient and provide some intervention.

What are you thinking about with your research interests now?

I did my doctoral work on decision-making. One of my interests is looking at how we communicate whether it’s with a student, patient, peer, or other professionals. I’m looking at better ways to engage students in learning. I recently had an article published about the use of VoiceThread in graduate education, which uses audio or video to engage students with each other’s work. This method can help our profession because as a provider of care, you need to discuss cases in front of people. You need to be able to analyze and be clear and succinct. Our graduate students come from a variety of backgrounds—they can be in management, they might have been in the Arts and Sciences—so they bring a range of gifts. We’ve seen that these videotaped discussions increases engagement and the desire to learn, and also, it brings more confidence.

Faculty Spotlight: Ben Levy

Ben Levy’s research focuses on how people remember and why they forget. During our conversation, we talked about studying habits and his own experience learning basketball skills.

Ben Levy

How did you first get interested in research?

As an undergrad I knew that I was interested in psychology, but at first I wasn’t sure what I actually wanted to do. At the end of my sophomore year I took a class on learning and memory just because it filled a requirement. I didn’t have any expectations for the class, but I really connected with the professor and the ideas. I approached him at the end of the semester about research opportunities, and I was fortunate that he gave me a position in his lab. His research was focused on the distinction between two different forms of memory that we call familiarity and recollection. When you recollect an experience you can provide details about when and where something happened, but a memory can also be familiar where you are confident you know the thing but you cannot recall those specific details. For example, imagine recognizing the face of a person walking past you on campus. You might recollect that you know the person from your Biological Psychology class and even where they sit in the room and who they normally talk to before class. Or you might simply find the face familiar where you are positive you know them, but you’re not sure how. I found this distinction fascinating and I spent my first few years in research exploring how these types of memory are different.

How has your research evolved over time?

In graduate school, I worked with a professor who also studies memory, but he was interested in why we forget. One big idea from that research is that while we generally think of forgetting as a bad thing, sometimes it can actually be adaptive or useful. In fact, in many instances forgetting is our goal and would be hard to function effectively if you couldn’t forget. As I progressed in research I also became interested in neuroscience, so I developed expertise in methods like functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation. These methods allow us to identify how these behavioral processes occur in the brain, which helps us better understand those behaviors.

How has your research translated in your own personal life?

I’d honestly never thought about memory much before I took that class as an undergrad, but once I did I quickly realized that memory is critical to virtually all aspects of our behavior. Even others areas of psychology that seem very different, like personality psychology, depend on memory. A big part of how you know about your own personality is based on your ability to remember things that you’ve done in the past. I started to realize how fundamentally integrated memory is into everything we do.

Is there a personal interest that you have with forgetting?

Once you start to specialize in something, you see that in everything you do. It obviously had big implications for my life as a student, but I also saw connections to things I liked to do outside the classroom, like playing basketball. So I try think about these principles of learning and memory now in all aspects of my life. For example, how do they affect my ability to acquire a new skill like becoming a better basketball player? Sadly, being aware of these things doesn’t always instantly solve your problems, though. I give my students advice on how to do study more efficiently but then I don’t always apply these same rules to myself when I’m learning a new skill.

How does your research impact your teaching?

In my Learning and Memory class, I talk a lot about study strategies and how students often use strategies that we know are pretty inefficient. Students are fairly resistant to these ideas early in college, because they feel comfortable with the way they’ve been studying and they’ve usually experienced success with their approach. That means it can be a little bit of a challenge to convince them that there are other more effective strategies they could use. When I teach students as juniors or seniors in my Learning and Memory class, the first comment that I get from my students is “I wish I knew this when I was a freshmen.”

Based on those kinds of comments we are now conducting a research project to see if exposure to these ideas about how to study effectively could help younger students perform better in their classes. We’re doing it through USF 101, a course for freshmen students to get acclimated to USF. Each week, they talk about different topics like study skills, ethical behavior, and many other aspects of life at USF. As one small part of that, we’re incorporating information about how to study more efficiently.

As one example, a popular strategy for getting ready for a test is to look over the class notes again or re-read a textbook chapter. Essentially, every psychological study that has been done on this approach says that this is a total waste of time. It is important to read the textbook in the first place, to show up in class and listen, and to see those slides, but doing those things a second time adds no benefit over the first exposure. It doesn’t hurt your performance, but it is basically a waste of your time, despite the fact that most students believe that this is a very effective strategy. We’re trying to make them realize that their beliefs about study strategies can be mistaken and then we try to suggest more efficient ways of studying.

What are more efficient ways to study?

They’re not that surprising or different—things like using flash cards or quizzing yourself. I think the critical distinction is between being an active versus a passive learner. Rather than looking at your notes or re-reading the textbook, which is a passive way of trying to receive the material again, what you should do is actively try to make yourself remember the material. Trying to reconstruct something from memory can feel frustrating in that moment when you are studying, but if you adopt that approach you’ll find that in much less time you can get just as good as results.

What do you see as your role as a researcher and a mentor?

I think the main job of any good researcher is just to be curious. I want to understand how people behave and how they remember. I want to know if there are better ways to approach studying for school or to become a better basketball player. In science one of the best ways to make you understand how something works is to try to change it. So I try to follow my curiosity to figure out how memory works and then I want to use that understanding to help people learn more successfully.

As a mentor my job is to help my students develop their own ideas and interests. Being a mentor is one of my favorite parts of my life at USF and I really enjoy the fact that I am privileged to watch my undergraduate research assistants grow over the time that they’re in the lab. I get to see them progress through different stages as a researcher and come to a deeper understanding of psychology and of their own interests and passions.

I think part of the reason I value mentoring students so much is that I personally really enjoyed this period of my life. You start undergrad sampling from lots of different ideas and broadening your horizons, but you also start to triangulate in on the things you really care about. And those interests often develop into careers and lifelong passions. For me the moment I joined that lab and starting getting research experience, I found something to anchor my interests and something that felt bigger and more rewarding than just taking a series of courses. I found the experience very fulfilling, and I want to provide the same kind of experience to my students.

What are some of the questions and hypotheses that you are thinking about for your research?

Some things are these intervention questions—can we use the kind of things we have learned from cognitive psychology to help students study more effectively? I want to see if I teach students about the importance of doing retrieval practice rather than extra exposures, could that end up having a positive outcome for students?

Students have a set of skills they’ve developed and they feel very attached to those skills. Part of the challenge of being the teacher is learning how they think about things. What is their model and how do you get them to let go of some things that are not as effective? How do you help them to revise their habits? It’s a real challenge to the teacher.

What lessons do you want to impart to your students?

One of the ones my students always laugh about in lab meetings is my personal crusade to have them pay attention to graphs and data. In psychology, a lot of students prefer the format where you are told a fact—the amygdala is responsible for emotion, this high level statement. When they go to read papers they want to read the abstract or the introduction where it’s all laid out. I think the heart of science is about understanding data and understanding how data support or challenge a theory. I try to train them to go right to the method and results section to understand what the researchers actually did and what they found. More broadly, though, I want my students to become deeper and more careful thinkers. I want to challenge them and get them to think really critically about an idea. If I can do that, I feel like I’ve helped them.

Faculty Spotlight: Sadia Saeed

Sadia Saeed is a historical sociologist who researches global inequalities. During our conversation, we discussed how growing up in Pakistan shaped her and how she brings her research into the classroom.  Her book Politics of Desecularization: Law and the Minority Question in Pakistan is now available.

Sadia Saeed

Thinking about your start, when did you become interested in global inequality?

I hail from Pakistan, which is where I first studied sociology and history as an undergrad. Many of these courses were quite explicitly organized around questions of global inequalities, and these questions have stayed with me since. Oftentimes when we talk about issues around nationalism or rights, it’s not put in the context of global inequalities. I think this is a serious omission because a lot of what is going on in the world today in supposedly domestic contexts can be explained, or at least further clarified, by taking the global dimension into account.

How does your research in sociology look at aspects of global inequality?

In my first book, I examined how inequalities are produced in a local national context by looking at the issue of religious minorities and their rights in Pakistan. As I concluded that project, I became interested in how domestic inequalities are justified, or at least tolerated, within systems of international law, how rights are articulated in international law, and how global inequalities shape how different people think about international law. Basically, I’m now trying to connect what happens domestically to global structures and vice versa.

What was the moment that first sparked your interest in really understanding global inequality?

When you come from the so-called developing world and study social sciences, you can never really escape the profound gaps that exist between the West and the rest of the world. Also, growing up in a place like Pakistan, you just know that there are global inequalities and that these are not natural, and it was household talk that IMF and World Bank and other such global institutions are run by Western countries. I remember many conversations around how the IMF was imposing things on Pakistan —collecting more taxes, cutting state expenditures—and the American military involvements in the region and their continuing effects also clearly pointed to other kinds of global inequalities.

What brought you to the United States to complete your Ph.D.?

America has some of the best universities in the world and some of the most dynamic researchers and scholars. It’s so diverse, and you can learn more here because there are better resources and better training.

What is your research process like when you’re exploring these topics?

For my first book, which just came out, my research process was very field-based. I spent a lot of time in Pakistan. It was very organic. I was interested in why and how the Pakistani state instituted laws which favor the dominant religious group of Sunni Muslims over others and why the states discriminates against particular minorities. How and why does the state make these decisions, especially when they run counter to values of equality that the state also claims to uphold?

I looked at newspapers to figure out the events that were happening at the time when people were making these decisions. I went and spoke to a lot of activists, government officials, and people who were part of the deliberations in making these policies. That was really eye opening because you understand the constraints with which state officials work.

Pakistan often makes policies against religious minorities because that is what the majority wants, or at least that is the justification the state gives. Oftentimes, proponents of discriminatory laws say that such laws are actually democratic because they are what the majority desires— they say that the will of the majority should be heard.

We tend to think that discrimination in places like Pakistan against religious minorities is a different beast than what you might see here in the United States, with respect to race, for example. But in Pakistan, as with everywhere else, there are also activists such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a lot of dedicated lawyers and judges who push back against these policies. People write against policies in venues they think are safe. They talk against these laws when they think it is safe.

I could not have learned a lot of what I subsequently wrote about without doing a lot of research. In my book, I focused on both the people who made discriminatory laws and the people who pushed back, the constraints that both sides faced, and the constraints continued to be faced by activists and people trying to change these laws.

Tell us about your new project.

My second project is in the initial stages and looks at how minority rights are instituted in international organizations, particularly in the United Nations and the United Nations predecessor, which was the League of Nations. I’m looking at international laws surrounding minority rights—which countries and which groups of people or individuals have pushed for specific declarations, conventions, etc. I’m also interested in questions of resistance to international law, especially forms of resistance that are premised on arguments about global inequalities. I am also interested in looking at international laws against racial discrimination, those advocating for indigenous rights, and also the convention against genocide.

This is a tentative thought, but it also seems to me that not all minorities are treated equally when it comes to matters of international law. Some minorities figure more when it comes to drafting international laws and others are marginalized in the discourses surrounding minority rights. Some marginalized groups are invisible and others become very visible. Some genocides become internationally recognized whereas other genocides do not. Not all minorities and not all groups’ narratives and plights are equally important in international law, and this goes back to questions of domestic and global inequalities. Who makes these laws? Who are they supposed to protect? Which minorities get left out? What is the politics behind it all?

How does your research inform your teaching?

When I teach, I try to convey to students critical approaches to questions of global and domestic inequalities. I try to get students to understand the social issues that people in the rest of the world, that is, outside U.S. face. There is an idea that something happening in Pakistan can’t possibly help us think about what is happening here in the United States. It’s hard in this globalized world, but a world that also creates highly segmented and stratified communities, to really understand how things are connected. I try to bring in everything I work on and what’s dear to me in my research and translate that into my teaching. Students everywhere long to learn new things and they want to question and to be pushed, but often it means that you have to do it in creative ways. For me, this creative way is through literally thinking outside the box, that is, thinking beyond the U.S.

Are there specific moments when you see your students come to an understanding?

The first semester here I taught a course called Islam, Politics and Society, and when we began, people had very different perceptions of the relationship between Islam and politics. Some people were suspicious of religion and politics. Some people were more sympathetic to the idea that different cultures do things differently.

Over the course of this amazing semester, everybody still had different opinions but everyone was able to talk to each other and discuss the pros and cons of one position and the pros and cons of another position. I think everyone left the class knowing a little bit more about the issues that are at stake. I could see the students learning because I could see them talking to each other and really engage with other ways of thinking. This was just a fantastic course for me.

What brought you to USF?

The University of San Francisco was one of the really exciting places for me to interview at because the job ad was for global inequality, which is precisely what I work on. Also, USF has such a wonderful mission of social justice, and my work fits in really well with this university. And I loved my campus visit. I am still quite new here. This is my first year here.

Faculty Spotlight: Juliet Spencer

Juliet Spencer’s research focuses on herpes viruses and the way they manipulate host immune responses. During our conversation, we discussed the support from her family, how she views herself as a mentor, and how she became interested in viruses and cells.

Juliet Spencer, Biology

 

What started your interest in biology and biotechnology?

I always had a love for learning and fantastic teachers along the way. I was always very interested in DNA and molecular biology—that attracted me to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They had an actual program dedicated to biotechnology, and it was a dream of mine to learn about biology and how to use it in a more applied way—learning not just for the sake of learning but also for the sake of doing something with that.

Did your family encourage your focus in biology? Were your parents scientists?

My mom was a clerk, and my dad ran a bar. They didn’t exactly know the scientist thing, but they knew I was very interested in science and encouraged me every way they knew how. I really appreciate that—it was something very vague and unknown to them and yet they gave me all the support. I hope that I can do for my son, to be very open and supportive of whatever he chooses even if I don’t understand what it is.

How did your mentors shape you and how does your experience come into your teaching or your lab when you are mentoring students?

I’ve been fortunate to always have great women role models, and I think it is important for girls, as they’re coming into the field, to see what a female scientist looks like and what a female scientist does and to have someone to identify with.

I’m a firm believer in mentoring. I think mentoring isn’t just working with students and training them but opening doors career-wise or exposing them to ideas. I also encourage college students to be mentors to younger kids and show what it’s like to be a girl in college in the science field. A fourth grade class visited recently, and we do enrichment activities with middle school kids. When the women I’m mentoring are placed in the position of being a mentor, they take themselves more seriously and start to think of themselves as a scientist not just as a student. I really like the mentoring process moving forward and backwards.

Did anyone ever tell you, if you’re going to do all this work, why do research? Why not go to med school?

I probably told myself that (laughter). I definitely had a crisis while I was in grad school because I was using my research skills for things with only the potential to improve human health. I decided to become an EMT and rode around in the ambulance for about a week, which was enough to convince me that I made the right decision—it was research for me and not necessarily direct interaction with patients or being in the hospital. I explored that option, but I’m much better at the bench working with my cells and viruses.

After getting your PhD, you worked at a biotechnology company before going back to academia. Was there a specific experience that made you think I would rather be in academia?

Well the opposite actually. When I was in college, I identified with my academic advisor, who was a fantastic professor and mentor, and I thought, “This is the job that I want.” I always wanted an academic career, but I also realized that if my goal was really to use my research skills for improving human health, that’s a very applied thing. To learn more and to teach people how to do that, I should experience it myself, so the impetus for going into industry was to understand better how to translate basic science research into deliverables—products that actually help people. Now I’ve come full circle, and I’m doing research that I hope will be translatable into actual products and have a human health impact.

So how did you get interested specifically in viruses and cells? What focused your research in that direction?

For some people, Biology is a very visual science because it’s trees and animals, things that you can really see, and I became very interested in the parts that you can’t see. My interest in viruses is that there is this thing that you can’t see that can take over a cell and change its behavior—trying to understand how that happens and trying to visualize things that are at the limits of what we can visualize.

What are some ways that you try to convey your passion for what we can’t see to your students?

I ask them to draw pictures and describe things. Even though I’m a scientist—I will admit that I am probably the absolute worst artist in the world—to me everything is really visual. Even if it’s not a picture of the virus, it’s a picture of what do we think is happening—the virus is going into the cell, the cell explodes. There’s trying to visualize what’s going on and once we have a visual of what we think is going on, then drilling down and figuring out what could be causing it.

What projects are you currently working on?

We have a few different projects in the lab. The Avon Breast Cancer Study was a big one. For that one, we explored the possibility that a common virus, Human cytomegalovirus (CMV), may be useful as a biomarker or parts of the virus might be useful for indicating the onset of breast cancer.

Other projects have to do with the virus and the way it manipulates the host immune system. We examined different viral proteins and the way they affect immune cells, the way they affect signaling pathways in the body.

What is the role of your students in the lab? How do you lure them into research?

I’ve been really lucky. The research projects touch on topics that people can relate to—breast cancer, the immune system. I get a lot of interested students, and I try to ignite the student’s interest and keep them interested by reminding them to step back. I always tell them there’s two parts about doing science, and the easy part, even though it doesn’t seem easy when you’re learning it, is the sort of technical steps involved in the lab and the manipulations. Sometimes the harder part is understanding the big picture. Why are we sort of doing all these manipulations? What is our real purpose and goal?

I teach them to conduct experiments and be proficient in the lab and learn skills that will be useful if they go on to work in industry or go to graduate school, but I also try to keep them motivated and thinking about the big picture goals.

What do you see as your role as a researcher and a mentor and a teacher?

Cheerleader. I think of myself as a cheerleader in the sense that I try to be really supportive of my students. I convey to them that if things don’t work out the way we had hoped, they’re still learning. If things do work out, I am positive and encouraging—this is taking us one step forward on our journey of this greater goal—and I try to make them see where they fit into the big picture. Even if they have a tiny sliver of a project, it’s part of a greater plan in the lab for addressing this important question. With teaching, I remind students that this isn’t about memorizing for a test, it’s about learning skills and concepts that you can apply to solve real world problems.

What is the big picture that you have for your research with public health?

The area I’m most interested in right now is diagnostics—how can we detect disease earlier, what are the clues that there is an imbalance or process going on in the body. In this day and age of big data, how can we integrate all the information and have predictive value or early diagnostic values so that people have the best possible outcomes? Of course prevention is always a worthy goal, but being realistic, how can we bring that information to people earlier?

Why did you decided to come to USF?

I went to a small school where I was really fortunate to have great mentorship and personal interactions with the faculty and that made such a big impression on me, especially since I didn’t come from a family of professionals or scientists. When I came to interview at USF, I felt that this is the same type of environment—people here really care about students, and they’re dedicated to developing those relationships with the students and seeing them growing and succeed. That fits perfectly with my personal goals and mission in life.

Do you take some of those ideas from your own undergraduate experience and apply them now that you’re a professor?

Absolutely! That’s something I think back on—what were the things I really enjoyed about my undergraduate experience and try to give those opportunities to my students such as doing independent projects. I tell the students that we’re going to spend half the semester learning basic microbiology and microscope skills, and then the second half they are going to come up with a problem that they want to investigate and use these skills independently. I’m blown away by the awesome projects that they think about that would never cross my mind, so it’s really fun to nurture that and encourage them to think outside the box and think big.

Faculty Spotlight: Sonja Martin Poole

Sonja Martin Poole’s research explores gamification and influencing behavior. During our conversation, we discussed her path to becoming a professor and how she navigates interdisciplinary research.

Sonya Poole
Sonya Martin Poole

When you started at the University of California Berkeley, were you focused on becoming an academic or did you consider going into business?

Even though I come from a long line of educators, I wasn’t focused on becoming an academic. My grandfather was a geography professor for many many years at Southern University in New Orleans, which is where I’m from, and my grandmother was an elementary school teacher. My mother is an elementary school teacher. I have an uncle and two aunts who are university professors. I wanted to do something different than everyone else in my family, so I initially went to college with the intent to be a lawyer. In the middle of freshman year, I decided that I wanted to go into business. However, I took microeconomics, one of the prerequisites of the business major, and said, “This is it. This is a new way of thinking. I love this.” I got a bachelor’s in economics and then later a master’s in public sector economics. I had no idea at the time what I would do with my economics training. I was just intrigued by it.

While I was in graduate school, I worked as a high school teacher in a public school. It was then that I started asking economic questions about educational institutions. I became interested in studying the ways in which education resources are distributed in our society and if there’s a way that we can develop educational systems that are more efficient. That’s what I studied in my Ph.D. program.

Somewhere along the way I then became intrigued by the ways that educational institutions strategically attracted students, maintained a student body, and communicated value. That’s a marketing question, so after my Ph.D., I did a post-doc in marketing.

Was it the experience in the classroom that made you want to change the world?

I really wanted to improve people’s lives, and I saw how educational systems can influence people’s beliefs, behaviors, and life trajectories. In graduate school, I wanted to study how we can improve these structures.

What work are you most proud of?

Right now, I’m looking at the ways in which games can influence people’s behavior. I first became interested in this topic when tracking devices for fitness came out like Fitbit. This device had a gamified aspect. Within the application, users can compete not only against themselves and their own progress but against others that you may or may not know. It presents an incentive to do more. I found myself drawn to this device and to the activity that the device personally encouraged me to participate in.

I then began to wonder if gamification can be used to influence other behaviors, ones that have a big impact on our environments and communities. Can we use it for getting people to recycle more, drive safer, or donate to charitable causes? What about using the tool to reduce or eliminate social problems such as racism, poverty, or disease? Can we get people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do just by making it fun? I am interested in the practice of influencing people to do things that are not only good for them, but also for society as a whole.

How does your research come into the classroom?

My students are the best people to run my ideas by because they’re honest, and they’ll give me hypotheses to test in my research. For that reason, I love dealing with students regularly because they bring fresher ideas to light.

A few years ago I developed a course called Marketing for Social Change. In this course we examine marketing strategies that can influence individual and collective behavior for social good, and while teaching this course, I identified my interest in gamification. Gamification was introduced as a possible means to encourage pro-social behavior and I got a sense from my students that it is worthy of further study.

Your work sounds very interdisciplinary. How do you navigate the different disciplines or how do you try to work between them or with them?

Economics is the basis of all that I do. It’s all about incentives, incentivizing behavior, and that is my foundation. When I was in my Ph.D. program, I got into educational policy with the idea that I was going to apply economics and economic decision-making tools to education policymaking. As a marketing professor, I now use behavioral economics to understand and explain consumer behavior. Marketing and education are both disciplines that are based on some other foundational discipline, such as psychology, sociology, or economics. We use the foundational disciplines to inform what we do in marketing and education. I tend to think like an economist.

How has being at USF impacted your research?

USF has been supportive of the kinds of things that I want to do. Every activity that I’ve been involved in has been not only encouraged but also supported through resources and collaborations and people wanting to help. I feel that spirit of helpfulness throughout everything that I’ve done here and almost every interaction at USF, and that includes writing retreats that are supported by the school to make sure that researchers get research completed and writing done.

USF also provides opportunities, such as the Ignatian Faculty Forum, to consider our role as professors, Ignatian values and mission, and how those things relate. The development opportunities help to shape my ideas around what I want to do in the classroom and in my research. In addition to that, I participate in different faith formation activities here at USF. They are particularly valuable for thinking people. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in those kinds of opportunities whether they be the Spiritual Exercises or silent retreats, or any other University Ministry activities. That’s really the unique aspect of being here at this University—finding out how your spirituality and your sense of self relate to your work. It’s very hard to separate that out—who you are spiritually and your vocation are intimately connected, or at least I believe they should be. I really appreciate those opportunities to think through and talk to other people about these ideas.

What brought you to USF?

I believe that the university mission is in line with my own personal mission. I came to USF because I wanted to be an agent of change. As long as the university continues to be about social justice and life-changing action, I will love being here.

Faculty Spotlight: Amy Gilgan

Amy Gilgan works with students and faculty as a Gleeson Library reference librarian and education liaison. During our conversation, we discussed the issues she’s passionate about and how research shapes her teaching and activism.

Amy Gilgan

 

How did you end up at the University of San Francisco?

Initially, my background was in archives. I became interested in preserving queer culture while volunteering at GLBT Historical Society. As an archives intern, I processed collections on AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action AIDS advocacy organization, and my internship lead to a grant funded position at the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Archives where I helped process the Kem Lee photograph collection. When the project concluded, I accepted a position as a librarian at an arts college in San Francisco. I did a lot of instruction there and discovered I have a passion for it. I also worked for a short period of time at City College of San Francisco as a reference librarian. When I was hired at USF as a reference and instructional librarian, I was excited to grow my teaching skills in an environment committed to social justice.

How did you first become interested in research?

I have always had an interest in science, art, and activism. Library science allows me to research across disciplines. I was drawn to the way librarians empower folks to learn about the world around them. Here at USF, I work primarily with students and faculty in the School of Education. It’s really rewarding to provide research support for folks invested in social change.

How did you first become interested in activism?

I grew up in a white working class community, and discovering the punk subculture was my gateway to activism. The subculture connected me to human rights organizations and the movement against neoliberal capitalism. Currently, I’m very interested in housing rights. I didn’t have a lot of resources growing up working class, but I never had to worry about not having a home. Moving to the Bay Area in 2003 really radicalized me around housing. I became more active around housing in 2008, when Proposition 98 threatened to overturn rent control in the state of California. Through political organizing, I learned a lot about the history of displacement in San Francisco. This isn’t a new narrative; working class communities of color have been facing displacement in the Bay Area for decades.

How does that play into your role here at USF?

One of the nice things about USF is the “Change the World from Here” emphasis on social justice. I really appreciate the opportunities to weave in my passion for community activism into the work that I do. In addition to supporting the research of faculty and students, I have created social justice resource guides to support the annual Critical Diversity Studies Forum and the Office of Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach. I strive to not only connect students to information but also grassroots community organizations.

What is your role with the School of Education?

As the liaison to the School of Education (SOE), I make sure that students and faculty have access to the resources they need for their research. I also provide library research instruction for classes, particularly when the students are working on literature reviews. If students or faculty need additional help, I meet one-on-one to help them formulate search strategies and use citation management tools, like Zotero or RefWorks. I learn so much about teaching and facilitation from activist educators.

What other projects have you learned a lot from working on them?

For four years, I taught a section of the Information Literacy Class for the Muscat Scholars Program, an immersion program for first generation college students. As an instructional librarian, I often do single class sessions where I see the students for 1-2 hours. With Muscat Scholars, I got to work with the students for two weeks. I love learning about their experiences and interests, and the students have taught me a lot about resilience and hope.

It sounds like you inhabit a lot of roles here at USF—you help with research, you’re teaching, you’re also active in the community. How do you define your role or do you define it all?

As a librarian, my primary focus us to help folks connect to resources. I strive to help students not only learn about social justice issues but also connect to community organizations engaged in the struggle.

How do these roles play into Open Access and educating faculty and students about resources?

When faculty publish in a proprietary journal, their work is often placed behind a paywall that not everyone can afford to access. Open access publishing can provide a way for faculty to build their professional portfolio while making their research freely available to a much broader audience. I encourage faculty to work with Charlotte Roh, our scholarly communications librarian, to explore open access options.

I work with a lot of teachers K-12 teachers in the School of Education. Some of the schools they work for cannot afford subscriptions to scholarly databases. There is so much information that their students can’t afford to access. It’s a big issue.

How do you bring your own personal research into those interactions when teaching?

I am very open about my housing rights activism. I talk about my own biases and how they can affect my ability to find and evaluate information. I also give personal examples of times when my assumptions lead me to believe misinformation. I want students to realize that critical thinking will not only help you write a better research paper but also help you when strategizing for social change.

Faculty Spotlight: Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales’s research has been influenced by the U.S.-Mexico border, Bay Area, and Central Valley. During our discussion, we discussed undocumented students in higher education and the work establishing the Undocu-Ally workshop at the University of San Francisco.

Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales

How did you first become interested in research?

My research is rooted in my upbringing and my political engagements around migration, young people, education, and border politics, and more broadly, racial politics in California. I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. I was in high school during an age of violence on the border and violence against migrants. That really shaped my political identity, my personal identity, my racial identity. When I came to graduate school, it only made sense that my research would be in conversation with those pieces of who I am.

What were some of the earlier political moments that shaped your interests?

I grew up in Chula Vista, which is just a few miles from the US-Mexico border. In the mid-90’s, there was a moment of scapegoating against immigrants—Proposition 187 tried to exclude undocumented residents of California from public services like public education and emergency medical services and Operation Gatekeeper developed a stronger, more lethal border fence. The racial undertones of those conversations are very explicit, and I don’t know if you can be a Chicano kid growing up in such close proximity to the US-Mexico border and not be aware of inequality and racism.

When I teach and when I speak, I often tell people that I’m a proud beneficiary of affirmative action, that I was admitted in the last class at UC Berkeley under affirmative action policies. Sometimes people say, “Oh, why are you selling yourself short? Why do you admit to something like that?” For me, it’s really a point of pride. There was something really significant about that moment in California when affirmative action policies were being questioned and ultimately legislated out. I landed on a college campus that was in the midst of major transformation, major social unrest, and student movements. My engagement in that work also shaped my trajectory academically.

How did this translate into your undergraduate and graduate studies?

As an undergraduate, I studied Ethnic Studies, Education, and Chicano Studies, and I found a passion in those disciplines. I ultimately decided to go back to graduate school. My dissertation work was about undocumented migrant students and, specifically, ways in which engagement around the Dream Act catalyzed broader political activism and the development of political consciousness. Now, my work is very interdisciplinary. I am in a School of Education, but I pull very explicitly from Ethnic Studies and Chicano Studies but also Anthropology, Sociology, and other fields.

What specifically pulled you to focus on undocumented students in higher education?

One piece of it was I wanted to look at social movements as a place where education “happens”, and undocumented students were leading the fight at that point. The other part was that I was working for a scholarship program advising underrepresented students of color on the UC Berkeley campus and learned about the unique challenges facing undocumented college students in the context of that work. I was working with these students, and I also had this connection to the ongoing struggles at the border and struggles around racism and xenophobia because of my own background and political work.

What is your current research about?

Currently, I study undocumented community college students in the Central Valley of California. There have been significant legislative changes in California around undocumented students and access to higher education in the last several years. It’s really been the movement of undocumented young people who have made these changes possible. There is this emerging story about California being the national model for service for undocumented students, but I think there’s a danger in telling and propagating that narrative about California as the national model because the reality is that not all students are benefitting from this legislation. I’m talking to undocumented students who qualify for the California Dream Act and are getting significant tuition assistance but who are living in such deep poverty that they can’t afford the bus ticket to school. Or they can’t afford not to work the two hours that they would be in class because their family depends on the wages that would be lost if they went to school instead. If we are actually going to situate California as a national model for servicing and supporting the educational trajectories of undocumented students, then we need to position political economy at the center of that analysis. We need to complicate the conversations around who undocumented students are, what they look like, what kind of work they’re doing, and what kind of barriers they’re confronting.

The access to higher education story is a very specific story within this broader conversation. I think we need to be able to situate it appropriately and connect it to these broader struggles in service of bringing about a more just immigration policy.

What originally drew you to USF?

I wasn’t always positive that I was going to be in academia, but I wanted to be in a place where socially engaged, social justice research was welcomed, and I also wanted to be in a place where teaching was valued. Both of those things led me to USF. When a position opened in Higher Education Student Affairs, I was really excited about it because I had all this practical experience in student affairs and it was in an institutional environment where social justice, racial justice, immigrant rights are things that are talked about explicitly. I have really amazing colleagues that made me feel at home right away.

What work you have done through the USF task force?

When I came to USF, I engaged in conversations on what support for undocumented students looks like here. There were many people on this campus who have been working to support undocumented students for many years but there was a new opportunity to try to coordinate it and bring it to the surface as critical work of the university community. I spoke with Mary Wardell, and she said, “Why don’t you start a task force?” To meet the needs of undocumented students at USF, we need data on how many students we have and what issues they struggle with.” We convened a task force of students, staff, and faculty across campus to collect data from undocumented students, and we made recommendations to the Provost Council about how USF can be a more hospitable environment to undocumented students.

Are you beginning to see some changes or implementations of those recommendations?

I’d like us to not only welcome undocumented students but engage in the broader public discourse and narrative around pushing for more just immigration policy, more comprehensive immigration reform. I also want to have real financial support for undocumented students, which will put the commitment to undocumented students in a structural, institutional grounded way.

There are a couple things that I’m proud of. One is that the task force worked together with the university web services to create a page on the USF website. We worked with the university to create a page on the website that not only has contact people and resources but also makes a very clear statement that says, “As a Jesuit university, we welcome all students.” That public statement of support is not only symbolically important, it’s also really meaningful in terms of student experience on this campus.

Also, last Spring we did an Undocu-Ally workshop. Faculty and staff across the campus could learn how they can serve undocumented students who may come to them whether that’s in the counseling and psychological services, in student advising, or in the classroom. We put out the call inviting people to attend a training that was facilitated by the head of the undocumented programming over at UC Berkeley. Because it was a really busy time of year, we were hoping we’d get 20 people to sign up for the workshop, and we had an overwhelming response from around 50 people and another 15 or 20 who said, “I really want to do this but I can’t make that date.” To me, it signified that there’s really an interest and a need on this campus for that educational work. People want to step up, and the faculty and staff want to integrate this into their work and live up to the mission of the university.

Faculty Spotlight: Angela Banks

During our conversation, Angela Banks, Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Health Professions, shared her passion for patients and her research in cardiovascular disease. We discussed her Fulbright experience in Jordan, bringing stories of her patients into the classroom, and running her first marathon.

Angela Banks

 

How did you first become interested in research?

At a very young age, I knew that I wanted to become a registered nurse. I enjoyed taking care of people that were sick, and whenever my family members became ill, I embraced the idea of helping them get better. I have a PhD in the Philosophy of Nursing.

While I was completing my PhD at UCSF, we had to select a particular area of interest, and I chose cardiovascular disease. I became quite interested in this area because I had a couple of family members who died prematurely as a result of cardiovascular disease.

How did you decide to come to USF?

The USF Nursing Program has a wonderful reputation in the community, and it’s highly respected throughout the state of California. I heard about USF long before I decided to come here. It was my first and only choice. I decided that after I graduated I wanted to work at this university, and it was also the only place where I interviewed. I’ve been here for 11 years and experienced many challenges, but overall I really enjoy teaching and the wonderful opportunities it has to offer.

How do you bring your research into the classroom?

Well I teach pharmacology and pathophysiology, so the heart is a fundamental aspect of my research. When I talk about the heart, I also share my research findings with my students. I want my students to be informed and understand the importance of cardiovascular disease and become advocates for their family members and themselves should they become diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

Is there something in particular about working with the students and the program at USF that keeps you motivated?

Because of my many years working in the intensive care unit and also the emergency room, I have had an opportunity to bring those life experiences to the classroom. It brings the classroom alive. Students remember the stories that I tell them, the stories about my patients—how I advocated for my patients, how I advocated for their family members, and how they can do the same thing. I always say to them, you are the next generation of nurses. I’m just happy that I’m able to play a significant role in making you an excellent nurse. So when you graduate from this university you will have the necessary skills to care for people in the clinical setting or the community. One of these days you may have the opportunity to take care of me, or my loved ones and I want you to be well prepared for that responsibility.

What are the questions you’ve been thinking about recently?

I’m interested in cardiovascular disease and its impact on the female population. There are a lot of people that might not be aware of the fact that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of all women. It’s actually the number one killer of all Americans—men and women—but it really does impact the female population considerably more. With my dissertation, I was specifically concerned about the African American population because, even though all women as well as men in the US are impacted by this disease, it has a significantly higher consequence on the African American population. I wanted to better understand why people wait to go to the hospital when they experience signs and symptoms associated with heart disease.

What leads to these delays and disproportionate impact?

From my research, when African Americans experience cardiac signs and symptoms, they wait to see if the symptoms will disappear. Many of them are wondering if these signs and symptoms are associated with something that’s not cardiac in origin. Several people experience denial, and believe that their signs and symptoms are related to something less serious, especially the female population because women do not necessarily experience cardiac symptoms in the same way that men do. Many healthcare providers, especially male physicians are reluctant to diagnose women with cardiovascular disease even though they present to the emergency room with the classic signs and symptoms. Physicians tend to attribute the symptoms that women are having to a condition that’s less serious compared to men experiencing the same symptoms when they arrive at the hospital.

You spent some time doing research in Jordan. What brought you to the Middle East?

I was in Jordan as a Fulbright Scholar, and it was a wonderful experience. I wanted to visit a place where the language, the religion, and the culture were very different from my own, so I specifically selected Jordan. I had a lot of fear associated with the Middle East, and if you listen to the media, most people would be frightened to travel to the Middle East. I wanted to branch out to a different part of the world, and it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made for my personal and intellectual growth.

How did your research collaborations work?

At the Jordan University of Science and Technology, you really needed to be fluent in Arabic in order to conduct research, and Arabic is a very difficult language to learn. So I collaborated with professors who spoke fluent English. For instance, there was a professor who was doing some interesting work on diabetes, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so we worked together and were successful in publishing a manuscript.

The professors also had their graduate students collect data, and then together we would analyze the data and write up the analyses. There was a tremendous amount of collaboration across disciplines, which is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do at USF. I would love to have the opportunity to work with professors across disciplines at USF, because we can learn from each other and disseminate the information to a broader audience.

I look forward to the opportunity of collaborating with my colleagues here at USF, specifically individuals who have an interest in how culture, and racial prejudice intersect with my area of research. I am currently working on a project dealing with culture, and oppression in the African American population who is suffering with heart failure.

How has your research impacted you individually?

I’m very conscious about my health, and I’m very much aware of the risk factors that will increase the chances of me developing heart disease—I try to eat a balanced diet and exercise as often as I can.

In Jordan, I actually ran my very first marathon for my students at the university. It was never my plan to run a marathon, but the whole purpose was to raise money for my students because in the Middle East students rarely have the funds to purchase books. They will usually purchase one book and make copies for all of their classmates, so I wanted to assist my students in paying tuition and buying books. Even though I didn’t raise a lot of money, all the money was donated to the university, and my students and colleagues were impressed. I encouraged people to run with me, but very few people in the Middle East run. Most people in the Middle East who run marathons are foreigners from other countries, the US being one of them.

I decided because I’m getting older and it’s such a burden on your body—that constant jarring when you’re running—so I decided to take up swimming. So now I swim because that’s the type of exercise that I can actually do for the rest of my life.

It seems like you’re always working on this goal of learning more, focusing on the community, and disseminating the information. Do you have a large goal for your research?

It’s a work in progress. If we can just get people to the hospital when they experience signs and symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease, that would be phenomenal because so many people, not just African American but also individuals from other ethnic groups, delay in getting to the hospital. When it comes to the cardiac muscle, time is very important because the longer you wait, the more damage you actually do to the heart muscle. If someone is aware of this knowledge about cardiovascular disease, it places them in a much better position to advocate for themselves and their family members.

How do you inform people about your research?

I’ve tried to reach the African American community, and educate women in general. In April, I spoke to a group of over 250 women about heart disease and shared the classic signs and symptoms. It is so important that they advocate for themselves if they go to the doctor, and if they feel like they might be experiencing symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease. It is important to get the physician to listen to them and not dismiss their concerns. A lot of it is education, but I’ve also found that even with educating people, it may not necessarily change behavior. So we still have a lot of work to do.

Faculty Spotlight: Bill Ong Hing

When Bill Ong Hing completed law school, he intended to work as a legal aid attorney focusing on housing issues in low-income communities. Instead, he landed a job in immigration law. Along with continuing his work with immigrants through the University of San Francisco Immigration Clinic, Professor Hing’s scholarship and teaching is devoted to uncovering the current unjust practices and policies used against refugees and immigrants. During our discussion, we talked about his working with community organizations and the Immigration Clinic.

Bill Ong Hing

How did you first become interested in research?

I was a legal aid attorney for a number of years, and when you are a lawyer, you really do wonder about why the law is the way that it is. You wonder why the people you’re representing are in front of you. If you’re interested in them, it requires research. Sometimes it’s relevant to understanding your client better and your ability to represent them. I’ve always been interested in people’s backgrounds and what motivated them to be where they are and how they ended up where they are.

When you work with individuals who have very interesting life stories, you want to be able to do a good job for them. But also, when you are working in a community, you often hear and see very similar stories, and you want to know why are you seeing recurring problems. It might be housing issues. It might be discrimination issues. It might be language difficulties. When you realize that there’s some phenomenon that’s producing a problem, then you step back and explore the bigger picture and whether or not there are other ways of addressing it.

How has your research transformed from working with individuals and clients to doing larger legal scholarship?

When you start thinking about individual cases and situations, you realize that there are social phenomenon or laws that have wide influence on people. If you want to write about that as a scholar, you understand what policies led to a particular law and if those policies make sense. Another reason is wanting to come up with ideas that help society and your students understand why things are as they are and what it would take to make changes and make people’s lives better. Scholarship is an excellent opportunity to actually put those ideas down in writing. It complements, in my opinion, what activists do in the community.

What are some of the social issues you focus on?

My main focus has been on immigration policy and refugee issues. I’ve written a lot about why people get deported, and whether or not deportation laws make sense when the people have already gone to jail and they were here lawfully as refugees or immigrants, but they made a mistake. If they were citizens, they would have gone to jail, and when they got out, then they go on to lead their lives. But if you’re an immigrant, you get deported after you go to jail. I’m also writing more about the government’s stepped up deportation efforts against unaccompanied children and mothers and children fleeing violence from Central America. This is an unnecessary tragedy that is being visited upon these individuals.

I’ve also written about, how big of a role family is in immigration. For a number of ethnic groups, family immigration is the big issue. They want to be reunited with family members and there ae backlogs for people immigrating from different countries, like the Philippines or Korea or India. Scholarship is a way for me to write critiques of the system and how it could be made better. Recently, I’ve also written about racial justice on issues related to police racism and racial profiling. Not just with respect what we read a lot about today in Ferguson and police officers and black victims, but also racial profiling of Latinos and Asians that take place, that lot of people are not aware of.

What led you down this line of inquiry from family dynamics to current issues of racial profiling?

My interests in different areas of scholarship come from many sources, so it can come from clients in the Immigration Clinic or students who are raising very difficult questions that are not in the class materials. As a teacher, you’re trying to make the students think about whether or not things make sense. But very good and sharp students make the professor do that as well; so great ideas can be generated from students.

Other times, and perhaps most often, it’s from what’s happening with certain institutions and areas that I follow. Because I am interested in immigration, I’m interested when Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Border Patrol arrest young people coming across the border that are fleeing persecution and instead of helping them apply for asylum, they end up in custody or in detention. Today in Europe, there’s a serious refugee situation with respect to Syrians and other Middle-Eastern refugees. And yet some countries of Europe are very open and warm in terms of their welcome for refugees, other countries are not. It’s an invitation to consider where the United States falls in that arena. Those are kinds of examples of common everyday things that are happening that give rise to my interest in scholarship and writing and researching about those issues.

As an academic, how does your work intersect different groups?

I think when you recognize that there are communities out there that we can work with and help, your experience as an academic is much more meaningful. I volunteer and I represent immigrants in partnership with other programs. Here at the law school, we represent immigrants in an immigration clinic that I helped to start. But there are also community-based organizations that need help in fundraising, so I’m on the board of several community-based organizations who have a range of fundraising needs.

Then there are politicians, both nationally and locally, that might be entertaining different legislative ideas and that’s an avenue where an academic can play a big role because academics can have credibility with policymakers. There also are community groups, and I don’t mean agencies but I mean PTAs and other organizations whose members want to stay informed and are very interested in what’s happening in society. When I get invitations to speak in front of groups, I’m happy to do that because I think that is part of our job as scholars and academics. One thing that I really like about the University of San Francisco is that it has a real commitment to the community and to social justice. My colleagues and the administration have always been very supportive of going out and doing community work and speaking with community groups.

Can you tell me more about the Immigration Clinic?

In the summer of 2014, there were large numbers of unaccompanied children that arrived at the border, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and some from Mexico. In fact, that year 2014, about 65,000 arrived. And then there was another equivalent number of women and children who arrived. When that occurred, a certain number of them were released from custody and many of them were transferred to the Bay Area or to other parts of the country where they had friends or relatives. Once they were transferred here, all of them were put in deportation proceedings. Friends of mine in other nonprofit organizations asked if I would help out with cases and I did. I realized that there were just not enough legal services available. I was fortunate enough to raise money to hire a full-time attorney and a full-time office manager/paralegal to help with the cases. At the end of 2015, we had around 80 cases; today we have close to 100 cases They are all youth or women and children that are facing deportation, almost all Spanish speakers. The workload involves going to court a couple of times a week. It involves counseling people who have had some pretty sad and violent experiences; a lot of post-traumatic stress is involved because there’s been abuse at the hand of gang members, sometimes it’s domestic violence, other times it’s drug cartel-related violence. It’s hard to say no to representing these clients. That’s the reason the Immigration Clinic started.

How has the individual experiences of these people impacted you?

I’m outraged, to be honest, that our government actually would detain women and children who are not flight risks. They’re charged very high bond amounts of several thousand dollars or have to wear very uncomfortable ankle bracelets. I’m very disappointed that the government has made their deportation a high priority under the auspices of sending a message to others back in those countries that they shouldn’t come here. It’s very short-sighted because those people really don’t have a choice. They’re fleeing violence and it’s a choice between fleeing or staying and risking their life day to day. The way it’s affected me primarily is that it’s made me even more committed to train students to help do this work, to work with more community agencies to try to come up with a political strategy to convince the government to stop this, to work with other attorneys to help bring legal actions against the government to try to stop the deportations and detentions. It’s motivated me more. That’s the main impact this experience has had on me.

What do you see as your role as an educator to bring these experiences into the classroom?

I think that the classroom becomes much more interesting when you can bring in real issues. Obviously, in every class you always have to do a little bit of history and straight legal analysis, but in the immigration class that I teach, the students are much more interested when you talk about real clients who are facing the law that you are learning about. You understand how the law works against particular people or how it works to help certain people, or how the law of asylum would work, or how the law of family reunification would work in certain circumstances. Real experiences bring the class to life.

Do you find that students need convincing to pursue immigration law?

There are definitely some students who enter law school with a passion for social justice and some of them focus on immigration. Those are the students that I don’t need to coach. But at graduation, I’ve also been scolded by parents who said, “My daughter came to law school because I wanted her to go work downtown. But because of your influence, she’s going to be an immigration lawyer now.” I usually take that as a compliment even though sometimes it’s not intended that way. When some students hear and experience what I’ve been describing, it’s life-changing for them.

What brought you to USF?

I’m interested in social justice and public interest, and that’s very consistent with the mission of the law school, and the mission of the whole university. I love the focus on helping the needy and addressing the social needs of people who are low-income and disadvantaged.

I think that the support for public interest at USF is stronger than other schools. There’s such a strong sense of social justice here. For many years, each summer, the university sent a group of faculty and staff to El Salvador to learn about the history of El Salvador and the role that Jesuits, in particular, played in social justice battles in Central America. I was fortunate enough to go on one of those trips and it’s a great example of the university wanting to remind people of an important history of unfortunate violence and upheaval. The university wants us to remember that history, and examples like that serve as continuing inspiration and impetus for doing good work.