ASBMB’s Advocate Spotlight will highlight the efforts of science advocates to share the importance of biomedical research. If you know someone telling the story of science to legislators to advance science policy, email firstname.lastname@example.org, so that we can consider them.
Joe Ramos is the program director for and a professor in the Cancer Biology Program at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.
How did you become interested in advocating for science?
I have been a longstanding member of the ASBMB and it was under their guidance that I initially became involved in advocacy — first through letter writing to address science funding issues. After reading the ASBMB blogs for several years, I saw the 50-State Challenge.
I work at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, one of only 68 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the United States. Hawaii is a small state with a similarly small population of scientists and medical researchers. Nevertheless, many of us hold (National Institutes of Health) or (National Science Foundation) grants; the UH Cancer Center and the John A. Burns School of Medicine collectively brought in more than $40 million from the NIH last year. With the increasing difficulty of getting R01s renewed, I knew I had to step up and advocate for science in my state. There just are not that many others to do it!
My initial discomfort melted away as I visited the offices of our congressmen and found them to be very receptive and understanding. While I may not have been used to advocacy, they were and that helped a lot. Now I take part in the 50-State Challenge every year and look forward to the August government recess to do my part.
What do you find most rewarding about being an advocate-scientist?
The most rewarding thing is learning about the processes involved in setting science policy. For example, (U.S.) Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) held a federal appropriations workshop recently to go over how alternative funding requests can be developed that can support research in Hawaii. To see that this has to start at least 18 months in advance and that they are willing to work with us was eye-opening. I am also happy that we are fortunate to have significant support for the NIH and the sciences in general from our congressional team.
What do you find most frustrating?
The most frustrating aspect is the creeping feeling that it is so hard to move the giant creature that is government very quickly. I continue to be concerned that (lawmakers) have not yet realized how big a hit the United States is taking compared to the rest of the world in competitiveness in the sciences. Fortunately, I studied Chinese at university! I may have a use for it soon!
Have you had a memorable experience as a science advocate?
As a cancer researcher and program director at an NCI-designated cancer center, I have the honor of meeting and speaking with people of all walks of life in Hawaii who have been affected by cancer. If they have been affected by cancer, they have been affected by NIH funding. This is most memorable to me. Seeing how our center has played such an important role in bringing in new clinical trials for today’s patients and is contributing to preventing, diagnosing or curing tomorrow’s patients shows me firsthand what it is all about. Without NIH funding, there is no cancer center here in Hawaii. There are no clinical trials. There are no future cures. There are no new preventative measures.
What advice would you give young scientists interested in advocating for their field?
Dive into the deep end. From my experience, your senators and representatives will appreciate getting to know scientists from their states or districts personally and learning how diverse we are. Every perspective matters, especially yours. Working with a group like the ASBMB can help you feel more comfortable and provide some important background pointers and data. But when it comes down to it, it is important to just show up in their offices and say “Look, my job depends on this funding and the funding drives our economy and might save our lives or our friends’ and family’s lives one day.”
Why is it important for scientists to get involved in advocacy?
Advocacy is essential. It can help break any stereotypes your representatives may have. It helps educate them about what is going on in their backyards — new discoveries are being made every day by people with everyday concerns who vote in their districts. People respond to stories, and your story needs to be heard. Why are you driven to do what you do? How does it affect the world? Or our understanding of the world? By taking part in advocacy at every chance, you put a face to science, you put your story and your research out there, and by doing this you make an impact. Big or small, you make an impact. Lots of little impacts can move mountains or big governments!
Has your time advocating for science affected how you run your lab or how you train students and postdocs?
I am much more aware that my students and postdocs can have their own special place in advocating for the work we do at the cancer center, and I encourage them to take part in various advocacy opportunities that arise. Again, being in a small state, we potentially have more access and visibility to our government, and people often respond to our youngest scientists strongly. We are in a beautiful new building by the blue Pacific with views of Waikiki and so we have many opportunities to host visitors. We have opened our lab many times to our local politicians and the community-at-large and, usually, I have my students and postdocs present their work.
Additional comments, insights or advice?
Every state has its own special needs and stories. We all need to tell these stories across all 50 states. I encourage everyone to raise their voices and speak to why what we do is so important in so many ways. No one else can tell your story
Would you briefly explain what your research group is studying?
Around 90 percent of cancer patients die because tumor cells leave the original tumor and invade and damage other organs. This is called metastasis. About half of all cancers have mutations that result in unregulated activity of a specific set of proteins called the Ras–ERK signaling pathway. We study what drives cancer metastasis and focus on this pathway. This is leading us to new ways to target or prevent metastasis. Ultimately, we hope our research will contribute to new treatments for patients that cure the cancer or significantly prolong their lives.