Portland Business Journal: A glimpse inside Portland State's growing life sciences focus
Author: Elizabeth Hayes
Posted: January 14, 2015

Read the original story in the Portland Business Journal's Health Care Inc. Northwest. 

This morning, I got to take an "Umbrella Tour" of Portland State University and learn more about their science and health education programs.

The university, which has 28,000 graduate and undergraduate students, is doing quite a lot in those areas. Psychology, biology and other health care-related studies are among the most popular majors, with 400 new students this fall who identified those as interests.

Among the speakers was Carlos Crespo, a professor and director of the School of Community Health. He spoke about PSU's $24 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help it spur underrepresented students' interest in health sciences. Students in the Exito program receive scholarships, mentoring and extra advising.

Crespo also addressed the crucial role played by social determinants of health.

"Our major health problems — obesity, domestic violence, substance abuse — are not exactly medical problems. They're community problems," Crespo said. "The only thing we have to solve them is the ER. The first thing we need to do is have a competent work force, professionally and culturally. A diverse work force will bring diverse solutions. Otherwise we'll bring the same solutions that haven't worked."

Larry Wallack, a professor of public health, came at the topic of public health from a slightly different angle through the concept known as epigenetics.

To simplify, the premise of epigenetics is that it's not just genetics and lifestyle choices later in life that affect a person's risk of developing diseases. Of great importance is what happens in the very earliest stages of development, before birth and even in previous generations.

Stress caused by poor nutrition or environmental and economic factors affects the mother, which then affects the baby. Low-birth-weight babies are at three to four times higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease decades later, Wallack said.

"We are a society that tends to blame individuals for their poor health," he said. "What happens to you in the developmental process can have an impact later on. The level of social inequality is directly linked to the level of health inequality."

The tour ended at the Collaborative Life Sciences Building on the South Waterfront, where biology and chemistry professors showed us around and praised the building's technology, open design and views of the Willamette.

They also offered everyone a peek into the cadaver room, which this reporter politely declined.