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The University of Pittsburgh has created a center—considered the first of its kind anywhere—that will identify environmental causes of cancer. The center’s first director is more than ready to do battle against the disease. In fact, battles are her specialty.

Cancer Crusade

Meghan Holohan

Devra Davis (Ric Evans photo)
It was 2 a.m. when Devra Davis and her friends gathered outside the Towers in the mid-1960s. Voices echoed over the PA system as Davis and others directed students who were waiting to board a bus to Selma, Ala., to protest with Civil Rights activists.

One of the bus drivers approached Davis. Someone needs to secure the $4,000 deposit the students used to pay for the buses, he explained.

She panicked, a little. Where was a group of 20-somethings going to find someone in the middle of the night who could guarantee checks worth $4,000?

If she didn’t get someone to secure the checks, the students weren’t going to Selma, the driver said. Reluctantly, she picked up the phone to call her father.

She knew it was a risk calling her father. He was a Barry Goldwater Republican. She had been organizing with the NAACP.

He picked up the phone. “I saw you on TV,” he said.

“What?” she replied. Apparently, the local media thought this group of Pitt students was newsworthy.

“Well, Dad, I’m calling because I need someone to guarantee the checks,” she said.

Davis didn’t know that her father had his own history with civil rights and African Americans. She just knew he had been a staunchly conservative army reserve officer. (When he retired, he had reached the prestigious rank of brigadier general.)

It turned out that in the 1940s, he had coached an all-Black basketball team in the army. When the team traveled through the then-segregated South, Davis’ father ate at Black restaurants so he could dine with his team. He watched disdainfully as his team suffered from racism. At the time Davis called him, she had no idea that he, too, sympathized with the Civil Rights movement.

“I’ll guarantee the checks,” he said.

With her father’s promise, the buses full of Pitt students headed to Selma to help the Civil Rights volunteers. In addition to organizing students, Davis worked for The Pitt News, and as a reporter, she covered the protests for the paper through phone calls with Pitt students who had made the trip south. When Davis graduated in 1967 with both a BS in physiological psychology and a master’s degree in sociology, she was already an experienced leader.

One way to look at Devra Davis’ life is to characterize it as a series of battles. She jokes, now, that her mother taught Davis to fight—first with her, and then with others. Davis fought against the injustice of segregation. She fought against politicians who said that pollution was not threatening people’s health. She fought against researchers—some of whom she admired tremendously—who looked at her research and said that there was something wrong with it. Even though she spent years carrying out the original research, she re-evaluated those projects, would wade through the paperwork, the statistics, the anecdotes, and would rewrite the paper, checking and double-checking.

Now as director of the new Center for Environmental Oncology, a collaborative venture between the Graduate School of Public Health and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Davis will be fighting to find environmental causes of cancer. The center is the only one of its kind within a cancer institute, says Bernard Goldstein, professor and retiring GSPH dean.

It makes sense that Davis is at the helm. Goldstein recalls one of her more public clashes. In the early 1990s, she published a paper that indicated cancer mortality rates were increasing for people older than 45. Many reputable scientists scoffed at the idea. The number of people with cancer isn’t increasing—diagnostic tools are improving, some argued. Now we are just detecting more cases of cancer.

Instead of simply accepting her peers’ doubt, Davis packed up her daughter and headed to Europe, where she studied cancer rates in Sweden, Germany, and Great Britain. Davis found that, with the exception of lung and stomach cancers, cancer mortality rates for people older than 45 increased in European countries, too. Goldstein is quick to note that this is an example of Davis’ strongest qualities as a researcher. She doesn’t give up, and she doesn’t give in to emotions—she always argues that good science should be the basis of change.

But to say Davis’ life is simply a series of fights isn’t quite right.

As energetic as she is now, almost 40 years after organizing fellow students to march on Selma, and as passionate as she is about pollution and environmental causes of illness, she isn’t only a fighter. Fighting implies some negativity, and Davis is hopeful and upbeat. She is changing how people think about the environment, and it is easy to see how she inspires others. She is an innovator. So almost 40 years after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Davis has returned to Pittsburgh, to the place where she first witnessed what pollution can do not just to the environment, but to her family.

Davis grew up in the sooty mill town of Donora, Pa., south of Pittsburgh. But the Donora that Davis knew in her youth is much different than today’s Donora. When Davis and her family lived in the town, there was a perpetual haze in the sky—every day was an overcast day. It was a town of mills, everything ran around the schedule of the mills. The furniture was covered with plastic to protect it from the dirt. Brown patches and fields were more common than grass and trees. Donora, though, holds a lot of fond memories for Davis. She recalls visiting her grandmothers as a child. Her Bubbe Pearl slept in the dining room because she couldn’t walk up one flight of steps. In fact, Bubbe Pearl couldn’t walk much of anywhere without an oxygen tank.

Davis writes about her childhood in the 2002 book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, which was a National Book Award finalist. In this nonfiction account of environmental degradation, she also writes about a deadly fog that blanketed Donora for almost a week in 1948, killing 20 people. Her roots in Western Pennsylvania seem intimately connected to her research on pollution and health.

She admits in her book that, as a child, she thought all old people were run-down and sickly. Her career as an epidemiologist, with a PhD from the University of Chicago and an MPH from Johns Hopkins, has taught her otherwise.

Davis served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She was also a scholar in residence at the National Academy of Sciences and a consultant to, among others, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank.

In part, because it was her hometown where she first noticed illness, Davis’ research has ties, sadly, to her family and their declining health. Her research isn’t solely limited to those relatives like Bubbe Pearl, who lived their entire lives in the mill town. There was her favorite uncle, Len, who was athletic and handsome. He died while playing handball in Los Angeles during a time of high pollution. And even though Davis’ immediate family relocated to Squirrel Hill when she was young, her own father—who worked in a Donora steel mill as a young man—died of bone cancer in 1984. Her mother, Jean Davis (EDUC ’71), died in 2003, at the age of 79, from stomach cancer.

Davis flutters around her office in Hillman Cancer Center. She tackles several tasks at once, checking e-mail, talking to her staff, and planning a meeting. She handles a dozen things at a time with ease. She travels frequently. Her husband lives in Washington, D.C., and the two share a home in Jackson, Wyo. She says she wrote a lot of her book on airplanes and in lobbies.

She starts talking about the projects the new Center for Environmental Oncology will research. Davis focused her research on several areas, including breast cancer and its relation to the environment and reproductive issues like lower sperm counts in males.

The first project is a collaboration between the center and the University’s Center for Minority Health that will investigate why more young Black women have breast cancer than their White counterparts. They will examine whether beauty products for African American women contribute to increased occurrences of breast cancer. Environment isn’t limited to forests, rivers, lakes, fields, and sky. It is what we eat, what we use, and what we wear. Beauty products that target African American women often contain estrogen. This affects women in a few ways. For instance, these products might induce early menstruation, and researchers believe that women who menstruate earlier are more likely to get breast cancer. And it’s commonly believed that higher levels of estrogen contribute to increased risks of breast cancer. If African American women are using products that increase the level of estrogen in their bodies, they may be at higher risk.

“In this situation, we are looking at what are the risks and role of personal care products,” she says about the center’s first ongoing investigation. “Why is breast cancer affecting young women? What is going on?”

Tiffany Miles-Randall, who recently earned a PhD in molecular biology and genetics from Carnegie Mellon University, is the first postdoctoral student in the Center for Environmental Oncology. She will conduct basic science research on many of these beauty products.

Miles-Randall first met Davis about five years ago when the graduate student was beginning to question whether she wanted a career as a bench scientist. She thought that a career in basic science would help people, but it wasn’t in the tangible way that she envisioned. Her adviser told her to talk to Davis, who was a visiting professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon.

Miles-Randall took the advice, contacting Davis to discuss a career in public policy advocacy. Davis instructed the student to bring a CV and a writing sample. After reviewing those documents, Davis said, “Come work for me.” Miles-Randall agreed immediately.

Her routine was intense. Typically rising at 5 a.m., so she could squeeze everything in, she would start the day by sitting at her computer to check e-mail. There were always a number of messages from Davis, who, at the time, was conducting epidemiological studies of air pollution. She directed Miles-Randall to search for studies involving air pollution, such as the impact of particular chemicals on the environment. Miles-Randall embraced the challenge; she felt like Davis gave her significant responsibility. Sometimes she’d send the article directly to Davis. Other times, she wrote a summary and sent that. Often, she and Davis would have a back-and-forth discussion about the articles and the best way to approach the research.

The materials Miles-Randall collected for Davis helped allow the epidemiologist to find patterns of health problems caused by air pollution. It was gratifying for the student that her research could potentially contribute to public policy. At last, Miles-Randall believed she had found the kind of tangible work that helped people. She even wondered if she should pursue a Master of Public Health degree.

Davis, though, encouraged Miles-Randall to finish her PhD. She stressed how important it was for her to have the PhD as part of her title. Miles-Randall followed Davis’ advice, eventually returning to her PhD studies full-time. She stayed in touch with Davis, too, hearing from her off and on during the next four years. Earlier this school year, Davis contacted Miles-Randall again—this time offering her a postdoctoral fellowship with the center. Throughout the years, Davis never forgot her research assistant, something that impresses Miles-Randall. She welcomed the chance to work with her mentor again.

The center is still in its early stages, and the staff fills their days writing grants, recruiting faculty, and strategizing about approaches to research. Davis is excited to be leading the effort. She’s grateful, too. “None of what I am doing would be possible without the initiative that Ronald Herberman, head of UPCI, took to bring me back here.” Foremost, he helped attract local and national funding to make Davis’ center a reality. “Without him, none of this would be anything but a dream,” she says.

Goldstein says the center is unique. “It’s focused on the environmental causes of cancer, jointly in the University structure, but within a cancer institute. I am unaware of any other center like this in a cancer institute.”

Everyone from Goldstein to Davis to Miles-Randall is excited about the first project examining breast cancer in young African American women. It seems that no one else has looked at this issue in quite this way, and the researchers might find something that will influence people’s lives.

“It’s thinking beyond the usual,” Goldstein says. “It’s starting with the disease and working backward. Instead of starting with a chemical and asking what it does, we actually have the tools to start with the disease.”

Goldstein continues to talk about his friend and colleague, adding that Davis’ thought process is what makes her unique in the field. She thinks across disciplines, continents, diseases, and chemicals.

As Davis continues to talk about her motivation and her research, she brings up her mother again. She spins around in her office chair, pulling out a picture of her new grandson. With tears in her eyes, she says she hopes he won’t have to watch a parent or grandparent become feeble and sickly from the environment. Perhaps the tears are for Bubbe Pearl.

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