UCSF Oncologist Strives to Stem the Rise of Cancer in Tanzania

Geoffrey Buckle, MD, MPH, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wanted to be a professional baseball or soccer player, until “I realized I wasn't really any good,” he said with a laugh. So when he went to Colby College in Maine as an undergrad, he majored in history—about as far from science as one could get. He didn't imagine he'd one day be collaborating to develop medical research infrastructure in East Africa.

“I took a non-traditional path to medicine,” explained the Wisconsin-born/Boston-raised assistant professor. “It was really a late experience as an undergraduate that oriented me toward a career in medicine. As a history major, I wrote a paper that focused on construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of the 20th century and learned about the scientific research and public health initiatives that made construction possible. Earlier efforts led by French engineers were a colossal failure with tens of thousands dying due to malaria and yellow fever.”

However, on the next go-round at construction, “There was an emerging understanding of the link between mosquitoes and these diseases. Several public health interventions were introduced that focused on eradicating mosquitoes from the canal zone. Standing water was drained and contaminants were used to kill larvae. High brush and grass were cut, limiting mosquito movement. Workers were given prophylactic quinine. While these were fairly simple interventions, they were remarkably effective and, in essence, allowed for the successful completion of construction with fewer deaths from mosquito-borne illnesses. It was a massive success.”

Intrigued, Buckle traveled to Panama to see the region for himself. “I saw the lasting impact of mosquito control efforts, with much of the country malaria-free. However, I also visited parts of the country where malaria remains a major public health concern. I realized that despite the availability of highly effective public health interventions that have been around for over a century, health inequities persist. This experience provided my first meaningful exposure to the field of public health—and opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing a career in medicine with a focus on addressing global health disparities. I began to think, ‘Wow, this really could be an area that I have passion for.’”

Of course, being a history major with no clinical experience, Buckle figured he ought to seek out opportunities that provided first-hand exposure to clinical medicine.

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