(Originally published in the Campaign for the School of Public Health Magazine Summer, 2009)
Male circumcision can reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in parts of Africa by as much as 50 percent. A low-cost drug originally created to treat stomach ulcers, misoprostol, could save tens of thousands of women’s lives who would otherwise die of postpartum bleeding. Empowering women in developing countries with options regarding childbearing can reduce the level of civil strife and terrorism worldwide.
Researchers in the Bixby Center at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health know that complex world problems can have surprising solutions. What these solutions often have in common is that they are innovative, cost effective, and have the potential to work on a large scale in fast growing, resource-poor communities.
Thanks to a $15 million gift from the Fred H. Bixby Foundation, the School has begun to expand and enrich the current Bixby program, which has become the Bixby Center for Population, Health, and Sustainability. The new center will retain the mission of creating a more prosperous, ecologically sustainable, and less divided and conflict-ridden world. It will also highlight the critical impact of population on the global environment, global public health, and civil and international conflict, and help to address the well-documented unmet need for family planning.
Professor Malcolm Potts, who has led the Bixby program at the School since becoming its director in 1992, believes that population growth is a key factor in many of the world’s problems. “I think the huge challenge for the human race in the twenty-first century is whether we can move to a biologically sustainable way of life on this planet,” he says. “And population plays an essential role in that.”
Partnering to Solve Population Problems
Fred H. Bixby attended UC Berkeley in the 1930s, and provided in his will for the creation of the Fred H. Bixby Foundation in order to support efforts towards solving the problem of overpopulation. The three trustees of the foundation, John Warren, Howard Friedman, and Owen Patotzka, oversaw the foundation’s pledge of $500,000 to establish the Fred H. Bixby Jr. Chair in Population and Family Planning, with the goal of attracting an eminent faculty member to lead the School’s efforts towards creating a premiere program to address the population subject. The School began a search that culminated with Potts’s appointment. A Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive biologist, Potts was the first medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, where he introduced contraceptive methods into scores of developing countries during his decade-long tenure.
“I have spent my professional career, since 1968, working internationally in family planning. I saw the endowed chair of the Bixby foundation as a wonderful opportunity to continue that work in the world’s greatest public university,” says Potts, who was named to the chair in 1992.
Over the next 16 years, he built a team of Berkeley students and postgraduates with the goal of broadening the understanding of the population factor and making an impact on policy all around the world.
“The foundation trustees I think have kept very consistently and sincerely to Fred H. Bixby’s goals, which were to help put population on the table and help people around the world make voluntary choices so they can enjoy the benefits of smaller families,” says Potts. “They had the vision that this problem is long-term, and that one of the roles that universities play is to undertake research and action over the long term.”
The Bixby Foundation’s latest gift of $15 million will allow Potts to elevate the program he has built to an elite level. “This generous gift will enable our School to significantly expand initiatives in population health,” says Dean Stephen Shortell. “The impact of the Fred H. Bixby Foundation commitment will be felt around the world for generations to come.”
Ten million dollars of the overall gift will be used to create the new center, which will be anchored in the School of Public Health, but will be recognized as a campuswide center, working in collaboration with the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Berkeley Center for Global Public Health, the Berkeley Population Center, and other initiatives. The remaining $5 million of the gift will help support a new building for the School of Public Health, in which a wing will be named in honor of Fred H. Bixby.
Success through Student Internships
The Bixby Center has achieved remarkable results through its internships. In 1999 and 2003, the Bixby Foundation made gifts in support of students concentrating on population and family planning, allowing fellowship recipients to travel abroad over the summer and conduct research in the field.
Since 2003, a total of 33 Bixby interns have traveled to 20 developing countries, primarily in Africa and Latin America, to conduct research on family planning and reproductive health. In addition to the positive impact in these communities, the interns’ work has led to publications in refereed journals and has enriched courses offered through the Bixby Center with students’ firsthand experiences.
“We send very well-trained master’s and doctoral students who are taking skills and sharing them with colleagues in low-resource countries,” says Potts. “So the interns get an experience, and sometimes individually it changes their lives.” For some students, the experience can help shape their careers in work related to population and sustainability. This cycle has resulted in a cadre of trained professionals helping to address these problems, upon whom Potts can call to apply the University’s research findings in the real world.
Potts names Lori Babcock, M.P.P., M.P.H. ’08, as a recent shining star of the Bixby internship program, saying “she’s fearless and full of good ideas.” As a Bixby intern, Babcock went to Ethiopia in the summer of 2006 and Nigeria in 2007. In Ethiopia, she worked to improve family planning access in rural areas, especially with the delivery of Depo-Provera, which many women are eager to have. She researched ways to reduce maternal mortality in Northern Nigeria, working in conjunction with Ahmadu Bello University.
“It’s helped me enormously,” Babcock says of her experience with the program. “The two fellowships gave me concrete research experience. Prior to coming to the School of Public Health, I had experience implementing programs in the Peace Corps and with other organizations, but only limited monitoring and evaluation experience.”
After graduating, Babcock began working at Population Services International (PSI) in Washington, D.C., a social marketing organization that addresses the health problems of low-income and vulnerable populations in more than 60 developing countries. “I love my new job—it’s perfect for me,” she says. “I get to work on improving global health all day every day. And I’ve been to Africa twice in the past six months. It’s perfect.”
The Bixby Center makes a compelling case for the urgency of addressing population growth, pointing to its underlying contribution to problems such as environmental decline, war, and violence. “All the terrorists come from places where it’s difficult to get birth control,” Potts puts it simply.
Martha Campbell, a Bixby Center lecturer, notes, “We haven’t found a country that has gotten out of poverty while maintaining high birth rates, with the exception of the Persian Gulf nations. Governments of rapidly growing countries simply cannot keep up with the requirements for education and health services when the number of children increases greatly each year. At the same time, there is a huge unmet need for family planning in all the fast-growing countries.”
Potts believes that Berkeley is the only university that has been consistently saying two things: first, that rapid population growth has a lot of deleterious effects, and second, that population growth can be slowed in a human rights framework. “Other universities have gone into much less focus and more diffuse descriptions of this,” he says. “I see the Bixby Center as an opportunity for Berkeley to enhance its leadership in the United States and globally in putting the population growth factor back on the world agenda.”