DENVER - Patrick Allen compares his dream of a "black biomedical research movement" to the women's movement.
As increasingly emancipated women moved into the workforce, some ended up in research. Many of them pursued topics with particular importance to women, such as breast cancer and menopause.
Allen, a black research professor at the University of Colorado, wants to see the same thing happen for African Americans. The scientist, who studies HIV viruses, believes the health awareness of African Americans would improve if more black students pursued biomedical research careers.
Monday, Allen delivered that message to about 40 students from advanced science classes at Montbello High School in Denver. He talked about his own experiences as a student and researcher and encouraged the kids to get a college education at least, and to consider the medical research profession.
"Knowledge is king," Allen told the, kids, promising "it gets so much better later on. When you go to college, you get to decide what to study, you have choices. And in graduate school, you only have to study what you want."
Allen wanted to study biology. As an undergraduate at Springfield College in Massachusetts and a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he found himself increasingly drawn to molecular biology - the study of the proteins and nucleic acids that make cells work.
Now, the CU researcher. studies the proteins and nucleic acids of HIV viruses, which cause AIDS.
He's investigating a particular transformation that HIV viruses must undergo before they become infectious. If scientists could interfere with that transformation, he said, "We could stop the progression of the disease."
Allen showed a slide of some promising experimental results. "How do you know that something that works in a lab will work in people?" asked sophomore Mayra Loya, 14.
"You don't," Allen responded. On average, it takes $400 million and 10 years for a research project to become a human drug, he said. After laboratory work such as his, a potential drug must be tested in animals as well as in human clinical trials.
Amanda Comstubble, 17, a senior who plans to study biology in college next year, said she was impressed with Allen's message. She said she's interested in biomedical research because she thinks people need better inforination about health issues.
"When I was in junior high, I thought you could only get HIV if you were gay," she said.
In fact, the fastest-growing population of people infected with HIV is young women between 18 and 25 who are black or Hispanic. "And across America, the cancer rate is going down, except in black communities," Allen said.
He cited several reasons for the discrepancies, including mistrust of the science and research communities by many African Americans. A certain skepticism is well founded, he said, describing the infamous Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis were denied treatment.
He emphasized the importance of moving forward. When a student asked Allen about a theory that an elite group of scientists manufactured the HIV virus to kill "undesirable" people, Allen refused to speculate.
"It doesn't matter, because a lot of people are dying now and that's what I care about," he said.
For the past two years, Allen has been quietly recruiting his professional colleagues into what he calls the "black biomedical research movement." He's encouraging them to take on promising young black Ph.D. students, and is even trying to persuade personalities such as television, star Oprah Winfrey, Denver Bronco Terrell Davis and comedian Chris Rock to promote black health consciousness and encourage young minorities to pursue research careers.