Daisy de Leon: Dialogue with an Adventist professor focused on research

Sitting with Daisy de Leon in her office, the first thing you notice is the number of family pictures that decorate her wall and desk. Mentioning how cute the children in the pictures are brings out the bubbly side of Dr. de Leon. As a new grandmother, she proudly displays the picture of her granddaughter, Vivianna, and quickly informs me that another grandchild is on the way. Family is obviously very important to Dr. de Leon and her husband, Marino, parents of three children.

Born in Bronx, New York, she grew up in Puerto Rico. From her childhood, her parents insisted that getting a good education was one of the most important things one could do with one’s life. In 1977, Daisy graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Three years later, she completed a master’s degree in molecular biology from the same university. Then in 1987, Dr. de Leon completed her Ph.D. in endocrinology at the University of California, Davis.

Dr. de Leon always showed a fascination for research and medicine. In school, her role model was Albert Schweitzer, the brilliant musician and the erudite theologian who won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his compassionate medical missionary work among Africa’s lepers. Currently, Dr. de Leon serves as associate professor of physiology and pharmacology, and as assistant to the dean for diversity at the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University. In addition, she is involved in breast cancer research. She has worked at Loma Linda since 1993.

Let’s get right to your current research. A recent study concluded that incidence of breast cancer in French women was significantly less than in women in the United States. The study found that it was the wine that was helping to decrease the incidence of breast cancer. Previous research had shown that the use of alcohol increases the incidence of breast cancer, but now research seems to indicate that the protective effect of the wine was produced by a chemical found in grapes.

Well, can I say, “Drink more wine?” No. Studies have been done for some time to see if grapes contain any possible chemo-preventive factor. Health food stores carry pills that contain grape skin extract. These extracts combine several parts of the grape with the grape seed, which has potent antioxidants that seem to help in the prevention of breast cancer. Scientists have also found a couple of chemicals in broccoli that inhibit breast and prostate cancer. In addition, research indicates that consumption of green vegetables has a protective effect. So your question has really to do with diet and nutrition.

When scientists were looking for the gene that affects breast cancer, they discovered that only five percent of all breast cancers are hereditary. Even though you may have the bad gene that may increase your susceptibility to breast cancer, it’s encouraging to know that proper diet and nutrition can have preventive effects.

Above and beyond diet changes, are there any other steps that women can take to limit their risk of breast cancer?

It’s important for women to understand their bodies and the changes that take place in their breast. If a woman is between 35 and 40 years of age, she should have what is known as a baseline test. After 40, a once-a-year mammogram is necessary. Education is critical for women to understand the risks, but there is no magic bullet in terms of breast cancer. There is no 1-2-3, no A-B-C, of how to prevent it.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, how do you connect your religion with your work?

First, I experience a sense of wonder. As a scientist I am amazed at the marvels I discover each day about the human body. Is it possible that this body and mind and how all the intricate systems that work within us could have been a result of chance and random evolution? The more I look at the human body and how it functions, the more I am forced to join the Psalmist and exclaim, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Second, humility. Because of this wonder and because God has given me a unique insight to understand the phenomenal way in which our bodies function, I am driven to certain humility. A deep spiritual experience overwhelms me, and I am determined all the more to serve God, to study His creation, and to serve my fellow human beings. Religion helps me to stay close to God and to His creation. Every time I learn something new in my field, it brings me closer to God, because it makes me realize that we would not have been able to exist if it hadn’t been for such a powerful Being that has developed us in such a phenomenal way.

Do you find that you are able to share your faith in your profession?

Being a scientist and being a Christian seems incompatible to many people. That has not been the case with me, and certainly is not the case for a lot of my colleagues. We see that the opportunity to understand the intricacies of God’s creation is a marvelous way to understand a little bit more about God.

I have always felt very comfortable with my values; it was wonderful for me that I was able to explore and become a Christian on my own. It’s different for my children, however, because I feel that being an Adventist is the best I have to offer them. So their choices are significantly reduced when it comes to that. I’ve had my challenges as a parent trying to give them the freedom of choice and yet trying to work it out so that the freedom of choice takes them to what I believe is the best choice.

How do you juggle your roles as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, and a researcher?

I take it a day at a time and as it comes. I’ve been very fortunate that my husband and I share the same religious convictions and core values that allow us to have a happy relationship. We value our relationship with God, and that is essential to our relationship. We value each other as individuals, we respect our differences. We both believe that family is essential.

What counsel can you give to readers who are interested in research and would like to pursue it as a career option?

Research is a fantastic enterprise, and there are a lot of programs now that allow for students from junior high on up to get involved in research. Many universities have research programs. There is a lot of ways these days where people can get involved with research, particularly in the Adventist Church. Since we value the body so much and are committed to promote good health, research is definitely a key element to advance medicine and care of the body.

More than one hundred years ago, Ellen White—one of the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers—wrote counsels on health prevention that were ahead of her time. For example, she stated that large amounts of sugar were harmful to our bodies. In my young days, I personally wondered how that could be? I love sugar, chocolate, and everything that is sweet, but today we know from chemistry and research why sugar is harmful to the body. As we now know, her warning on the dangers of tobacco consumption were right on target. Isn’t it fascinating to see that a woman with limited formal education had a wisdom that didn’t come from herself and was guided to give us such understanding on health?

Research is critical, and I’m very happy that Loma Linda University has put a lot of effort and money to foster research in various health areas. This allows us to have someone like Dr. Leonard Bailey who, with his team, performs amazing heart transplants. Our university is still moving forward and providing an environment where you can feel comfortable being a Christian and retain your values and at the same time be a scientist who enjoys research.

What brings you satisfaction in your work?

Many things: To complete a project that allows me to push scientific knowledge forward. The opportunity to work with a colleague and know that our interactions have provided some benefit for us all. The opportunity to be able to assist students in something that will make a difference in their life is satisfying. To be in the right place at the right time to contribute—that, to me, is fulfilling.

Dustin R. Jones is a special projects editor in the Office of University Relations, Loma Linda University. He can be reached at djones@univ.llu.edu. Dr. Daisy de Leon may be contacted at the School of Medicine; Loma Linda University; Loma Linda, California 92350; U.S.A.