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Dr. Patricia Bath

Arpita tells the story of a scientist and inventor who kept her EYES on the prize! She crashed through glass ceilings while staying true to her roots.

Episode Transcript Aarati: 0:10 Hello, everyone! Arpita: 0:12 Hi. Aarati: 0:12 And welcome to the Smart Tea Podcast, where we talk about the lives of scientists and innovators that have shaped our world. I'm Aarati. Arpita: 0:21 And I'm Arpita. Aarati: 0:22 How have you been doing? I mean, not to sound too cliche or anything, but how have you been coping with the crazy weather we've been having? Arpita: 0:29 You know, the thing that I learned about this week Aarati: 0:31 Mhmm. Arpita: 0:31 Was about weather patterns because I have been... so for everyone who is not in the Bay Area, Aarati and I both live in the Bay Area in California. Aarati: 0:41 Yep. Arpita: 0:41 And We are having a big rainstorm right now, which is also called an atmospheric river. And this is something that I did an unnecessary deep dive on. If you have an iPhone, um, you can open the weather app, and the weather app has a radar that It shows you where the storm is. And so you can track it over time and you can see how the storm is approaching the coast and where it's going to be hour by hour. Aarati: 1:07 Oh, my goodness. Arpita: 1:08 It is extremely nerdy. And I've just been watching the storm. And I learned also because my apartment is very, very cold. The walls are really thin. There's no insulation. So basically, whatever the temperature is in the apartment is reflective of whatever the temperature is side. Aarati: 1:27 Oh, great. Arpita: 1:28 And my... I know it's delightful. Um, And it's been way warmer in my apartment. Like, I haven't been freezing when I wake in the morning. It hasn't been freezing when I've been going to bed. Aarati: 1:37 Yeah. Arpita: 1:37 And I was like, that's so strange because it's still the middle of winter, and we're having this big storm. But it turns out that the Bay Area is a Mediterranean climate based on the latitude and longitude of where we live. And it really all the plants that grow in the Bay Area are also plants that grow in Italy, the south of France... Aarati: 1:59 That totally makes sense. Arpita: 1:59 ...and Portugal. It's like a very similar climate and because of that I'm... someone's gonna be a meteorologist and the listeners are gonna be like, she has What she's talking about? However, I did learn that Because of the Mediterranean climate, when it's stormy and rainy outside, it's always a lot warmer. So you almost think about... it's not quite tropical, but you think about a tropical storm where it's like kind of humid rain and warmer rain. And I don't know if you felt this, but the temperatures actually haven't been as low as Aarati: 2:29 It's been rainy, but that's fine. Yeah. The warmth the warmth is what I need. Arpita: 2:35 Yeah. That's what I that's what I learned this week is one. The storm looks really cool and when you think, when you think about an atmospheric river, it's basically these storms that are following each other, that are moving east across the Pacific Ocean, so they're landing on the California coast. And there's just, like, a row of them that are coming in, which is why it's called a quote unquote atmospheric river. Aarati: 2:55 Oh. Arpita: 2:55 So it kind of looks like a river on the radar. Aarati: 2:58 Oh, I never knew. And that makes... You're you're actually I think you're absolutely right about, like, the the plants That grow well here because Arpita: 3:06 Yeah. Aarati: 3:06 A few years ago, my mom redid her garden, and I was helping with the design and, like, planning everything. And I was talking to the designer and telling her we want to take out all of the lawn because it's Lawns are such a pain. Like, you Arpita: 3:23 Such a pain. Aarati: 3:24 We wanted to plant all, You know, colorful plants and flowering plants that would attract pollinators and, like, do our part for the environment and so I said we want to do California natives as much as possible. And the designer was like, well, do you have to do California natives, or Can we do, like, Mediterranean plants? And she said that. so she did put in a lot of Mediterranean plants, and now it all makes sense why. I'm like, oh, okay. Arpita: 3:50 Yeah. Aarati: 3:51 Good to know. Arpita: 3:52 Really interesting. That's, um, the very random and highly irrelevant to this story thing that I learned. Aarati: 3:59 I love that you went so in-depth on this. Arpita: 4:02 It is added to the list of entirely useless information that lives in my brain along with, you know, 200one Britney Spears lyrics and things that just don't matter at all. They live in my head rent free. Aarati: 4:14 I love it. Should we get into the episode? Arpita: 4:19 Yeah. I think today's,uh, scientist is probably also gonna live in my head rent free. She is extremely brilliant, and I'm excited to tell you about her. I chose this person in honor of Black History Month and I also felt like after the last couple episodes, we needed a little bit of girl power in here. Aarati: 4:37 Yes, please. Yes, please. Arpita: 4:40 And so the person we're talking about today is named Patricia Bath. And I'm really excited to tell you about her. Aarati: 4:47 Awesome. I have never heard of her, so I'm excited to hear. Arpita: 4:52 So Patricia Bath was born in 1942. She is from Harlem, New York City. And her father, Rupert, was the very first Black motorman for the New York City subway system, so the person who drives the cars. And her mother, Gladys was a housewife and domestic worker. She did kind of odd domestic tasks. Both of her parents, even though they themselves didn't have, um, higher academic degrees, really pursued her to be good at school, and one of the things that she quoted from her parents was to"never settle for less than her best". And so they were really encouraging of her and supported her education. And when she was very young, her mom bought her a chemistry set, which was her first exposure to science. Aarati: 5:40 Wow. That is so cute. How old was she? Like, in grade school? Arpita: 5:46 I think it it I'm there's not an exact age, but I think very young, probably grade school. Aarati: 5:51 Okay. Awesome. Arpita: 5:52 That was her first exposure. So she was super encouraged by her parents and worked Really hard in school, and when she was 16 she's in high school she was selected to be a part of just a few students to attend a cancer research workshop that was sponsored by the National Science Foundation or the NSF. Those of you who are maybe not entirely deep in biology, the NSF is a really big deal. They're one of the biggest funders. They have an award that they give to graduate students in biology. Aarati: 6:24 Mhmm. Arpita: 6:24 And this is very prestigious. If you are recognized by the NSF, it is a very big deal. Aarati: 6:29 Yeah. You can put that on your resume for... Arpita: 6:32 Forever. Aarati: 6:32 Yeah. For the rest of your life, you can say, I I won an NSF scholarship, I was an NSF fellow. Like... Arpita: 6:39 yes. Aarati: 6:39 And that's, that's money in the bank. Arpita: 6:41 Yes. A hundred percent. Um, so she's 16 and has NSF on our list already. So just Aarati: 6:48 Amazing. Arpita: 6:48 A taste for how amazing she is. Um, so she's at the summer program and she studied the effects of streptomycin residue on bacteria. And she basically discovered that cancer was a catabolic disease and that the tumor growth that's related to it is a symptom. So I had to look this up. Catabolic disease is something that leads to muscle and bone loss, which then causes frailty and declining quality of life. And so what was previously thought was that cancer was something that caused all of this to happen to you. But what she discovered was that cancer was just this umbrella and that tumor growth was a symptom of this. And then it also, as a downstream effect to that, then caused you to lose muscle loss and then feel weak, etcetera, etcetera. Aarati: 7:40 Wow. Arpita: 7:41 Basically, what she was able to do is put the pieces together to understand sequentially, first this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Aarati: 7:47 She figured this out when she was 16? Arpita: 7:49 She's 16. Yeah. Aarati: 7:50 Oh, my god. Arpita: 7:51 She's 16. She also discovered a mathematical equation that could be used to predict cancer cell growth. Aarati: 7:57 What? Arpita: 7:57 Pause. Aarati: 7:57 So she's she's doing math too. It's not just biology. She's also Figuring out that you can mathematically determine how cancer cells grow, like, how they how they divide or how fast they replicate? Arpita: 8:13 That is my hypothesis. I tried to look at that a little bit closer to see if I could figure out the actual equation that she used or the actual math that she used. And I wasn't able to find it, but my assumption is it's something about the exponential replication or how this Cancer cells divide or how quickly they grow. She was able to create an equation to be able to predict that. Aarati: 8:35 I would also assume that it would vary based on cancers, but that is amazing that she figured that out at 16. Arpita: 8:43 Yeah. Aarati: 8:43 oh my goodness. Arpita: 8:44 So the director agree... of this program agreed with you. And he was so impressed by her discoveries in the project that he incorporated her findings into a scientific paper that He presented at a conference. Um, and again, this is a really big deal. So most people during their scientific careers, especially in the modern day. Um, don't publish a paper until either well into a PhD program Or sometimes even after. Aarati: 9:12 Yeah. Arpita: 9:12 Um, it's something that takes a lot of time to accumulate all of the data, to be able to interpret the results, in order to actually get your name on a scientific publication. So the fact that she has sort of stumbled upon this at 16 is Aarati: 9:27 And did you say this was, like, part of a summer program too? Arpita: 9:30 Summer program. Aarati: 9:30 This is not even like, this is summer camp for her. This That's amazing. Oh my goodness. Arpita: 9:37 Yeah. She didn't go to regular summer camp. She went to NSF summer camp. Aarati: 9:40 Yeah. So there you go. Yeah. Oh my God. That that is just outstanding. I think at 16, I was, like, still trying to figure out what the parts of the cells were even called and what they did, like, in bio biology 101. You know, just like Arpita: 9:57 Seriously. Aarati: 9:58 Yeah. Arpita: 9:58 Totally. Yeah. Um, and so after this paper got published, She actually got more widespread publicity from these discoveries, and she got Mademoiselle Magazine's Merit Award in 1960. Um, but then we need to, like, zoom out a little bit because she really is a young Black girl living in Harlem, and despite the fact that she showed so much promise and had so much brilliance, she faced so many obstacles: sexism, racism, and just relative poverty compared to all of the her white counterparts and classmates. Aarati: 10:32 Um, right. Arpita: 10:33 And she was dealing with this at a super young age. Um, and in more recent interviews, she's mentioned that she had very few role models in medicine and in science. She never saw any female positions, let alone other women or people who looked like her in the medical profession. She had this love of medicine. And this actually came, good callback to episode one, when she learned about the French Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer? Schweitzer? Not sure how to say that. Aarati: 11:03 Okay. Sounds German, maybe? Or Austrian? Arpita: 11:06 French. Aarati: 11:07 French? It doesn't Okay. Well, you know, I only speak the one language again. So Arpita: 11:13 yeah. Um, so Schweitzer, Schweitzer was a physician, and he dedicated his career to humanitarian efforts to improve the lives of people with infectious diseases, and he took many different missionary trips to Africa. And one of the more recent modern day interviews with Patricia, she also similarly said that her love for humanity and her passion for helping other people really fired her to become a physician. So even just from this really early age, she is sparking this joy for medicine, is inspired by Nobel Laureates, as a very young girl. I cannot say I even knew what the Nobel Prize was when I was that young. Aarati: 11:56 No. Arpita: 11:56 And she just had this love and passion for helping people. And that's kind of where this all started. This is her origin story. Aarati: 12:02 That's so wonderful. And I think that so many scientists actually do start there. Like, they they see a problem, and they wanna fix it. Or they they see people in their lives are suffering, and they want to help make improvements And so much like, whether you're a doctor or a researcher or anything, really, in STEM, I think so many people start from that point of how do I help people. So I love that. Arpita: 12:30 I agree. And I also think in Patricia's case, this love for helping other people is truly a thread that goes through her entire life and career, which we'll see. Aarati: 12:40 This is, like, 1950s and 1960s. Right? So this is, probably, Like, the height of the civil rights movement, I think. Right? If I've got my US history facts straight. Yeah? Arpita: 12:54 You're right. Aarati: 12:54 So I think this was, like, around the time when schools were still being desegregated, Um, or there's a lot of tension around that. So, I can imagine there weren't many people that you know, especially Black women, even just Black people, but Black women who had made it up to the upper echelons of, academia and research. Arpita: 13:19 Yeah. And you bring up a really good point because the last couple people we've talked about have been from many years ago, sometimes even centuries ago. Aarati: 13:28 Yes. Arpita: 13:28 And they are all white men. And when I was researching this episode and I was trying to decide on a scientist, I realized that if I was going to if we were gonna celebrate Black history and choose and I wanted to pick I wanted to pick a woman, and I was like, if I'm gonna find a Black woman, Almost all the stories are, you know, 1950 onwards. And I feel like that was really interesting to me because not only are I mean, I I think to some extent, I was not really surprised. But it's also that there it's not necessarily that there were no Black women before, but that their recognitions were not chronicled in the same way that other scientists Aarati: 14:07 Yes. Absolutely. Arpita: 14:08 And then you also mentioned in, uh, Joseph Lister's episode. You were like, this is gonna be a long one. Yeah. And I actually really have the opposite comment on this, is that there was just so much limited information that I could find on this woman... Aarati: 14:22 really? Arpita: 14:23 ...even though she was brilliant... Aarati: 14:24 Even though she's so recent too. Arpita: 14:26 And profound and recent. Like, this is truly just modern day. Like, we're talking about within, you know, people's relative lifetimes right now. Aarati: 14:35 Yeah. Arpita: 14:35 And even despite all of that and despite how prolific she is, the information that was available on her to like really talk about her story was limited, which is also really interesting relative to some of the other scientists we've talked about. So Yeah. Aarati: 14:48 That is shocking. That's a really great point because, like, Some of the scientists that we have talked about are from the 1800s, and we still have so much information about them because, like, all their letters were kept in very, You know, safe places so that we could always look back at them because it was recognized that Arpita: 15:07 Right. Aarati: 15:07 They were given the recognition That you've done something amazing. And for someone a hundred years later to be making breakthroughs and not be receiving that kind of same recognition is just such a miscarriage of justice. You know? Arpita: 15:23 Yeah. And I think just juxtaposing this or having this episode come right after Joseph Lister's episode really highlights that discrepancy. It really highlights the difference between what we know about these scientists and how they live their lives. Aarati: 15:37 Mhmm. Definitely. Arpita: 15:38 Um, okay. So back to Patricia's story. So she finished high school in 2 years. Aarati: 15:45 In 2 years? Arpita: 15:46 2 years I know. Aarati: 15:47 Forget the normal 4 that everyone else takes. Arpita: 15:49 Having the same reaction Throughout this entire episode, I think. Yeah. Aarati: 15:54 So summer camp at NSF, uh, graduate in 2 years. What's next? Arpita: 15:58 So she goes to Hunter College in New York for her bachelor's, and then she goes straight to Howard University for medical school, which is a historically Black college. Aarati: 16:08 Okay. Arpita: 16:09 And to afford medical school, her mom worked extra hours cleaning and scrubbing floors in order to make extra money. So her parents were just so supportive of her education. Aarati: 16:18 Amazing. Arpita: 16:19 She unsurprisingly graduated with honors from Howard in 1968. And after finishing medical school, she started her internship at Harlem Hospital. Um, so in 1968, this is the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was assassinated. Aarati: 16:35 Oh. Arpita: 16:35 She yeah. So she was so inspired by Dr. King's message and especially part of his dream, which was to empower people through the Poor People's campaign, which was an effort to gain economic justice for those living in poverty. So she was really inspired by this message, so she took that inspiration and she organized and led Howard University medical students in providing volunteer health care to people through this program, Aarati: 17:05 oh my gosh. That's wonderful. So was it poor people in general, or was it I would imagine that just based on the economic Opportunities that were not available to Black people, I would assume that a lot of the poor people would be Black, but Arpita: 17:22 Yeah. Aarati: 17:22 Were there...? Arpita: 17:22 I think that's it. I think that's a fair assumption, especially given the fact that they were limiting their efforts to Harlem, which especially at this time, we had a largely Black population in New York. Yeah. Yeah. Um, so, yeah, I think that that's probably an accurate assumption to make. Aarati: 17:37 Okay. Arpita: 17:39 So then after her intern year, she started residency in ophthalmology at Columbia University. So she's a real New Yorker. And she, in a residency, discovered that her African American patients were almost twice as likely to suffer from blindness than her other patients. Aarati: 17:53 Oh. Arpita: 17:54 And 8 times more likely to develop glaucoma, which is another eye disease. Um, and at the eye clinic at Columbia, there were very, very few blind patients. So she's realizing that when she is working in these clinics that serve predominantly people of color, and black people. They have a much higher incidence of some of these eye diseases, and that is relative to the patient population at Columbia, which is in the middle of the city. Um, and there was very few blind patients. And so she... Aarati: 18:25 And they would be predominantly white, probably, the people the patients in Columbia? Arpita: 18:30 Yeah. Yeah. So, like, based on where the hospitals are located and who they're serving, she's She's noticing these discrepancies and she clocks this and she was inspired to then conduct an epidemiological study. So she's a resident and she decides to connect this study, and she found that blindness among Black people was almost double than that among white people in New York. And then she figured out why, which was that the high prevalence of blindness was really just due to access of opthalmic care. Aarati: 19:01 Oh my goodness. Yeah. Because so it's not it's not a genetic thing. It's not, you know, something in the water or something. It's just just, access to care. Arpita: 19:12 And, like, awareness. Yeah. So they're going to the doctor more. They're able to catch things earlier. Um, and so that actually segues great into this next point. So to address this, she proposes a new discipline, which is she called community ophthalmology. And now this is a discipline that is operative worldwide. But basically, community ophthalmology is you can just think about it as, like, a mishmash of public health, community medicine, and also just what you would think of traditionally as ophthalmology in a doctor's office with a surgeon. Aarati: 19:43 Okay. Arpita: 19:44 Um, and the purpose is to offer primary eye care to underserved populations who might not get vision care in any other circumstance. So you have volunteers who are going to senior centers and daycares to do vision tests. You can kind of just think of the very classic You know, letters on a chalkboard that you're trying to read covering one eye then the other, but then it's a screen to, you know, get glasses for kids to treat for cataracts and things like that in older adults, and then really saving sight in your ability to see for some of these folks who might not have actually gotten the care they needed and fallen through the cracks otherwise. Aarati: 20:23 That is so amazing, and that is Actually so important now that I think about it. Like, I think a lot of times we take our sight for granted, but it's just such an important Thing to have to move about the world, like, I don't know if you know this, but I'm super blind. Like, my first grade teacher discovered that I could not see the board, so I was like, What? 6 years old? 5 years old? Arpita: 20:51 6 maybe? Aarati: 20:52 Yeah. Yeah. And my teacher put together that I needed glasses. And, um, so she told my parents and, um, Um, they went and they took me to the eye doctor. I got these, like, really big thick glasses, um,. And so after we got out of the doctor's, appointment, I had my new glasses on. I remember just looking out of the car window at the trees and just being astonished at how I could see, like, every leaf on the tree. And Arpita: 21:19 Yeah. Aarati: 21:19 I it was just, like, such a stark difference between what I had been able to see and what I couldn't. And I can see that totally going a different way. Like, I was so lucky that I was born at a time and in a place where my first grade teacher... saw that I couldn't read the board and equated that to me needing glasses rather than equating that to me being stupid or something. like, she was able to say, I know you know the material. I know you're smart. Um, and that's something that I don't know if people would have thought at that time, if they were a child and they couldn't read because they couldn't see, you know? Yeah. Arpita: 22:00 No. I I think that's totally right. Right? Because, like, the cards are stacked against you and Aarati: 22:04 Absolutely. Arpita: 22:05 People are sort of primed, especially at this juncture we are in the, social tapestry They're probably primed to think that, you know, these people aren't as smart or aren't as good. Aarati: 22:18 Yeah. Arpita: 22:18 And I think that is what people started to realize after she established this community program because her work really helped increase awareness about this and the fact that people were falling through the cracks, and it brought ophthalmic surgical services to the Harlem Hospital's eye clinic. So there was an eye clinic there, but it didn't provide any eye surgery. So anything like fixing cataracts or glaucoma or other different eye conditions. And because she brought this awareness, they started performing eye surgery in 1968. So she persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on patients who are blind for free. She volunteered at an assistant surgeon, and the first major operation was done in 1970, and it was really due to her persistence and the fact that she really just raised awareness for this cause that was really meaningful to her. Aarati: 23:10 That is fantastic. Arpita: 23:11 So she's completing her medical training, and she's finishing up at New York University between 1970 and 1973. And she was the first Black resident in ophthalmology, so male or female. And while she was a fellow, she got married, and she had a daughter named Erica. And She was a mom. She had new priorities, but she still managed to complete her fellowship in corneal transplantation in keratoprosthesis. And keratoprosthesis is the surgery that we do to replace the cornea with an artificial one. So it's usually done for cataracts. So once your lens becomes sort of cloudy, um, they replace that with an artificial one. Aarati: 23:53 I see. And is cataracts, Like, I've only heard really of cataracts in older people. Is that is it is it an age related disease? Arpita: 24:01 I think it's an age related degeneration. Yes. Yeah. I had to look it up too. Aarati: 24:05 Okay. Arpita: 24:06 So once she's done with her training, she moves to California, best state. And Aarati: 24:11 Yes. Arpita: 24:13 And she starts as an assistant professor of surgery, and she has a dual at Drew University and UCLA. Okay. So in 1975, she's the first female faculty team member in the department of ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stine's Eye Institute, which still exists today. Aarati: 24:31 So first female...and first well, I don't know about first Black, but first female. First black female. Arpita: 24:38 For sure first Black female because she was the first female. Aarati: 24:40 So First female. Okay. Arpita: 24:42 Yep. First female. Aarati: 24:43 Yeah. Arpita: 24:43 And so when she got this appointment she was given an office, and it was in the basement, completely in the dungeon. It was next to where they kept all the lab animals. And when she was shown her office she refused on the spot. Aarati: 24:57 Yeah. Arpita: 24:58 And she didn't retaliate, and she didn't argue, and she didn't call it out as racism or sexism. She simply said, this is an inappropriate working environment, and then she succeeded on getting better office space. Aarati: 25:11 Good for her. I mean, on the one hand, it's it's so degrading. Like, she had every right to yell and scream and, you know, just call out immediately the sexism and the racism that was happening. But the fact that she kept her cool and just handled it with so much grace is applaudable. Like, I don't know if I could have done that. I would have Arpita: 25:35 I'm not sure I could have done that either. Aarati: 25:37 Yeah. Arpita: 25:37 And I think it really is also just a testament to the fact that, you know, at this point, she's, what, like, in her thirties, like, early thirties. Like, this is This is not new for her. Like, going navigating through her life, looking the way she does is not new to her. And she realized, which I think a lot of people of color realize, that acting a certain way is actually just gonna enforce what what people already think about you. Aarati: 26:02 Yes. Arpita: 26:02 And it is incredibly unfortunate. And Aarati: 26:05 Yeah. Arpita: 26:05 You just don't have the privilege of saying whatever you want wherever you want. Aarati: 26:08 Yeah. Arpita: 26:08 You Actually do have to, like, think about what you do and say in certain social situations, which, you know, is maybe something for an anthropologist or social scientist to break down and maybe not us, but I think just through lived experiences, it's actually really interesting. Aarati: 26:23 Yeah, no, it's true. You have to be, especially at that time, you have to be like a hundred times better than your white counterpart, your white male counterpart. You know? You had to just be extraordinary and graceful and above all reproach, Like because any little thing that you did, they would use that to tear you down. So you just didn't have the privilege of acting out. Arpita: 26:47 Yeah. I agree. Um, so Patricia's work and interests really go beyond the university and her university appointment. So in 1977, she's been at UCLA for a couple years. She and 3 of her other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, also known as AIPB. And this organization's mission was to"protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight" is what they say. And I think we can also just call back again the fact that she just cared so much about bringing care to those who didn't have it or maybe just didn't have access to it. And like I kind of mentioned before, I think this thread really is her through line for her career and her personality and like what she's very, very passionate about. Aarati: 27:34 Yeah. Arpita: 27:35 Um, and so the AIPB is based on the idea that eyesight is a basic human right, which is kind of what you said. Aarati: 27:41 Yes. Arpita: 27:41 And that primary eye care is really something that should be available to everyone regardless of their economic status. So a lot of the work that they do in this organization, it's basically to support anyone. So it could be newborn infants. It could be children doing eye screening, getting them the supplements they need for vision, like vitamin A, vaccinating against diseases like measles that could lead to blindness, and she got to travel and perform surgery. And basically her goal through this was to limit health disparities. Um, that's, like, what She's doing it, and she's using her training as an ophthalmologist to do that. Aarati: 28:18 That's so commendable and just amazing that she didn't let the racism and sexism that she was facing kind of wear her down. And she just... Arpita: 28:28 yeah. Aarati: 28:28 ...forged ahead, and she's just, like Arpita: 28:30 She kept going. Aarati: 28:30 Yeah. Arpita: 28:31 Um, it's, like, honestly amazing. And it It doesn't even stop there. She's really just such a Renaissance woman. Uh, so not only is she a brilliant surgeon, she is a faculty, she's doing all these things. Um, she's also an inventor. She... Aarati: 28:45 what? Arpita: 28:46 Is also a laser scientist. Aarati: 28:48 What? Arpita: 28:48 And I was like... Aarati: 28:49 ok mathemetician, biologist, cancer biologist, Ophthalmologist, laser scientist. Arpita: 28:55 Laser scientist. Aarati: 28:56 What what was she doing with lasers? Arpita: 28:58 Yeah. What is she doing with laser here. Um, so it's not the same laser pointers that I use to play with my cats, a little bit different. Um, but her interest was really in cataracts. So she is looking at these cloudy lenses that people have, and, um, I had to actually look this up. But in the past cataract surgery has apparently also been around since like, 5th century BC. Aarati: 29:24 Wow. Arpita: 29:24 Um, because people's like cloudy eyes were so evident, like you could see it when you were looking at someone. It looked kinda cloudy. Aarati: 29:31 Yeah. Arpita: 29:31 And so one of the earliest methods for intervening for cataracts is called couching, um, and I had a hard time reading this, um, because of squeamish. Aarati: 29:41 Ah, yes. Arpita: 29:42 But this method Yeah. Uh, quote,"a sharp needle is used to pierce the eye until the provider can manually dislodge the cataract. Aarati: 29:52 Oh, okay. Arpita: 29:54 In the eye. Aarati: 29:55 I don't I actually don't know about cataracts at all. So you can actually just remove an entire cataract from the eye? Like, I didn't know that. It's a separate, like, growth or something. Arpita: 30:06 I think it's just calcification. Aarati: 30:08 Oh, okay. So you're you're keeping the lens of the eye, but you're just removing... you're not you're not keeping the lens of the eye? Arpita: 30:16 Sorry. In couching, you are. In the Aarati: 30:18 Okay. Arpita: 30:19 Very ancient way you are. In modern day cataract surgery they replaced the lens. As time went on, there were ways to do this, but it basically involved very surgically removing the top layer of your eye and replacing it with an artificial lens, but Aarati: 30:36 Mhmm. Arpita: 30:36 There was, like, a lot of downtime. It was really painful. It was, like, hard to do the surgery. It took a really long time. And so what she discovered, because she was doing so many of these surgeries, was a new method to remove cataracts, and she called it the laser phaco probe. And this device, almost instantly and almost painlessly dissolves the cataract with a laser and then irrigates and cleans the eye, which then allows the new insertion of a lens. So it basically is this genius tool that instead of using a scalpel to cut the eye, is now using a laser and then is able to just clean the wound, keep it all really nice and neat, and then do the surgery in a much better way than what's been done before. Aarati: 31:20 Probably a lot more precise as well. Arpita: 31:23 Yeah. Aarati: 31:24 And like you said, painless for the patient. That's... Arpita: 31:27 exactly. Aarati: 31:28 Great. Arpita: 31:29 Exactly. And so it took her about 5 years to complete all the research and all the testing, and then she applied for a patent. And she got a device for the patent about 5 years later, and then she was the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Um, and she has patents in Japan, Canada, Europe, and this device is used all the time. Aarati: 31:52 It's still used today? Arpita: 31:54 Yeah. Aarati: 31:54 Oh! Arpita: 31:54 And because it was used all the time, um, and so widely, it was so effective that it was actually able to restore sight in people who had been blind for years, like decades, because of cataracts. Aarati: 32:06 What a gift. Arpita: 32:07 And they were kind of just written off to say, you know, you're just you're just blind, and she was able to restore sight. Aarati: 32:14 That's amazing. So it is still used today. Like, my grandmother just went through cataract surgery, and she would have used the laser phaco method, I'm assuming. Arpita: 32:25 Yeah. I think that's right. Um, there's a few other methods depending on I think cataracts also have grading and staging the same way a lot of cancers do. So, like, depending on the size of the calcification or maybe how if they have any other, eye conditions. So I know something that can happen. This happened to my mother-in-law. She had cataract surgery, but when they did it they also corrected the irregularities on her lens, which is why a lot of people need, farsighted glasses Aarati: 32:52 Yeah. Arpita: 32:53 And you're correcting the those sort of irregularities you how on the surface of your eye. So while they're in there, they can fix that. So she actually doesn't even need to wear her glasses and contacts anymore to see far away because they fixed that. So I think that there are a few alterations and, like, maybe different approaches that they take depending on the situation. Aarati: 33:10 Gotcha. Arpita: 33:11 But very similar, like, foundation to the technology. Aarati: 33:14 Yeah. That that's such a gift. Like, even, like, my grandmother, she wasn't completely blind from cataracts, but, obviously, it was affecting her vision. And she was so excited when she got the first eye done, and she she couldn't wait to get her second eye done. Um, and I can just Imagine if you had gone completely blind from cataracts and you had been living that way for years, and then to suddenly have your sight restored. What an amazing gift. Arpita: 33:42 So amazing. Um, I think Patricia would also agree with you with that. Let's see, so after she has created this patent, um, she's at UCLA and she started this program specifically for keratoprosthesis, which is, like I mentioned, replacing the lens and to provide really advanced surgical treatment for blind patients. And this program is still around today. There have been thousands and thousands of patients who have had their eyesight restored. And honestly, man, like, she's just crushing it. She's at, like, the peak of her career. She is really not only using her abilities to care for the people who are at UCLA, but is really just extending this to the masses and, like, really not forgetting the people who raised her and where she comes from, which I think all of us could probably stand to do a little bit. Aarati: 34:32 Yes. Like, don't don't lose sight of why you got into Arpita: 34:36 Where you came from. Like that. Totally. Aarati: 34:39 Yeah. And who you're trying to help with your with your work. Arpita: 34:43 Yeah. I totally agree. And, like, having this device that, like, does it newer, better, faster, all the things. I was like, get a girl to do it. Like Aarati: 34:51 Yeah. Arpita: 34:51 She's doing it. Aarati: 34:52 A hundred percent. Oh my gosh. Of course. Are we surprised at all? No. Arpita: 34:56 No. Aarati: 34:57 No. Of course not. Yeah. Arpita: 34:59 Yeah. You need something done, get a girl to do it. Aarati: 35:01 Yeah. And then and then she goes out, and she just is, like, mother to everybody. She could easily probably have slapped like, you need to pay me a thousand dollars in order to do this or, like, you know, just made it unavailable to people or just gotten super rich off of it because, you know, only the richest people Arpita: 35:20 What is the, um, the insulin? Right? Aarati: 35:23 Yeah. Arpita: 35:23 Like, to make all the money off of this thing that people need to live and survive, and it's you know, she has no thoughts like that. Aarati: 35:30 None of that. That is just amazing. Like, We all need to we all need to be like her. Arpita: 35:37 Totally agree. So now we're in the late eighties. And at this point, you know, the US has culturally come a long way during her career. She still continues to face sexism and racism. And she, at UCLA, didn't get the credit most of the time for her laser machine. And it was kind of just written off, and she it wasn't attributed as her success. And she was so determined that she was not going to be obstructed by any of these glass ceilings or any of these barriers that were placed for her. So she took her research abroad, she went to Europe, and her work was celebrated at the Laser Medical Center in Berlin, in Paris, in England, and all these other institutions, um, and she just wanted to make it clear that she was not doing this for personal accolades. She just wanted to make sure that it was spread as widely as possible. Aarati: 36:33 Yeah. Arpita: 36:33 Um, but it was being limited because she wasn't getting credit, and they weren't willing to publicize this. Aarati: 36:39 Again, like, oh my god. The the pride some people have, It's it's just incredible. Like, this isn't even your thing, and yet you are obstructing it from reaching people who really need it because you can't imagine that a woman and a woman of color... Arpita: 36:58 yep. Aarati: 36:58 ...did it, and you didn't do it or something. Arpita: 37:01 Yeah, so basically what would have had to happen is that UCLA would have had to admit that it was this person who created it because if you think about just a medical device or any sort of technology. There's all these protocols and all these hoops you have to jump through in order to implement a new device for patients, right? You need to keep patients safe. And so in order to do all of that, her name would have come out, and they just didn't want they were just preventing her from getting all this accolade. They knew that it would just boost her through the roof. Aarati: 37:29 That's such a ridiculous statement. Like, they would have to admit that Patricia Bath... Arpita: 37:35 Those are those are my words. Aarati: 37:36 No, no, no. But, like, no. But you're right. Like, that's that's the sentiment that,"Oh, but we can't we can't say this because then we would have to admit... Arpita: 37:45 to admit that it was her. Aarati: 37:47 That it was her. And it's just like, what a ridiculous sentiment to have to face. But good for her for going to Europe and getting it out there she's just not letting anything stop her. Good for her. Arpita: 38:00 Yeah. Agree. Um, and so then in 1993, she retires from her position at UCLA and becomes an honorary member of the medical staff as professor emeritus. Aarati: 38:12 Now they give her the accolades. Arpita: 38:14 So she's not even really retired though. She continues to teach and advocate, and now her big thing is advocating for telemedicine to provide medical services in places where healthcare is really limited. Um, and this is crazy because this is like a full 30 years almost before telemedicine really caught on post COVID pandemic. Aarati: 38:38 Oh, yeah. Arpita: 38:39 And, you know, telemedicine was around before then where, you know, you could call your doctor and have, like, a phone visit or whatever. But Aarati: 38:44 Yeah. Arpita: 38:45 You know, I really don't think it's become a huge thing until post COVID when we realized that we could actually do so many things virtually and that it was a way to, you know, um, bridge access. And I don't know if you know this, but some of my PhD work was actually on telehealth and telemedicine. Aarati: 39:00 Oh, really? Arpita: 39:01 People didn't really care about what our lab was doing until I joined the lab in 2019. And then in 2020, we got 3 different grants because Aarati: 39:11 Wow. Arpita: 39:11 I was just like, this is really important work. We need to figure out telemedicine. Yeah. Um, and that was just a couple of years ago, and Patricia was out here preaching this in the nineties. Aarati: 39:22 That Arpita: 39:22 So she was way ahead of Aarati: 39:24 Yeah. That that's a true, like, That's a true innovator right there. The people who do the best in life I've always seen are the ones who can see things from every angle, and the fact that she was able to see, like, the Internet is happening and the rise computers. Arpita: 39:41 Right. Aarati: 39:41 And then what does that mean for medicine, which a lot of people would see as 2 completely separate fields, like Internet and computers is one thing that you'd be good at. Yeah. Like, that's a completely separate thing. And then biology and medicine and health are another thing. But the fact that she was able to kind of see the vision of bringing those things together, that's, I think, really the mark of an extraordinary person. Like, in the nineties, computers and the Internet was just getting started, but she could see the potential of it. Yeah. And that's That's really the mark of a true visionary, I think. That's amazing. Arpita: 40:20 Yeah. I think her ability to sort of see her broader impact was also really admirable. I think she was able to sort of take a step back almost from her own life to think about the impact that she was having. Um, she has a quote here that I sort of want to start to wrap up our story with, which she says that she wanted to level the playing field so much so that a career like hers would not be the exception, and that any young woman with such interests could succeed. And her ultimate goal, she said, was the, quote,"narrative of surprise. It has to change. I realized that when I achieve these things, it helps what other women and other people of color, Black women, and other women can do. But keep in mind, I never had any doubts. Aarati: 41:06 Oh my god. That's that's amazing. Like, I have doubts about myself all the time. And to be able to look up to somebody like that who just was like, No, girl, you got this. Arpita: 41:20 Yeah. Aarati: 41:21 Just believe in yourself. And it's so hard sometimes when... like I don't have half the struggle she has. Oh my god. I have such a privileged life compared to what she has. Arpita: 41:31 Completely. Aarati: 41:31 And I Still doubt myself, and I still wonder, am I doing the right thing sometimes? And for her to just have that mentality of just go for it. Believe in yourself. You're doing the right thing. That's fantastic. Okay. She's my new hero now... Arpita: 41:49 yeah. Aarati: 41:50 So Arpita: 41:50 I think she's also just so aware of the fact that she is holding a lot of firsts. Aarati: 41:57 Mhmm. Arpita: 41:57 Um, you know, she was, like, the first intern. She was the first faculty member. She was the first all of these things. But she's also like very uniquely aware that she has a lot of eyes on her and that she people are surprised by her. They're like, oh, You're what? Aarati: 42:12 Yeah. Arpita: 42:13 Like what? And, like, that's, I think, what she's really talking about with, like, the narratives of surprise, and she's very uniquely aware that, You know, she's leaving this mark on other women like us. Aarati: 42:24 Yes. Yes. Other women of color, other Black women, Other women in general. Yeah. Arpita: 42:30 Yeah. Um, Patricia died in 2019 at the age of 76. She had a very short and brief illness, but has left a beautiful legacy for all of us. Um, I really liked her story. I really enjoyed researching the story, and I really enjoyed learning about her. Um, I wasn't really sure what I was getting into when I first started researching her, but I think I was also thinking about Joseph Lister again too, and it just We've reseached some really, really nice people. Like I think their humanity and their love for other people, like really just shines through these stories. I don't know if you agree. Aarati: 43:08 No, absolutely. Like, and I think that's also part of what makes these people so successful is that they really, really care. They're passionate about their work, and they care about the impact that it has on people. Arpita: 43:22 I know. I'm Like I listen to Headspace a lot of times when I can't fall asleep in there. A lot of times these little stories that just kind of calm you down, but you Like I want Patricia to narrate my headspace and be like, you're gonna be okay. Like don't stress about that awkward thing you said earlier. You're a great scientist. You're gonna Great things like, you are gonna just leave my headspace while I go to sleep. Aarati: 43:42 Yeah. I think we we all need to cultivate that I just need to cultivate that voice of Patricia in my head being like Yeah. Arpita: 43:49 You just need a Patricia. Aarati: 43:50 Yeah. Just Do live your life. Do what you need to do, and don't let anyone stop you. Arpita: 43:56 Um, well, I think that's a wrap on this episode. Aarati: 43:59 What a great story. That was a fantastic story. Good job. Good job telling it too. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for listening. If you have a suggestion for a story we should cover or thoughts you want to share about an episode, Reach out to us at smart tea podcast dot com. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter at smart tea podcast And listen to us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And leave us a rating or comment. It helps us grow. New episodes are released every other Wednesday. See you next time.

Sources for this Epsiode

1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Changing the Face of Medicine. "Dr. Patricia E. Bath".  

2. Genzlinger, Neil. "Dr. Patricia Bath, 76, who took on Blindness and earned a Patent Dies." New York Times. June 4, 2019.

3. Patel Alpa S.DelMonte Derek W, Houser Kourtney. " History of Cataract Surgery". November 6, 2023.

4. American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. 

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