One-on-one with Delfina Nobel Prize Winner Delfina Leocadia Robles

Courtesy of UCR
Courtesy of UCR

Firstly, where did your interest in biological engineering come from?

I’ve always enjoyed learning things and I think that working in Science gives you that opportunity to be a lifelong student. You probably think I’m crazy, but I like learning. I’ve always thought that figuring things out is a whole lot better than making stuff up.

Your work on the malaria vaccine was a fantastic achievement. You were the first female from UCR to earn the Nobel Prize in Medicine because of it. How were you able to accomplish such a feat?

My research team and I had an idea—a good idea—and we ran with it. We figured out that using the venomous saliva from the recently discovered vampires in Transylvania were effective in combating the malaria virus. We figured out a way to manufacture a vaccine to end that disease as we know it. My research team and I did a fantastic job.

You were a Harvard undergraduate and you earned your doctorate at UC Riverside’s world-renowned Timothy P. White Medical School. What were your experiences like as a student?

As a student, I was never really one of the popular kids. I simply devoted all of my time to my studies and tried to learn as much as I could.

Did you enjoy your time at UCR?

Absolutely. Studying at UCR was better than Harvard. No other school in the world has the kinds of scientific resources that this university has. BCOE, CNAS and SoBA have simply been well-funded.

Speaking of BCOE, CNAS and SoBA a lot has been made about the funding of those three colleges. Some say that they’re being funded significantly more than the arts and humanities. What do you make of it?

I think that the funding of Science is more beneficial. It’s more practical and it has a direct impact on society. I agree with the choice to fund Science more than the arts and humanities.

You were instrumental in the decision to increase the funds for career-oriented colleges. Some people even blame you for starting the Great UCR Civil War. How do you respond to those criticisms?

All I did was my job. I know that my work with the malaria vaccine led to the the decision to increase funding for career-oriented college at this school, but I felt that it was necessary. I couldn’t control the fact that CHASS students—who are now HASSLE (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Liberal Education) students—would rebel and start a feud with the other colleges as a means to seek revenge for their lack of funding.

The sole purpose of my research was to create a vaccine for malaria. I succeeded. I also wanted to increase the funding of Science. I succeeded in that, too. What happened afterward was not under my control. I didn’t want a war to break out.

So you don’t feel any guilt for what happened?

I do a little, but there’s only so much blame I can put on myself. I didn’t intend to start a massive feud between UC Riverside’s colleges. I was just doing my job.

After the start of the UCR Civil War, and even to this day, I am reminded of a quote by the great scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his reaction to the launch of the first nuclear bomb. He quoted from the Bhagavad Gita and said, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I think I know what he must have felt like. Oppenheimer was just doing his job and working in the name of Science. He never intended to hurt others. I think I’m in that same spot right now.

So what now? Where do you go from here? Will you still be involved in biological engineering?

I think I should. What my research team and I did was something great. Like I said, the aftermath was not under my control. I would love to continue doing further research to help others.

Like what?

My team and I are currently working with the Livestrong Foundation to finally find a cure for cancer. Just imagine it: UC Riverside—the university that cured cancer.

I just hope that this research doesn’t start another Civil War, too.

Last question: In all honestly, will history remember you for manufacturing a vaccine for malaria or for unintentionally starting the UCR Civil War?

I hate saying this, but I think it’s the latter. I just hope people also remember the good that I tried to do. I hope they’re not distracted by what they see on the outside. Ultimately, I consider myself a good person.

 

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