Co-founders of Bringing Law Into Science & Society (BLISS)
Armbien: Allaa and I met on the first day of Berkeley Law’s pre-orientation. We quickly recognized our shared background as scientists who come from immigrant families, and immediately began collaborating on our vision to combine science and law to uplift historically marginalized communities. During law school, we founded Bringing Law Into Science & Society (BLISS), established BLAST-Hawai’i, and pursued other projects through the Berkeley Technology Law Journal (BTLJ), the UN Human Rights Council, and Legal Clinics. And the results have been phenomenal!
Armbien: I have always wanted to be a scientist. I grew up by the sea in the Philippines, and being surrounded by fascinating sea creatures ignited in me a curiosity for how living things function.This led me to pursue my Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology here at UC Berkeley. My work focused on the molecular mechanisms of embryo development; my goal was to understand and prevent congenital disorders like muscular dystrophy. During graduate school, I discovered my life’s purpose: to advocate for equitable allocation of research funding and to ensure equitable access to science education. I was dissatisfied with how poorly research programs actually benefit communities of color, which is a direct outcome of science education and careers being so inaccessible. So I decided to go to law school and pursue science policy.
Allaa: My parents immigrated from Sudan, so I grew up always aware of health disparities. That led me to pursue my undergraduate degree in public health. After that I did a master’s in environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins where I concentrated in toxicological sciences and epidemiology, which is the science of tracing diseases. I was awarded the Presidential Management Fellowship program STEM track where I worked as a health scientist on remediating Superfund sites at the Environmental Protection Agency. I was working on a really contentious Superfund site where we wanted to pursue a criminal investigation on the polluters’ environmental consultants’ scientific methods and we needed evidence that would stand up in court. That’s when I realized I needed to do more than just the science. I decided to go to law school so I could be a bigger part of the solution to these problems.
Allaa: We both have a really strong commitment to the communities we come from and recognize the differences in the resources that are allocated to different groups of people in different parts of the world. Our science backgrounds give us a unique perspective to be able to see that combining science and law can lead to innovation and equity. But there is an extreme disconnect between science and law.
Armbien: The whole way of thinking as a scientist vs. lawyer can be so opposite yet complementary. In law and policy we are encouraged to think broadly, whereas in science we are trained to think extremely narrowly. In addition, law is rooted in precedent, while science thrives at the cutting edge. The strength of law is that it doesn’t change very much; you do things that happened before. Science is the complete opposite. The scientific method is about disproving your hypothesis, and you adopt a new paradigm when evidence-based research calls for it. Law is based on judicial opinions. That’s a human being, totally subjective. Science is data-based, less open to interpretation. I think lawyers don’t know much about what scientists do and scientists don’t know much about what lawyers are doing either, but their work is critically interrelated and complementary.
Allaa: We founded Bringing Law Into Science & Society (BLISS) to be a bridge that allows scientists to learn about law and lawyers to learn about science and how they can benefit each other and collaborate for the good of society.
Armbien: Our goals for BLISS were to recruit people with technical backgrounds into law and to expose future lawyers to scientific topics. But more importantly, we wanted to create an environment where both sides can collaborate. Berkeley is the perfect place to do this because there are so many brilliant things happening all across the different departments on campus.
Armbien: Our first symposium was exactly that. We recruited scientists from STEM departments: molecular and cell biology, neuroscience, chemistry – we even had a nuclear engineer. We asked the scientists to give a talk about their work and its broader impact in the world. Then we paired up the scientists with law students to work together on hypotheticals. For the law students, we asked: how would you talk to your client about commercializing and patenting their thesis work? How would you help a scientist explain their work to a politician or judge who doesn’t have a science background? For the scientists, we asked: how would you describe to a courtroom why fingerprints or DNA evidence isn’t infallible? How would you advise a legislator to draft a statute is unambiguous and rooted in evidence-based research?
Allaa: Half of the attendees were law students and policy students, but the other half were scientists who were from outside the law school. It was a really special event because I think it allowed both the scientists and lawyers to understand each other’s work more. Now these law students understand why science policy has to be more dynamic than they are used to thinking about in the law and they are conversant in these important issues. And likewise, the science students can go into their professional lives understanding how difficult it can be to move the bar in the legal profession because of our system of precedence, and how important it is to have trained scientists involved in legislating and policymaking.
Allaa: In addition to connecting law students with other grad departments and other graduate students on campus, BLISS also does community outreach. For example, a group of us went to Contra Costa Community College to talk to STEM students about the intersection of law and science.
Armbien: I think most people see law and science as totally separate things. BLISS has given us the opportunity to go into different spaces and explain that not only are they synergistic, but they actually need each other. Law could use the rigor and objectivity that science has to offer, while science can really benefit from law’s broad perspective rooted in society and daily life. Science can be so far removed from what the people actually need and understand; law and policy bring that perspective. This is why together, science and law are such powerful tools for addressing inequities in society. So it’s been amazing to see the BLISS community grow not only within the law school, but also in the greater UC Berkeley and Bay Area community.