Berkeley Changemaker is a Berkeley News series highlighting innovative members of the campus community engaged in work and research that tackles society’s most pressing issues.
Ria Sood remembers being 11 and rushed to a Palo Alto hospital after waking up one morning not being able to breathe. Bedridden in an emergency room, doctors shuffled in and out through the day trying to find ways to stop her airways from tightening.
The symptom left her lungs gasping for air.
“I was so scared,” said Sood, who frequented doctors’ offices throughout her younger years due to asthma. “This was a severe attack I had never experienced, and they weren’t helping me recover.”
One doctor, though, realized that increasing the dosage of Sood’s medication, and using a humidifier and hypoallergenic bedding in her room, would help — and it did. To see how one person could have such a positive impact on someone’s health, Sood said, motivated her to want to become a physician, too.
It’s the main reason Sood began attending UC Berkeley in fall 2019 to study biology. But as a student, Sood said her views on patient treatment have evolved. This weekend, she will graduate with an undergraduate degree in public health, a major she said has helped her delve into finding long-term medical solutions.
“Looking at disease and ailments through a public health lens offers a way to treat patients in a sustainable way,” she said. “It’s not just about, ‘What medication can I prescribe you?’ It’s more about what factors outside of your biology have impacted your health, and how we can change that.”
As the coordinator for a student-led Berkeley course that explores current social, ethical and political issues within the public health system, Sood said she was able to learn about and research prevalent health care inequities she never knew existed.
She has since conducted research into the sugar industry’s impact on obesity in the United States that won her a top Berkeley Library prize and also ran blood pressure outreach programs in her local community through the Berkeley Fung Fellowship.
“I’ve come to realize that the medical treatment and resources I received as a child were not something every child gets,” said Sood, who upon graduation will continue her studies in Berkeley’s Master of Public Health program. “And I want to help change that.”
It’s both nature and nurture
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sood grew up in Silicon Valley as the youngest of three siblings. She remembers going as a child to biology summer camps that sparked her love for science and, in particular, cardiology.
“I definitely felt very privileged growing up there,” Sood said. “Our high school actually had a biotech class. So, in public health terms, it was a great environment. We had easy access to nutritious food and spaces to exercise. … It was very rare for someone not to go to college.”
In that environment, Sood said, she didn’t need to consider how things around her could affect her overall health. When it came to the nature versus nurture aspects of health care, she felt nature was the dominant factor.
“I thought if you had healthy genetics, and you were obese or had high blood sugar, you could just decide to eat well,” she said. “Those individuals had full control over that, so they should be healthy.”
That view quickly changed for Sood in her first semester at Berkeley when she took Public Health 116. The class features lectures by public health experts who share their firsthand experiences from the field.
Glaring inequities that stood out for Sood included the lack of access minority populations had to nutritious food, issues of environmental justice that leave communities of color more likely to live near toxic waste sites and oil refineries, and the disproportionate exposure those same communities have to alcohol and sugar products.
For Sood, that information put into context how a community’s resources, or lack thereof, can affect the probability of an individual developing medical conditions like asthma, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension — which Sood’s father, an immigrant from New Delhi, has battled most of his life.
“Health is impacted by both nature and nurture.” she said. “The course really helped me to find a balance between the two, where we can treat the person instead of just looking at their disease.”
For the past year, Sood has served as the course’s co-coordinator, organizing the class curriculum and scheduling speakers. She has also managed 17 teaching assistants that hold sections for over 250 students from different disciplines across campus.
Graduating senior Esther Jung was a teaching assistant for the course for three semesters and said Sood’s enthusiasm for the course actually inspired her to change her field of study from cognitive science to public health when she was a freshman.
“Because of Ria, this course has been my favorite part of college,” said Jung, who wants to serve as a physician in marginalized communities. “And I’ve had so many other students that have shared this sentiment. Being a part of this class, and working with Ria, has ignited in me a passion for bridging gaps in health and medicine that I hope to dedicate my career to.”
Sood’s influence at Berkeley has gone beyond the classroom. Last year, as part of Berkeley’s Changemaker initiative, Sood took Writing the Change You Seek, a course developed by College Writing Programs faculty member Ryan Sloan. The class focuses on student writing as a vehicle for social change.
To explore her interest in the causes of obesity, Sood wrote a research paper that delved into how government policies enabled the sugar industry “to inject their products into the American diet.” The study, “Sugarcoating the Truth: The Sugar Association’s Impact on Obesity,” was published in the University of California’s eScholarship publication and won the 2022 Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research.
“It was shocking that sugar, something that’s so present in our lives, was something that was really pushed into our daily consumption, to profit the industry,” Sood said. “And you can track today’s obesity epidemic back to the policy changes in the 1970s that allowed this to happen.”
Berkeley Changemaker Executive Director Laura Hassner said Sood’s study “embodies changemaking at its finest.”
“As a scholar, she identified an opportunity for impact and applied evidence-based research to enact change,” said Hassner. But Sood credits Sloan, who advised her to submit the paper for publication, as being instrumental in allowing her, as an undergraduate, to feel comfortable and empowered to write about her research interests.
“Ria brought a real thoughtfulness in her research on a decades-long disinformation campaign and its impact on communities of color,” said Sloan. “She showed a cheerful lack of intimidation as she navigated a daunting range of sources, including medical journals, government reports, obscure historical accounts and deceptive magazine advertisements.”
Investing in community
For Sood, the knowledge she has acquired at Berkeley gives her a sense of urgency to give back to patients facing the very health inequities she has researched.
As part of the Fung Fellowship, a yearlong joint program between Berkeley’s School of Public Health and College of Engineering, Sood sought to address an issue she noticed while volunteering for a community blood pressure clinic in Berkeley.
“We did various blood pressure screenings for patients in the area, but there was no outreach afterward to improve patient’s long-term health,” Sood said.
Sood led a team to produce a phone-based follow-up program to address this need and aims to refine her project in the upcoming year through a partnership with Heart 2 Heart, a non-profit organization in South Berkeley working to prevent heart disease.
Fellow graduate Joelle De Leon met Sood as a teaching assistant for Public Health 116 this semester. De Leon said that as a fellow woman of color on campus, Sood motivates her to give back to her own community in Long Beach.
“In a field that is very male-dominated, I feel like my voice sometimes isn’t heard. Like I’m a wallflower,” said De Leon, who studies integrative biology and public health policy. “But as a leader, Ria has made it so accepting and welcoming for me and our team. It’s just incredibly inspiring to see someone with a very similar background as me doing the things that I want to do.”
Sood said her fundamental purpose moving forward is a “cliché. … I want to help people.”
She also hopes to build on her work and research with a big picture approach to public health by looking into ways to change government policy and food industry advertising to help support a system that invests in public health in the long-term.
“Berkeley has helped me find a balance between pursuing direct care and understanding how preventative measures can help communities that don’t receive equitable health resources,” Sood said. “With that knowledge, I know I will be able to treat and impact patients in the best way possible, moving forward.”