This story is from UCLA Today, a discontinued print and web publication.

10 Questions for David Jentsch

David Jentsch, an associate professor of psychology who researches the neuroscience of mental disorders such as schizophrenia in a quest for new treatments, was awakened by the sound of a loud bang in the early morning hours of March 7 and discovered the car outside his home was in flames. His suspicions were confirmed a few days later when anti-animal research extremists claimed responsibility as part of their criminal harassment directed at UCLA researchers who utilize lab animals. In response, Jentsch became a driving force behind UCLA Pro-Test, a group of faculty, staff and students formed to educate the public about animal research. The group is planning an April 22 rally, starting at 11:30 a.m. at the corner of Westwood and LeConte. Here, Jentsch answers questions via e-mail.

Why did you decide to form UCLA Pro-Test?

After the firebombing of my car, which was intended to intimidate me into ceasing my research activities, I talked with many people on campus who shared my distress over the incessant harassment. I started to realize that the attack wasn’t really directed at me; it was directed at the entire university community. Whether you agree with the use of animals in research or not, these brutal assaults are an attack on the ideals of scholarly and independent research that we all strive to undertake or support. I decided that a community response was required to address the chilling brutality of the extremists, and I began the process of putting together the UCLA Pro-Test group.
What do you hope to achieve with this campus rally on April 22?

My goals for the rally are twofold. First and foremost, I hope to diminish the feelings of frustration and helplessness that the UCLA community feels as a consequence of these attacks on its basic foundation. Through solidarity, we will eliminate the feeling that any one of us is on his or her own. Second, I hope to make it clear to the broader community that UCLA is home to a large network of dedicated, conscientious individuals whose sole goal is to contribute positively to science and human health through tireless research work. I think it is important to remind society of the very critical and irreplaceable role our university plays in advancing the biomedical sciences. I respect the rights of people to hold different points of view. On the other hand, I don’t respect the perspective held by some that their point of view trumps all others and that violent actions are a means to achieving their singular view of the way that society should operate. 

Besides you, who else is helping to organize UCLA Pro-Test? Is this a grassroots organization?

UCLA Pro-Test is an organization open to any person who thinks that society benefits from biomedical research and feels that the welfare of our community is at risk if a few misguided individuals “hijack” the research agenda of America’s universities. Its membership includes UCLA undergraduate and graduate students, staff, administrators and faculty. We also welcome members of the community who resonate to the issue of continuing to promote developments in human health and welfare through regulated, ethically sound research.
Was the firebombing of your car a kind of wake-up call for you? Did you feel safe before your car was firebombed? What about now?
The wake-up call for me came when my closest colleagues and friends were brutally attacked in similar fashion. Though I knew I was a likely “next target,” I lived as normally as I could and pursued my teaching and research without looking over my shoulder. Obviously, now I feel much more at risk of further violence, but I will not allow intimidation and brutal, thuggish acts to deter me from doing what I believe contributes positively to our society.

Have the extremists tried to intensify their attacks on you since you have gone public with UCLA Pro-Test?

In the days since we went public with Pro-Test, I have received e-mails so obscene that it would shock the sensibility of any common-sense individual. I have read web postings and blogs that advocate my murder. I have watched the same happen to my colleagues. The level of brutality that these extremists exhibit (and seem to relish) is difficult to describe, but it only increases my resolve to press forward.
What other reactions have you had? Have you received any expressions of support?
I have received countless e-mails from colleagues all over the world, expressing their support and appreciation for our activities. I have received dozens of unsolicited e-mails from non-scientists around the country who feel the impact of biomedical research on their well-being. Each of those messages, along with the hugs and support of my UCLA colleagues, has been humbling. It would not be possible to undertake this without their support.

Are you interested in debating animal extremists?
Stated simply, no. I do believe that UCLA has an obligation to confront difficult and controversial topics in an open way, but discussions and “debates” about the merits of animal research should be conducted only with legitimate animal rights advocates who repudiate violence as a means to an end and only in an open forum where we can engage the local community who will ultimately decide the fate of biomedical research through their voting power. Indeed, animal rights extremists do not want to engage in open, moderated debates because the majority of members of our society recoil from these extremists' antisocial behavior and believe that basic biomedical research has contributed directly to positive developments in human health and welfare.
How do you respond to their argument that the research you do can be done without animal testing?

This simply is not true, though I wish it were. I wait for a world where a technology exists that will allow us to monitor the basic biology of the human brain non-invasively; if it did, we could make profound steps toward the treatment of human mental illness. Though some such technologies exist (e.g., brain scans, EEG), their level of resolution is simply not good enough to tell us the real details about how mental disorders arise. They do not provide us a window into the biochemical processes that go awry in schizophrenia or addiction, and consequently, research in animals that gives us that exceptional resolution at a molecular level is required.
Do you encourage other biomedical researchers who use animals in their work to publicly stand up with you and perhaps put their own families at risk?

It is perverse that people may have to consider choosing between their scientific work and the health of their children and/or family. Only the sickest of minds would threaten (even indirectly) the health of a family member or friend of a researcher because of his or her work. Personally, I believe that we can avoid placing people in a situation where they have to make this choice by enhancing security for individuals at risk and by reassuring the broader society that everyone suffers when research is attacked and inhibited.
Do you expect confrontation on April 22? How will you handle that if it occurs?

I do not expect a confrontation during our April 22 rally. It is certainly our goal to avoid any direct interaction and confrontation. Our rally is not intended to repudiate the violent extremists; it is intended to promote biomedical research and to support those involved in this very difficult and lifesaving line of work. While the extremists may hope to have a confrontation, I have every confidence in the ability of law enforcement to ensure the safety and welfare of all attendees.
Read a followup story about the rally.
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