Illustrated portrait of Shelia West
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Sheila West, PharmD ’71, PhD, arrived at UCSF at a pivotal time for the university, the city, and the world.  

“Coming into San Francisco in 1967 and living three blocks north of Haight-Ashbury, I think it’s safe to say we probably were the most out-there pharmacy class,” says West. “My fellow students and the political atmosphere at the time shaped me in a way that made my career path clear.”  

That path eventually led to her appointment as the vice chair for research at the Wilmer Eye Institute and the El-Maghraby Professor of Preventive Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University. It also led to her being named the UCSF School of Pharmacy Alumni Association’s 2023 Alumna of the Year. And it led to her making a huge impact on the profession’s understanding of the prevalence of eye disease and on ways to improve eye health around the world.

Clicking with Chemistry 

One of four sisters whose parents encouraged them to pursue their passions, West spent most of her childhood in Southern California before moving to Northern California for high school, where science really took hold of her.  

“I took a chemistry class that I just loved,” she says. “It was logical. It made sense. I loved solving puzzles and thinking through something that had a logical conclusion.”  

Unfortunately, a professor during her undergraduate years at UC Santa Barbara discouraged her from going into the subject that excited her most – academic chemistry – suggesting that for a woman at the time, that field was incompatible with having a family. So West headed to UCSF with the intention of using chemistry in the context of pharmacy, figuring she’d most likely work in a hospital pharmacy.  

Once she was at UCSF, she found faculty members who were devoted to the field but also engaged in the world, politics, and justice – such as the late Leslie Bennett, PhD, then vice chancellor of academic affairs and a professor of physiology. West and her classmates held wide-ranging group discussions in Bennett’s home, and he provided mentorship that extended well beyond West’s student days.  

Yet hearing about the experiences of pharmacy clinicians, especially women at the time, West realized the field might not be right for her.  

“I don’t take orders very well,” she says. “I think that realization made me consider going into academic research, where I could build my own program.” 

She began by studying physician prescribing habits, work that led her to pursue a PhD in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins.

“I thought, this is it,” she says. “This is where I can make a big contribution.”

Promoting Public Health and Influencing Lives 

Her first husband also worked in public health, and they spent time in the Philippines, where a colleague was an ophthalmologist who studied eye diseases. He convinced West that there was underexplored work to be done in the field. 

“I don’t even like eyes,” she remembers thinking. But she saw a future in them. “It was a time when very little was happening with public health in ophthalmology. It’s exciting when you can come into a field and be a pioneer.” 

A career-defining study, the two-decade Salisbury Eye Evaluation project, looked at the effects of sunlight and other factors on the eyesight of a multiethnic population in Maryland. This work branched off into many other fruitful directions. It led to essential work, for example, on the effects of smoking on eye health. West has continued working internationally in Asia, Europe, and all over Africa. 

In addition, she influenced many up-and-coming scientists – including her own daughter, Alison Rebman, MPH, who was born in the Philippines and often traveled with West internationally. Rebman is now director for clinical and epidemiological research at the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center. 

A former student, Bonnielin Swenor, PhD, MPH, now an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and the director of the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center, says West was an influential mentor as she pursued her MPH and PhD, and beyond. “During those years, I was not just working toward graduate degrees but learning how to navigate life with visual impairment,” Swenor says. “While always given with a dose of love and understanding, she pushed because she had a vision of myself that I did not yet see.” 

Another mentee, Ellen Freeman, PhD, now a professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa, notes that West played a key role in instilling in her the confidence to pursue a PhD and an academic career. “She gave me just the right balance of criticism versus encouragement,” Freeman says. “I often think back to how she mentored me when I mentor my own students today.” 

When West learned of the alumna of the year honor, her first reaction was surprise. “Because I didn’t make a career in pharmacy,” she says. “But the second thought was ‘Good on you, UCSF,’ to recognize that you have given a solid foundation to people to use in multiple fields. I’m proud of the background and the foundation I was given – and I’ve used every bit of it.”