When Protect Our Breasts founder and executive director Cynthia Barstow, a senior lecturer in Isenberg’s marketing department, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she immediately dove into resea
POB on stairs 2021 hi-res

When Protect Our Breasts founder and executive director Cynthia Barstow, a senior lecturer in Isenberg’s marketing department, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she immediately dove into researching the disease and its relationship to the roughly 85,000 largely unregulated chemicals used in commerce. Her students were interested in her findings, especially when it became increasingly clear that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals during childhood and young adulthood probably influences breast cancer risk more than at later times of life.

“Two significant reports came out at that time," Barstow says. "First, the President's Cancer Panel report stated, 'We have grossly underestimated the role of toxins in cancers.' And second, the Institute of Medicine identified breast cancer as a life stage disease, indicating exposure up through your first full-term pregnancy can set you up for a diagnosis later in life. The latter told me it was the young women in my classes that were at risk, not their older relatives.”

Cynthia Barstow (right) and her students signed on UMass Amherst Emeritus Professor of Biology R. Thomas Zoeller as science advisor and rolled out Protect Our Breasts (POB) to publicize the links between breast cancer and chemicals in foods and products people might use every day, and to empower them to make safer choices during the most vulnerable periods of their lives. The group publishes informative blog posts explaining the latest science and shares helpful messages and promotes safer brands via social media.

POB’s goals aren’t solely health-oriented though.

“Protect Our Breasts is an innovative, experiential learning opportunity offered by the Isenberg marketing department that offers students incredible business experiences related to leadership in the areas of commerce, content and community,” says Elizabeth Miller, Marketing Professor and Department Chair. “From brand development and fundraising to consumer advocacy and education, they spread their message about the need for safer products and packaging, and avoidance of chemicals of concern in everyday products.”

Over the past decade of its existence, POB has also grown into an umbrella organization with more than 50 chapters and representatives in high schools and colleges, including at Ohio State University and Cheltingham in the U.K.; it also has campus representatives at Harvard and the University of Alabama. The UMass Amherst chapter runs separately from the parent organization, with guidance from an executive board, which consists of nine students. The science director and translators (typically from the university’s biology and biochemistry departments) review new peer-reviewed articles and turn them into blog posts and social media suggestions. The creative director determines the social media plan, and the content creators (marketing students) are assigned to create posts. The executive board members write captions and the executive director approves them for posting.

The executive board participates in trade shows to engage with brands and encourage them to make safer products, and POB currently works with 24 organic brand partners committed to safer packaging. This past fall, POB collaborated with social media influencers and natural product retailers on a brand activation promotion, and in mid-October, the group hosted a retreat for campus chapters and representatives that culminated in a gala dinner dance to celebrate POB’s tenth anniversary. The 130 guests included donors, alumni, UMass administrators, brand representatives, advisors, supporters, and students. Special guest Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm Organic, who served as the company’s CEO from 1983 until 2012, announced a surprise $10,000 donation to POB.

"This next generation of global citizens are passionate about making a difference while learning," Barstow says of her student collaborators. "I am so grateful to the Isenberg School for the opportunity to work with these exceptional young leaders for a safer and more sustainable marketplace in the future."