If you're a professional in the public health arena, then your Rock Star, Hall of Fame, Living Legend seminar speaker might be the guy who led the global effort to stamp out smallpox. So when the inaugural Public Health Research @ Maryland event kicked off in College Park on April 4, a packed room of nearly 200 students, professors, and researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and College Park (UMCP) sat rapt as Donald A. Henderson, MD, MPH, recounted the inside stories of the decade-long battle to use vaccines to rid the world of a deadly, devastating disease.
The daylong event, which featured research poster presentations, networking roundtables, and other forums with Henderson, will be held in Baltimore next year. It is held under the auspices of the Collaborative School of Public Health, which combines College Park's School of Public Health and the Master of Public Health Program, part of the School of Medicine's Department of Epidemiology & Public Health in Baltimore. It is a program of the University of Maryland: MPowering the State initiative.
Henderson's keynote address, "Smallpox: Death of a Disease ... an Historic Saga," included background on the disease, previous attempts to eradicate other diseases, and some of the geopolitical issues that had to be overcome to make the smallpox battle succeed. He said he got the Cold War-era job in part because, since the program was widely expected to fail, Soviet officials wanted an American at the helm so that this country would take the blame.
Through hard work, diligence, and good science, and maybe some luck, the program succeeded. And Henderson, dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and distinguished scholar at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, told the public health scholars in the audience that many challenges remain for them to tackle.
The Maryland researchers are already hard at work. Of the 101 posters presented, 40 percent represented research that was completed with federal funding, 15 percent received state and university funding, and 10 percent received foundation money.
Dozens of UMB researchers and administrators made the Beltway-to-Beltway trip for at least part of the Public Health Research @ Maryland event. Aruna Panda, BVSc, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine, said, "There is a lot of interaction" among colleagues from the two universities.
She noted that researchers at her lunch table found they had a common interest in Alzheimer's research, but hadn't met until they happened to sit down together. And she was able to offer her expertise in vaccine development to researchers in infectious diseases. "I think [the conference] is very effective," she said.
Bruce Anderson, PharmD, director of the Maryland Poison Center at the School of Pharmacy, was also enthusiastic about the event. Like pretty much everyone else, he was fascinated by Henderson's lecture, but also came across a colleague at UMCP whose expertise in mapping gave him ideas about how to improve the Poison Center's data collection and reporting.
"It could really help us get more meaningful information about which areas of which jurisdictions the calls come from," Anderson said. "There's a lot of value to this conference."