Connecting with Dr. K

by LAUREN A.R. TOMPKINS Comments: 0

I remember the day I got the call from Dr. K inviting me to an interview. I had just graduated from The College of Wooster, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, and knew little about having a real job in the real world. Yet, there I was, in amazed disbelief that I would soon be interviewing for – not just any job – THE job, the one I wanted most but was surely unqualified for, or so I thought, especially since it was the heart of the financial crisis of 2008, so the job market was competitive, if not virtually obsolete. It was all so surreal, almost too good to be true, but some experiences live up to their potential.

I got the job. Evidently, my persistence was key, as I’d called and emailed, again and again, until I got through to an actual human being. Little did I know that person would be the chief himself, Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian, principal investigator in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Soon I would join the ranks of dedicated scientists working collectively towards the goal of human health.

On the day of the interview, I had to pass inspection at the NIH Visitor Center to gain access to campus, involving a low-level background check while my car was swabbed for the presence of explosives. I knew that I was witnessing the well-oiled bureaucratic machine – however flawed it may be – and I felt truly, ideally American. On the other side of those tall, black iron gates surrounding the campus, there was a tangible energy. I had always wanted to do something important, and this felt like the place to do it. In meeting Dr. K for the first time, I knew that this job was my opportunity to do good work in a big way. I would be managing his international vaccine program. The program aimed to promote the self-sustainable production of low-cost (sometimes free) vaccines in developing countries where the burden of disease is greatest. The best part was that these vaccines would save the lives of children, our greatest hope.

Anyone who knew Dr. K would describe him as brilliant, humble, and genuinely kind. He didn’t just have “colleagues”; he made an effort to get to know the people around him as best he could. When it came to participants of a study, to him they were first and foremost people. He would stay on after collecting samples to play Ping-Pong or chat, and these experiences were important to him. This kindness is what made Dr. K so special, as a researcher and friend.

Dr. K was a pioneer and superstar in virology. He and his colleagues discovered norovirus and hepatitis A virus at a time when medical virology was beginning to flourish with discovery. He contributed to over 450 publications and 60 patents, and was awarded the prestigious Sabin Gold Medal in 2005. Perhaps most important, he invented the first rotavirus vaccine, which protects infants and young children from infectious gastroenteritis. So many accomplishments and yet he never lost his humility, never felt like he was owed anything, and in fact, he hated being in the spotlight. What he wanted was to help children, and that’s what he did.

In 2003, Dr. K worked with the NIH to develop an international rotavirus vaccine program, which licensed his technology to manufacturers in developing countries for local, self-sustainable production. The ultimate goal was to provide vaccination at low-cost or for free. Rotavirus vaccines are given to infants to prevent or drastically limit infection, which would otherwise lead to gastroenteritis and dehydration. What many don’t know is that rotavirus infection is preventable, yet causes over 200,000 childhood deaths a year, primarily in India, countries of Africa, and other developing regions. This number is roughly half of what it was before the introduction of widespread immunization programs such as Dr. K’s and those of the World Health Organization. Dr. K’s philosophy was that no child should die from a preventable disease, and cost shouldn’t be an impediment to vaccination.

I worked closely with Dr. K as a team of two, in which my role was to perform quality control and stability assays on new formulations, provide guidance in the laboratory, specifically with respect to our established protocols, and complete various administrative duties. The program was large and still growing, so we had our hands full. One day, we received some on-site photographs from a licensee conducting a clinical trial in Ghana. There were dirt roads and thatched roof huts, fierce sunlight in a cloudless sky, a smiling young nurse providing a dose of the vaccine, and an infant cradled in her mother’s arms receiving that dose. I knew I would never meet the child, never know how she would grow or whom she would become, but the thought that we may have helped give her a chance at life moved me to tears. This photo hangs framed by the front door in my home, so I pass by it every day.

My time at the NIH was one of both professional and personal growth. I fell in love with virology and switched career paths from medical school to graduate school. I met the love of my life and enjoyed listening to conversations between him and Dr. K about baseball - growing up in the Bronx, Dr. K always wanted to throw the first pitch at a Yankees game. I also conducted research that led to a first-author publication, “Epidemiology and Evolution of Rotaviruses and Noroviruses from an Archival WHO Global Study in Children (1976-79) with Implications for Vaccine Design” found here. Under the co-mentorship of Dr. Kim Green and Dr. Karin Bok, always my friends and supporters, we investigated the diversity of subtypes of rotaviruses and noroviruses in a global study of infectious gastroenteritis previously conducted in conjunction with the World HealthOrganization. The samples collected for this study were originally analyzed using technologies available at the time to pinpoint regions of the world where these newly discovered infectious agents cause disease. Using more current, sensitive methods, we re-analyzed the study samples to better understand the history of these viruses, which informs vaccine design strategies and epidemiological trends. This publication helped my acceptance to UNC, one of the most well funded academic research institutions.

I remember the day I got the call when Dr. K passed away unexpectedly. It was his heart, which was seemingly too big for this world. I was in line buying lunch at a hospital cafeteria at the University of North Carolina, where I was a newbie graduate student. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows what this moment felt like. I didn’t just lose a mentor – one who taught me not only about science and medicine but also patience and resilience, who stood by me through good times and bad, who showed me what’s possible when science and compassion join forces – I lost more than a mentor, I lost a dear friend and my hero.

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