Read the Winning DRI Foundation Scholarship Essay by Tia Gordon

As a future leader, there are issues that you will face, whether it be cybersecurity, privacy, terrorism, climate changes, pandemic or general safety concerns.  What issues do you foresee as the greatest risk?  

How do you feel that your higher education institution is providing the tools that you will need to deal with these issues?

 As this is a complex issue, finding information from persons outside your immediate sphere of contacts would provide greater credibility to your response.  Please be as imaginative, insightful and pragmatic as you can.

 Facing a Pandemic as a Physician Scientist

The White House Homeland Security Council outlined the National Strategy for the Pandemic Influenza in 2005 and 2006. The National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan was a guide for the United States’ preparedness and the activities that should take place if a response was necessary. The Center for Disease Control states that the purpose was to, “stop, slow or otherwise limit the spread of a pandemic to the United States; limiting domestic spread, mitigating disease, suffering and death; and sustaining infrastructure and lessening the effects on the economy and society as a whole.” This statement holds power in that it mentions the various effects that a pandemic can have on the country if there is widespread contagion. Not only do lives become vulnerable, but there can be economic impairments as well. A pandemic is one of the greatest risks that I will face as a future physician-scientist and more importantly, one that we are all currently facing.

I clearly remember the moment my microbiology professor stood in class a few months before the Covid-19 outbreak and said, “We are due for a pandemic. Viruses constantly mutate and it is only a matter of time that a deadly virus will attack.” I immediately questioned to myself, “Okay, so if we know that a pandemic can happen at any time how do we prepare? How can individuals, our country, and other nations prepare on an international level? What do we do next?” Those thoughts lingered in my mind and it was a motivating moment for me to continue the road of my career goals. As a physician-scientist, my scope of work will go beyond the medical clinic. A significant amount of time and professional effort will go towards advancing scientific research and there is not a more perfect time to discuss not only the important role of scientific research, but the other important factors that can mitigate the risks.

There are four components that I believe are the most critical for preparedness and response to a pandemic outbreak. The government, scientists, front line workers, and the community at large. All four entities have a shared responsibility of coming together to produce the most effective response.

The U.S. Government must assemble and encourage the private and public sectors to have a preparedness strategy. Particularly, the private sector business planners should be urged to amplify their traditional notions of continuity of operations because it is guaranteed that a pandemic will test the limits of many current contingency plans. According to the National Strategy for the Pandemic Influenza, eighty-five percent of critical infrastructure resources are within the private sector, which typically have insufficient business continuity plans designed for catastrophic health emergencies. There are thirteen formerly identified critical infrastructures that are essential to our nation’s security, economy, and social stability. The sectors that provide the production of essential goods and services are the following: food & agriculture, energy, national monuments & icons, emergency services, banking & finance, information technology, chemical & hazardous materials, telecommunications, defense industrial base, postal & shipping, water, transportation, and, public health and healthcare. The critical infrastructure resources must be protected, since their destruction can lead to devastating consequences.

With today’s highly mobile population, it is safe to assume that a disease outbreak will occur simultaneously throughout the country. Without proper planning, essential services and operations will experience pandemic impacts country-wide that are available. Private sector entities should coordinate with government officials to share their planning and recovery information. More detailed internal surveillance protocols should be established to monitor the health of the workers to keep the local public health officials informed. Additionally, there should be an established process and readily available resources for infection control. These measures and improvement of communication between the private sectors and government will promote improvement in response. Private sectors have only become the main focus, since an immense amount of critical resources reside in their power. But successful pandemic preparedness demands full participation from both private and public sectors.

Scientists have the ability to do the most foreshadowing compared to the other two equally important cohorts involved in preparing for a pandemic. They do extensive research on viruses that host potential threats and could become global disasters. In February 2018, microbiologists, zoologists, and public-health experts from around the world gathered at the World Health Organization headquarters. Their purpose was to create a priority list of dangerous viruses that did not have vaccines or drugs already in development. The final list consisted of something the WHO dubbed “Disease X”; a devastating variation of existing pathogens that had not yet emerged. Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is said to be exactly what Disease X represented.

Research on highly infectious coronaviruses has been ongoing for years, but it was hard to enforce the large-scale global funding collaboration necessary to combat a coronavirus that was unknown and not an issue at the time. Although the challenges will persist, scientists must keep working to control the current infectious disease and develop medicines to prevent future viruses of all types. This is where I will come in as a future leader. Now more than ever, I aspire to work on a global level to conduct research in viruses that have pandemic-causing potential. I have been taking advantage of opportunities available at my current institution of higher education which is providing me with the tools to teach me what it takes to be a scientist. I am learning the critical topics in the classroom while practicing my research skills in my second research laboratory. We study Akirin, a recently found protein that my Principal Investigator, Dr. Scott Nowak investigated at Johns Hopkins University during his doctorate studies. My next step is to study microbiology or virology at a world-renowned MD/PhD program with a goal to participate in the non-stop aggressive research that goes into infectious diseases.

In addition to the work that must be done for pandemic preparedness, there must be advocates to ensure that it remains a priority. The risk of a pandemic can be easy to dismiss before it occurs, because it is hard to accept that such a thing will happen to us. The frontline workers should recognize that they can play an important role in advocating for up-to-date contingency plans. This requires strong leaders to ensure the proper actions are taking place beforehand and I am committed to bring alertness to this aspect of pandemic preparedness. Throughout my leadership roles on campus, I have discovered the importance of being able to address situations with steadiness and have realized the best way to get to that point is through preparedness, planning, and thinking with a “what if” mentality. Being a Supplemental Instruction Leader has helped me significantly when it comes to being the thought leader I feel I am today. It requires me to guide students through review sessions and all the planning is independent. The students depend on me for help, so I make sure that I am building the gap between what the professor is teaching and how the students can best retain the information. This mirrors the communication bridge that is necessary between government officials and medical office management. Frontline workers are heroic and by any means should rightfully direct their workplace to be a well-suited environment in the event of a pandemic. My obligation will be to push for the storage of necessary equipment, pandemic training that every employee should receive, and the creation of protocol guides that explain the proper sanitation standards.

As we all face the unprecedented times of Covid-19, there is no better occasion for the discussion on the importance of the immense risk of a global pandemic. It takes a village, in global terms, to defeat and fend off these biological threats. All in all, the work must be ongoing and a collective effort. Again, actions must take place before, during, and after the pandemic strikes. My simultaneous passion for research and patient care has driven me to my desire to contribute to groundbreaking research and be a leading advocate for pandemic preparedness in the clinical setting. It is with much hope that working on multiple aspects of emergency health preparedness and linking together with organizations like Disaster Recovery Institute International will allow me to contribute to the greater good of the country and entire world.