Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Meet Peter Hotez, PhD, MD, Molecular Parasitologist and Pediatrician

Today we're profiling Peter Hotez, PhD, MD, of George Washington University Medical Center. He is also President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Editor-in-Chief of Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases magazine.

1. What do you do?

I’m a pediatrician, a researcher and an advocate for the health of people around the world. This includes leading a team to develop vaccines for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) through the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative and the Schistosomiasis Vaccine Initiative. I also helped start the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an advocacy initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, where I serve as President. Additionally I do a lot of biomedical research, publish scientific papers and teach at The George Washington University Medical School where I chair the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Disease.

2. What motivates you to do advocacy?

It all started when I began visiting places in the world where neglected tropical diseases are most visible. I was struck by the devastating pathology I saw and knew something had to be done as soon as possible. I also knew that while vaccines are the long term solution, developing one takes many years and something had to be done right away. Many of these diseases are completely preventable and treatable with only a few cents. It was really just a matter of letting the global community know about it. So I started talking about the diseases that you don’t hear about as often, but are just as much to blame for trapping people in the cycle of poverty.

3. What limits your ability to do advocacy?

For me, it’s about balancing my roles and responsibilities. At Sabin, we like to say “We’re scientists. We’re researchers. And we’re advocates for a world free of needless human suffering.” There are certainly times when I wish I could do more direct advocacy because I think it’s important to speak on behalf of patients who can’t. This is why I helped create the Global Network. But I know it’s also important to keep one foot grounded in the sciences and invest in long-term solutions. I think spending time in the lab makes me more effective as an advocate because it gives me a unique perspective.

4. Do your colleagues do advocacy and outreach? Why or why not?

To be a scientist in the United States today doesn’t just mean developing vaccines. You also have to ensure your work is funded. As a result I need to spend a lot of time writing and submitting grants. There isn’t a lot of time left for advocacy so I know that many of my colleagues don’t have capacity to advocate outside of the lab.

5. Do you think outreach and advocacy is a responsibility of scientists? Should it be required?

Some scientists just aren’t made out to be advocates. But we need scientists who have the capacity to be advocates to serve as a public voice to educate people, and be able to raise awareness and impact of pressing global health issues.

6. In what ways do you reach out?

I spend a fair amount of time engaging press for interviews, profiles and op-eds. I am also the editor-in-chief of a peer-reviewed scientific journal called Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases (PLoS NTDs). So mainly [I reach out] through my writing. I engage in public speaking opportunities, speaking to both lay and scientific audiences. Finally, living in Washington, D.C. allows me to take advocacy into the political arena. I frequently visit Capitol Hill and several regulatory agencies to talk about NTDs and how the U.S. government can play a bigger role in helping control and eliminate NTDs around the world.

Me: Wow. You’re everywhere.

Dr. Hotez: No, not everywhere. We try to be strategic in how we develop vaccines and maximize access to treatments to help the world’s poorest people.

Thank you to Dr. Hotez for giving us his time via phone so we could learn more about him and his career.

This is part of the ongoing Profiling New Voices series.

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