LectureHop: Hunting for Microbes and Second Chances

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the reason shaking hands is bad

Ian Lipkin will not shake your hand, but he does know how to reach out to students. The esteemed scientist and Director of The Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University who specializes in infectious diseases, spoke this past January at an event sponsored by various health-related student groups on his role as the consultant for the award-winning film Contagion. Bwog wasn’t exactly impressed with the talk , and Lipkin wasn’t too thrilled with what we had to say, either. Despite this, Microbe Maven Briana Last went back to report on round two in Wallach yesterday afternoon sponsored for an event sponsored by WiGH?, GlobeMed at Columbia, Unite for Sight, and UAID. 

Because, as Lipkin mentioned in January, “Columbia is family” to him, he decided to take up his own offer to give students what they really wanted to hear and delivered a talk yesterday on “Microbe Hunting and Pathogen Discovery in the 21st Century.” He even provided a survey for students to fill out prior to the event to understand what their questions and interests were in order to address them during his talk, which the hosts of the discussion reiterated before the professor began speaking, was “not a lecture” but a “conversation.”

Though there was perhaps less conversing than hoped–attendees were unusually quiet–the event did not fall short in showcasing the brilliance, hard work, and humor for which Lipkin is often revered. He used a powerpoint to help him trace how modern scientists have understood infectious diseases and how they spread. There were maps, which provided fascinating images of emerging infectious diseases, which can be followed by plotting global food production chains and the density of international flights. The talk also supported the assertions of those “who think of New York as the center of the world.” Diseases seem to make quite a few stops at JFK.

But scientific research can come at the cost of providing bioterrorists with a method of engineering deadly infectious diseases, as the controversy over the studies on the H5N1 virus demonstrated. Lipkin weighed in on the issue by saying that some experiments are not meant to be done when ethical considerations prove to be more important. In his view, the H5N1 studies fall into that category: “There’s nothing we’ve learned from these experiments.”

Despite the sinking feeling that the world may be doomed by the advent of killer infectious diseases, Lipkin assured his audience that rigorous scientific research provides a beacon of hope. His lab has debunked Henry Wakefield’s theory that vaccinations cause autism in children, and Lipkin extolled the preventative benefits of vaccinating salmon before they are distributed globally in the food system and the methods with which scientists have been able to stop viruses from spreading.

Though the lecture was detailed and informative, there was still one lingering question that remained for Lipkin: why does he not shake hands with people? He had the opportunity to respond during the talk’s final moments. “I can’t afford to get sick. I stopped doing it when I came back from China and I saw SARS,” he continued, “People think I’m weird, but I strongly recommend it…you’ll find you will have far fewer colds.”

 Menacing Microbe via Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    links dont work. What is this, amateur hour?

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