Patrick Lammie, PhD, chief scientist for The Task Force’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, was recently honored with two prestigious awards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for his significant contributions to public health.
Lammie received the William C. Watson, Jr. Medal of Excellence, which is CDC’s highest honor, and the Charles C. Shepard Science Award for lifetime scientific achievement. The Watson Medal of Excellence is named for the CDC’s former deputy director and one of The Task Force’s founding members.
Before joining The Task Force full-time in 2017, Lammie was a senior staff scientist in CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria where he focused on lymphatic filariasis (LF), an infection that can lead to disfigurement and disability. During his 28-year career at CDC, Lammie made significant contributions to our understanding of LF, which have helped programs for the treatment and prevention of the infection. He also has been instrumental to the LF elimination program in Haiti.
Global efforts to eliminate LF have cured or prevented more than 97 million cases of the disease since 2000. An estimated 120 million people are still burdened by LF, but the disease is expected to be eliminated as a public health problem by 2025.
Lammie has published more than 185 papers on a wide range of research areas. His papers on epidemiology and laboratory safety won numerous CDC and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Honor Awards.
At The Task Force, Lammie provides technical and strategic oversight to projects dedicated to the global elimination of LF and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
In the following Q&A, Lammie shares his journey from studying parasites at the University of California at Berkeley to becoming a leading contributor to NTD elimination efforts.
How did you catch the “science bug?”
I was always interested in science. I was introduced to the study of parasites as an undergraduate at Berkeley and I thought they were fascinating organisms, and so the “hook” of the science bug was set early on.
What is it about parasites that you find fascinating?
Parasites can adapt to live for very long times inside their hosts, and that includes people. It’s really interesting to me that the parasites have developed so many different strategies to avoid the sophisticated immune response we have. Despite our natural defenses against them, they persist and continue to reproduce and infect new hosts. It was curiosity about those types of survival strategies that led me to pursue the work I do.
How has your role evolved over the course of your career?
I started work with a laboratory focus, exploring somewhat esoteric questions about the biology of the parasites that cause LF and the immune responses they trigger inside their hosts. In my work at CDC, I translated that interest into field research with a programmatic component. Because I was helping country programs to eliminate LF, I became much more focused on practical questions related to understanding these infections – how they are transmitted and how we can mobilize public health resources to control them. You need the same skill sets to help solve both kinds of problems, so I think I still have a foot in both the laboratory and the public health worlds.
What are the epiphany moments that helped shape LF elimination programs over time?
Fieldwork done by many people has helped to build a solid foundation of research that informed country programs on how to try to eliminate LF: the development of new diagnostic tests, the discovery that single-dose combination medication could treat the infection, and the understanding that we can use those tools on a population-wide scale to try to interrupt transmission of the parasite. All of these events cemented my personal commitment to this work and helped us all move forward in LF elimination efforts.
Describe your current role with The Task Force’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center in no more than three sentences.
I primarily facilitate the work of others involved with the control and elimination of NTDs. I help make sure that project leaders and partners have the information and tools they need to carry out their work. The research projects I oversee test new tools and strategies to control and eliminate NTDs.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current role overseeing new tools and strategies to eliminate NTDs?
Helping to solve challenges that country NTD programs are facing as they work to eliminate NTDs is fulfilling. A personal reward comes from helping the countries and the World Health Organization to develop solutions to those problems. My contributions have been no greater than anyone else working on that effort—whether a drug distributor working in the community, the program managers who work at the country level, or the district health officer who ends up being involved with a mass drug administration in his or her district to treat NTDs. The people in this field all want to bring benefit to those who are suffering from diseases that arguably shouldn’t be around anymore.
What are some lessons you have to share with young researchers and those just starting out in global health?
I think that one of the great lessons that you can learn is not to fear defeat. When something doesn’t work, that’s expected in science. We are less used to thinking about failure in a public health context. But that’s ok, as long as we learn from the failure and can think about what we would do differently or better the next time around. I’ve certainly had opportunities on many levels to learn from failure. There’s no harm in trying new strategies. When they work, great. When they don’t work, try something else.