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A contagious interest in microorganisms:
Dr. Ian Lipkin, ’70, shapes understanding of infectious disease

Ian Lipkin,’70, recently honored by the government of China with a medal for his work to strengthen public health and protect its people from infectious diseases, attended Lab at an extraordinary time, so it stands to reason that he is no ordinary scientist. As the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, Dr. Lipkin is not only a preeminent infectious disease researcher, he also shapes health policy on an international level, using hard science to demystify viruses and advising world leaders on how to contain outbreaks and alleviate panic. His activities include serving as principal investigator for the Northeast Biodefense Center and the Autism Birth Cohort and leading a center for the World Health Organization that studies zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases.     

“When I was at Lab, our education revolved around themes,” says Dr. Lipkin. “There were a series of cultures you would work your way through—Paleolithic, Stone Age, Bronze Age . . . I had a chance to become aware of how paradigms would shift, and people would change their world views. Engineering, science, philosophy—everything we did was organized in that way. It really came alive.”

Many of his classmates were children of Manhattan Project scientists. “The emphasis on physics and genetics was extremely strong. There was excitement about the biological sciences as well.”        

That, coupled with being on the University of Chicago campus during a time of social upheaval around the Vietnam War, nurtured his attraction to risk-taking and uncertainty. “I went to Sarah Lawrence College,” which started admitting men the year he enrolled, “based on the fact that it was unusual,” he says.

At U-High, Dr. Lipkin first studied anthropology, but his interest in indigenous peoples came full circle at medical school, when he decided to study tropical diseases. After a year of “being Albert Schweitzer traveling around the jungle,” he settled on studying neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.

During his time in San Francisco, HIV emerged in the gay community.

“I was struck by the fact that something was causing so much havoc,” he says. “Nobody knew what this virus was. I became interested in the idea that these diseases appear and suddenly there would be a large number of people who were sick and no way to diagnose them. It was a difficult time, and it was transformational for me because my most important contribution has been to address the causes of outbreaks and deal with problems of that sort."

In 1999, Dr. Lipkin was the first to identify the West Nile virus in victims in New York State. And during the SARS outbreak, he developed a test to diagnose the disease, traveled to China with 10,000 test kits, and showed government leaders how it worked. It was a turning point in China’s attitude toward the disease, which had been widely regarded as a moral scourge tarnishing a country moving toward capitalism.

While in China, “I became a close friend of many high-ranking Chinese officials,” Dr. Lipkin says. “It was a catalytic moment for them. It changed their views of infectious diseases.”

Today, Dr. Lipkin leads projects on every continent, in 30 countries, investigating viruses that infect humans, animals, and agriculture. He recently took a team to Argentina at the request of the government, investigating the H1N1 virus. The finding—that the H1N1 virus was present in high percentages in people who were carriers of the bacteria strep pneumoniae—could lead to advances in treatment.  

In Senegal and Gambia, he and a colleague are researching why, worldwide, millions of children over the age of five are dying from pneumonia.

He is still attracted to the unusual: “Right now, we’ve got so many different projects,” he says. In the past two years alone, “We’ve discovered over 300 viruses.”

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