Our health and well-being have been hot topics this past year as the world has tackled a deadly coronavirus. Hardly a day goes by without some warning or advice being given as to how to safeguard the public’s health. To celebrate Women’s History Month, KidsPost is highlighting two women active in this effort.
Lisa Maragakis was a professional ballet dancer before becoming a doctor. But science triumphed over pointe shoes, and now she is an infection-prevention expert with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. That means protecting patients, staff and visitors from infection.
“Infectious diseases are one of the most interesting and important parts of medicine,” she told KidsPost. “Infections are one of the world’s leading causes of death, so it’s incredibly rewarding to work in a field where you can help so many people.”
The coronavirus pandemic has kept Maragakis and her team busy. She has testified at congressional hearings, done television interviews about proper mask-wearing, and she leads a team focused on the best way to help people respond to a threat that no one had any protection from when it first surfaced.
The positive news, she said, is that scientists around the world are working to come up with therapies to treat it and vaccines to prevent it. But the work won’t end there. Viruses evolve. So “if you are interested in science and health,” Maragakis said, “maybe you will join or lead the teams [that] work to prevent and respond to future infectious-disease threats.”
Using math to study diseases
A book about waterborne diseases sparked Maimuna Majumder’s interest in public health.
“My family is from Bangladesh, where annual epidemics of cholera — a waterborne disease — sicken thousands and thousands of people every year,” she said.
The book and family connection led to her first hands-on exposure to public health when, while in college, she worked at a hospital in Bangladesh to help combat waterborne diseases.
Majumder is a computational epidemiologist (epp-ih-DEE-me-oll-o-gist), someone who uses math to understand how diseases spread in time and space. She conducts research at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts.
Of all the epidemics she has worked on, the current coronavirus has been the most challenging, she said, “if only because it’s left no corner of the world untouched. We’re all trying our best to get through this, including those of us who are involved in combating it.”
Her team has been focused on it for more than a year. “We’re trying to use the data we have so far to understand how vaccinating different groups of people will impact the way that [coronavirus] spreads.”
Her inspirational message for kids: “The pandemic won’t go on forever. . . . There is light at the end of the tunnel, and when we reach it, it will be your turn to shine. . . . You are our future.”
Other trailblazing female doctors:
Mary Edwards Walker was the first female U.S. Army surgeon. Her service in the Civil War led to her being awarded the Medal of Honor, the only woman to have received it. Because she was not a commissioned officer, the medal was taken away in 1917, shortly before her death. The honor was restored 60 years later.
Susan La Flesche Picotte was the country’s first Native American physician. Born on a reservation in the Nebraska Territory in 1865, she decided to become a doctor when, at age 8, she watched an elderly woman die because a White doctor refused to care for her. He thought “it was only an Indian,” she later recalled, “and it [did] not matter.”
Jane Cooke Wright, whose father, grandfather, uncle and sister were doctors, did pioneering work using chemotherapy (drugs) to treat cancer. She worked with her father, who founded the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital in New York. During her 40-year career, which began in the 1940s, she led many teams of cancer researchers around the world.
Mary Guinan worked on some of the world’s deadliest epidemics: smallpox, AIDS and the Ebola virus disease. But in the 1970s, when she first applied to a program seeking to eradicate smallpox in India, she was told they weren’t accepting women. She persisted and later wrote about her experiences in the book “Adventures of a Female Medical Detective.”
Antonia Novello was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as U.S. surgeon general (1990 to 1993). Her public-health interests included immunization of children, warning about the dangers of cigarette smoking and underage drinking, and improving the health of minority children. She retired from the nation’s Public Health Service with the rank of vice admiral.
Regina Benjamin also served as U.S. surgeon general (2009 to 2013). Before that, she treated patients in rural Alabama, her home state. As a kid, she didn’t consider becoming a doctor because she had never seen one who was Black. It wasn’t until college that she decided on a career in medicine. Dedicated to helping those unable to afford medical care, Benjamin founded a health clinic in a village on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where she still works.