Connie Schmaljohn

Position: Senior research scientist, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)

Best known for: Since she was a girl, Schmaljohn knew she wanted to help save lives. More than 30 years ago, she became an Army research scientist, working on vaccines for diseases that afflict members of the military overseas. Now an internationally recognized expert on hantaviruses and hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, Schmaljohn uses molecular biology tools to develop and test vaccines for a range of viruses.

Her expertise enabled her and her colleagues to identify the virus causing an explosion of cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the Southwest in the 1990s. Previously, the sometimes fatal respiratory illness had only been associated with kidney failure diseases in Asia and Europe and was not known to cause disease in the Western Hemisphere. Schmaljohn’s Army laboratory works on two types of vaccines: those that protect against medical infectious diseases and those that defend against agents that could be used as weapons in biological warfare.

Researchers there were the first to start testing DNA vaccines for biodefense using a short electrical burst. The first study of this electroporation method dispensed two vaccines for hantaviruses in a clinical study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The next study will deliver the vaccine to the skin instead of muscle, a less invasive, less painful method.

Government work: Schmaljohn joined USAMRIID in 1980 as a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow, moving on in 1983 to become a research scientist in the Virology Division. She was chief of the Molecular Virology Branch from 1992 to 2006, as well as a research coordinator for the Medical Infectious Diseases Research Program between 1997 and 2006. In 2006, she was selected as a senior technical scientist.

Motivation for service: Schmaljohn set her eyes on medical research as a career goal when she was a child. After completing her doctorate in virology, she visited several academic and government laboratories to interview for postdoctoral positions. When she saw USAMRIID, she knew it was the only place for her. She said the top-quality facilities and scientists and the possibility of studying important human diseases provided her the opportunity she sought to make a difference in human health.

Biggest challenge: Researchers work in high-containment laboratories. Not only must all the tasks be carried out slowly and deliberately when wearing “spacesuits,” or positive pressure suits, but researchers must follow voluminous regulations to make sure the pathogens are not released accidentally into the environment. Sequestration and furloughs have taken a toll on employee morale. She, too, has been furloughed.

Quote: “The work that we do at USAMRIID is critical for protecting not only our service members, but also the general public from the most deadly diseases known to humankind. I feel an enormous sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished over the years. The many vaccines, diagnostic tools and therapeutic drugs that our scientists have developed have unquestionably saved many lives.”

— From the Partnership
for Public Service

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