Les Roberts – “Day 10: Leaving Columbia to be at peace with Columbia”

Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – October 14th, 2014

Day 10: Leaving Columbia to be at peace with Columbia

I am constantly struggling with being an academic at a time when there is work to be done in the world. There have been maybe five occasions in my life (e.g. detected a measles outbreak that had killed 1,500 kids and saw my local partners stomp it out, showed that a vaccine was working fine in spite of all appearances to the contrary…) for which I am quite sure hundreds of deaths were averted because I was there at that moment. I have not had anything close to these experiences since coming to academia full-time eight years ago.

There is a lot that’s appealing and a lot that’s appalling about academia. Imagine two young people come to the University trying to make an Ebola vaccine as a next career chapter. One comes up with a cheap safe vaccine with 90% efficacy after 10 years using $100 M and with 100 publications about the Ebola vaccine. The other comes up with an equally effective, cheap and safe vaccine with only $1 M and 10 similar publications along the way. By virtually every other measure within society, the second efficient researcher would be called good and the first would be considered at least inefficient or maybe even a self-promoting parasitic slouch… But in academia, it is just the opposite! (There might be one or two other downsides).

But the appealing part is the students. It is the appealing part when they are in school but it is the really appealing part when they are launched into the field. I had dinner last night with Bronwyn Nichol (PFMH ’12). She is here with UNICEF working on social mobilization. It is frustrating and trying work as communications people are running the show and the health agenda often seems to have been overtaken. It was so great to see her and see how after just a couple years in Chad (with the Carter Center) and Jordan, she has become so well rounded in terms of understanding the alignment of management, programs and objectives. She is here via the Canadian Government and at the end of this gig, she will be able to have all her student loans paid off…Something on many of your minds, I suspect.

At dinner, we saw and spoke to one of my former Hopkins students who has been heading the CDC team in Kenema. The outbreak is largely under control up there now and this student, Muireann, has been one of the loudest voices articulating why this district has done so well. The night before, another former Hopkins student who works with the International Rescue Commitee (IRC) health unit was at Laura Miller’s house when I went there for dinner. (Thus, four former students and Susan Purdin in two nights!) Laura (PFMH ’11) has been here over three years and has faced some reluctance from her HQ to take on clinical roles. However, the IRC President, David Miliband, was out here last week and they now have embraced treatment (a figurative expression) wholeheartedly. In just the perfect process of partnering, IRC is going to pair its logistics and operational capacity with a local British group who has been working in the hospital here for a couple years and are going to start opening tent-based holding facilities next to health posts around the city. It is a different model than the one the UN is pushing for in rural areas but it makes complete sense for Freetown. That Laura has been here for years, knows everyone and is brilliant but modest makes her the perfect person to make this happen. I am sure that in the years ahead this Ebola chapter will be for her the satisfying experience that stopping those Congolese measles outbreaks was for me all those years ago.

Thus, ironically, taking a leave from Columbia to dash off and do something quite unrelated to what I teach and research has brought me more satisfaction and peace with my academic life than most anything else in the past eight years. The idea that the Program on Forced Migration and Health has sprinkled other Laura Millers out there – individuals who will hopefully never be quite so tested and who will have more subtle successes – is very comforting.



5 thoughts on “Les Roberts – “Day 10: Leaving Columbia to be at peace with Columbia”

  1. (You don’t know me, but a mutual colleague referenced me to your blog.) THANK you for providing a genuine voice of applied learning in what must be harrowing field conditions. We train students to think through these situations,but rarely do we model them, once we have landed in academia. My thoughts are with you and the legion of providers and volunteers, and please know that your blog is helping many of us focus on the reality in ways we could not otherwise access. I imagine that it takes a huge amount of amount of energy at the end of a hugely busy work day to write it all down, to find an intenet connection, etc.– so, again, thank you!


  2. Hi Les
    Great to hear about you and your fantastic work from Mary Grace. I am so proud and at the same time very envious that you, as a researcher and a teacher, are making all these great contributions. My prayers and thoughts are with you. I am sure none of this would have been possible without the support and sacrifice of your wife. God bless both of you.


  3. Hello – you don’t know me but I was referred to your blog by a friend of mine. I work at UNDP (human rights lawyer), but am only an interested individual as I am not (currently) involved in the UN’s response to the Ebola outbreak. Thank you for writing a candid, on-the-ground perspective of what’s going on. It’s great to have some first hand information not filtered through media sources. I will keep checking back here for new posts. Good luck and thank you for fighting the good fight.


  4. Les, this is your colleague Heather from Career Services at the Mailman School. I find the work you do, both as a professor and as a public health leader in the midst of this horrible epidemic, to be so incredibly inspiring. Just know that your colleagues and students are thinking of you and hoping you will save lives and also stay safe.


  5. I second that! I am currently in a global health course and on my way to an MPH and was directed to your blog as a source of real news on what is occurring during this Ebola crisis. It is nice to get the facts, regardless of how hard they are to hear.


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