“What I tell people all the time is don’t focus on what the disease is; focus on what the methods are and be able to apply them to any health situation.”
[00:00:00] Anne: But if you become a well-rounded person that can really understand people and culture and context, it will make you a better anything in the world.
[00:00:11] Laurie: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders and independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, President of Middlebury and professor of religion.
Today’s guest is Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist who is an internationally recognized expert on emerging infectious diseases, global health, disease surveillance, and immunization. Anne is a 1992 graduate of Middlebury College and earned a master’s in public health from UCLA and a PhD from Johns Hopkins. Currently, she holds the Gordon-Levin Endowed Chair in Infectious Diseases and Public Health at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, where she directs the Center for Global and Immigrant Health.
Anne, welcome to Midd Moment. We are so delighted to have you on so many different levels. I want to begin by saying that I am talking to the Gordon-Levin Endowed Chair at UCLA in Infectious Diseases, and you have been described by Peter Hotez at Baylor as a fearless virus hunter. And I love that description. I want to be a fearless virus hunter when I grow up. And I would love to hear about how you became a hunter and what was the intellectual journey that brought you from Middlebury major in African history to being who you are now. Talk to us a little bit about how you went from A to B, and a little bit also about the fearlessness that got you there.
[00:01:49] Anne: What a pleasure to be here. And thank you so much for having me. That’s a lovely intro. And the answer is, really, my experience at Middlebury really shaped my existence in the world in so many ways and really set me on my path. So, at Middlebury, my mentor, my advisor was John Spencer. And when I came to Middlebury, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was interested in, but I took his first class, I took a class on the Middle East, on history of the Middle East, and it was fascinating to me. And so, then I immediately took a class on the history of Africa. And I just was fascinated by it. It was something that just really spoke to me.
And John Spencer was just such an incredibly charismatic and great speaker and so great with students. So, I pursued this path. I was a history major. I focused on Africa, and my thesis was on Africa. I did a several independent studies with John Spencer. I got very interested in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was then Zaire at the time. He really just encouraged me to do all of these projects and get more and more involved and more interested over time. And when it was time to graduate, what do you do with a degree in history from Middlebury, is what my dad, who is a medical geneticist, was asking me, “What would you do with a degree in history from Middlebury, focused in Africa?” And what I ended up doing was I applied to the Peace Corps. It was Mr. Spencer that really inspired me to do so. And I did. And I ended up in this perfect public health program, which was the Guinea Worm Eradication Programme in Benin in West Africa. And that really set me on my path.
When I was in the Peace Corps, I became enamored with public health. And so, I went back and I got my master’s. And then, because I’d been doing this Guinea Worm Eradication Programme, I was an eradication person and I was lucky enough to get linked up to the World Health Organization with their polio eradication program and did some work with polio eradication. And then, I went back and did my PhD at Johns Hopkins.
And when I finished my PhD, I took a job at the NIH, at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. And when they were interviewing me for the job, they said, it was a project to be able to do clinical studies all around Africa. And when they gave me this position, they said, “Listen, one of the things is…” this was in 2002, “is that one of the projects is going to be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” And that was in 2002, where it was really just at the end of the Civil War. And they thought I would pull back and say, “No, I don’t want to.” But my Middlebury thesis was on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the ascension of Mobutu, creation of Zaire as a state, and CIA intervention in the Congo crisis. So, it was a country that I’ve just been fascinated with.”
[00:05:01] Laurie: You said, of course, yes.
[00:05:02] Anne: And I said, yes. And they said, “Well, it’s the DRC, right?” And I said, “Yes, I’m in.”
[00:05:16] Laurie: I want to go back to the moment when an African history major was put in the eradication of Guinea worm program. That’s the interesting moment. I’m trying to track the fearlessness here, and I’m thinking a lot of folks would be thinking I’m a history person. How do I think about the eradication of Guinea worm, right? We hear a lot of times in the world, and certainly, in specialized fields, we hear people say, “That’s not my training. That’s not my field.” But you didn’t say that. You said, “Hey, put me in the eradication of Guinea worm program.” Did you feel at that moment that you were being put to work in a space that you had no training for? Did it feel like, “Wow, I could do this even as a history major?” How did it feel at that moment?
[00:06:10] Anne: Well, the interesting thing about Peace Corps is it’s not just about a skillset, it’s about your ability to connect with people and be able to really integrate into a village and to make a difference locally and to bring that back home when you’re done. That’s the third goal of Peace Corps. I was lucky enough that I spoke French not really well, but well enough. And that was really what landed me in this Guinea Worm Eradication Programme. At the time, this was early ’90s, it was much easier to be able to get placed in something I did. I got certified as an EMT. I did a few things. But really, the only experience I really had with infectious disease was I took a class on… it was essentially something about parasites and people, or it was the very basic class for that. And then, I took Bob Cluss’ class on the epidemiology of HIV.
[00:07:20] Laurie: Oh, wonderful.
[00:07:21] Anne: And so, I had this very positive sense of public health, even though, really, that wasn’t what we called it back then. It was man and disease, that was the class, man and disease. And then, Bob Cluss’ class as a winter-term class.
So, I had this very positive feeling towards public health that I understood. But at the time, there weren’t public health majors for undergrads. And it was a very different time. And Peace Corps, when you go into Peace Corps, they give you three months of intensive training. And so, I didn’t really know what I was in for or not in for. Peace Corps is such a unique experience, and it’s so different in so many places, so lucky to be in Benin.
And Benin, which was just this really lovely little country, we spent three months with language training, and then skillset training, to do what I was doing as a Guinea worm eradication volunteer. They basically seconded us to UNICEF and taught us how to do disease surveillance, which is essentially what I’ve been doing ever since.
[00:10:42] Laurie: Well, what I love about where you are now is that you are really tackling, as we say in our mission statement at Middlebury, the world’s most pressing problems. And so, I’m going to ask you about some of these big-picture questions, particularly related to how you think about them. So, for example, you talk about your interest being in both emerging and vaccine-preventable diseases. That’s also part of Anne the hunter. And I’m thinking, most people give their life and their life’s work to one disease and think about eradicating it, or thinking about one vaccine-preventable disease. And I really impressed that you have both there as your focus, your career focus. What’s the relationship between those two? And how do you think about both of them in relationship to each other right now in 2023?
[00:11:39] Anne: Well, what I always tell my students is that you shouldn’t be focusing on a specific disease. You don’t need to be an epidemiologist or a public health professional that specializes in a disease. It’s about your methods that should be able to be applied to any infection or any kind of public health situation. It’s really methodology.
Now, I started working in DRC right after I finished my PhD. I was lucky enough to have this project. And it was an infectious disease project, and I had been working on infectious diseases. But for me, it was really this love of DRC and this understanding I had of DRC from my undergrad degree, and then also my understanding of Africa on a very fundamental grassroots level, having lived in a village in Benin, that allowed me to think about some of these bigger problems. So, when I got to Kinshasa for the first time and I met with the dean of the Kinshasa School of Public Health and the director of the National Lab who became my closest collaborators and very close friends over the years, they started talking about what the problems were in DRC. And we just stumbled upon the issue of monkeypox, because monkeypox had been something that had been very, very rare. But as we were seeing immunity to smallpox because of the eradication of smallpox, no more smallpox vaccination, we had started to see an increase in cases. So, in fact, monkeypox was an emerging disease and also a vaccine-preventable disease. And when you think about diseases and some of these things, these are overlapping. If it was a Venn diagram, there’d be all these overlapping circles here.
And, in fact, over the years, many of the diseases that I have worked on as emerging diseases have become vaccine-preventable diseases.
[00:15:12] Laurie: That is so interesting.
[00:15:14] Anne: And what I tell people all the time, really, don’t focus on what the disease is, focus on what the methods are and be able to apply them to any health situations.
[00:15:24] Laurie: Anything, yeah. So, you’re a walking advertisement for liberal arts and sciences, in a certain way, because one of the fundamental premises of liberal learning, I think, in the classical sense, and certainly here at Middlebury, is, even though we have these forces of specialization, knowledge is connected, right? And, in your case, method connects the knowledge, whatever the disease is. You’re going to have to learn about the specifics about strep throat and its relationship to cardiac disease. Later, you’re going to have to learn about the relationship between monkeypox and other forms of disease or behaviors, etc. The basic principles, applying principles, across disciplines is what liberal learning is all about.
And the other thing that I have to comment on, because it’s so very Middlebury, is the love of place. The fact that you’re inspired by your love of DRC says everything. And, in a way, I think, when you are developing, at Middlebury, frequently, we talk about place-based experiential learning. And that’s what you did, right? DRC, you were experiential to the max, in terms of all the work that you were doing, and applied learning. And you were doing it by virtue of your love of a place and a language and a culture and the people and the particular issues that they were looking at. And it’s just a spectacular example, in a way, of what we mean by place-based experiential learning.
So, I want to just stay on that for a second, because one of the things that you’ve said about your work and others have said about your work is that you’re interested in empowering the Congolese to take control of nation’s health agenda. You’re working in a really interesting post-colonial context. And so, it’s a big question for people who work overseas and, particularly, for such a profoundly international place, like Middlebury, which is, there’s a lot of discussion these days about what it means to work in post-colonial context, what it means to be from the United States, and a relatively wealthier country, thinking about public health in less resourced environments. How do you think about this question of you don’t want to become… people talk about the white savior complex in public health, etc. You’re clearly not that. How have you developed the idea of working with folks, rather than working for folks, or doing things to systems, etc.? I’d love to hear more about how you’ve managed that really delicate balance and been so successful.
[00:18:07] Anne: I want to answer that question, but one thing I want to say, which I think is so important, and you just touched on this, about the experience at Middlebury and this experiential learning. And then, it also links to this question that you’re asking at the same time. So, I wasn’t a science major at Middlebury. Really, I took the bare minimum of science classes at the time because I really didn’t think of myself as somebody who could do science back in those days.
I identified more as a person that gravitated towards the history and English and music. History major, music minor is not necessarily what you think of, but I took a different path, and public health is so integrated. I say this all the time, it was my understanding of DRC and my understanding of… I took so many of these classes on African literature and the African history and all these special studies with John Spencer that I did. Even in the music side, I did all of this work related to African music. And it made me have this fundamental understanding of culture and people that allowed me to connect with people on a personal level. And that is really what the basis of my program in DRC is, is this deep fundamental connection with the people there and my interest in trying to understand, well, what do you need? What do you want? What can we do to make your life better? And I think that that training from being a student at Middlebury and having this just very different kind of approach as opposed to just a completely science-based approach has made all of the difference in the world.
[00:19:55] Laurie: Yeah, it’s made you a better scientist.
[00:19:57] Anne: It’s made me a much better scientist. And I say this to people all the time, become as well-rounded as you possibly can. You can always go back and take those science classes. You can always go back and do more. But if you become a well-rounded person that can really understand people and culture and context, it will make you a better anything in the world.
[00:20:17] Laurie: Absolutely.
[00:20:18] Anne: That, to me, is so interconnect. I referenced what I did for my undergrad thesis all the time.
[00:20:26] Laurie: All the time, yeah.
[00:20:27] Anne: All the time, I talk about it. It’s one of the first things I say when I introduce myself to people in Congo, that my interest and love of this country is really based on my interest and love of this country. I was so glad I could find my way to help this country through science. So, it’s all interconnected here. So, that’s the first piece of that.
And how you do global health, where you are not coming in and just doing the work or doing parachute science or colonial science is a very complicated question. I say all the time, when I went into the Peace Corps, back in the early ’90s, I was qualified to do what I did because they needed more hands and I spoke French and could learn a little bit. And they needed hands on the ground at the time, and there weren’t as many people with the skillset. Whereas, today, I think people have very different skill sets. And that’s a function of the global health training and investment in these countries. It’s made a difference now.
And so, I think it’s an interesting thing. It’s figuring out how to do this. I’m also the director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health at UCLA. And so, I’m thinking about this issue of global health all the time and where do we fit in and how do we do the science respectfully and in partnership, and constantly trying to find a new role of where we can be supportive and be allies and partners and be able to do so that is a true partnership.
So, thinking a little bit more about one of the other things that you work on that is absolutely critical to everyone, and it’s on everyone’s mind these days, is your focus on the durability of immune response. It’s one of your interesting projects. And so, I’d like to hear a little more about that. First of all, what are the projects that you’re working on around the durability of immune responses? And secondly, how does that connect with the research that’s going on now with long COVID and people who struggle with long COVID?
[00:23:38] Anne: So, I have a fairly large research portfolio. It spans the U.S. and DRC. So, the work that we’re doing in DRC that we’ve been doing for a long time related to durability of immune response is primarily around the work around Ebola survivors and healthcare workers. We’re also doing this as it relates to Marburg, which is another hemorrhagic fever as well.
So, back in, I guess it was almost 10 years ago, I went on a trip to Yambuku, which is where the very first Ebola outbreak occurred in DRC, and spent some time talking to the survivors because the director of the National Laboratory, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, is actually the Congolese physician scientist who discovered the virus in ’76. And so, we were back there and spending time talking to the few survivors that we could find at the time. And I realized that they had just not been studied. They’d been completely forgotten for all these years. And I think this goes back to my… I like these historical studies of really trying to understand things. Thank you, Middlebury, for my history degree.
And so, I was very interested. And at the time, they thought there were only a few survivors around. And so, I went through and got the list, actually, from all of the original investigators from 1976 who had done those studies, the line listings. And we went through and we actually found 13 survivors still alive out of 38 cases that had been back in 1976. And we were able to find these people. We were able to collect samples from them and to be able to really understand, did they still have antibodies? What was going on? This was 40 years later, and we found that these people all still had neutralizing antibodies, which was a really big deal.
And that got us thinking, well, what about some of these other sites? There was a 1995 outbreak that hit a lot of healthcare workers in DRC, and then expanding to these other places. And so, we’ve been comparing the immune response to these survivors from all of these different outbreaks through time in DRC and really trying to get to a fundamental understanding of, do people have long-term immunity? And what are some of the after-effects of this? What could potentially happen here?
So, that’s the work that we were doing in DRC. And then, several outbreaks of Ebola have come up since that time. We have worked very hard to maintain a good relationship with these survivors, with the survivor associations, and doing this work to try and understand what happens over time. And that could have implications for vaccines and therapeutics over the long term.
I had really been just working in Africa for all these years, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my experience doing this kind of emergency studies and setting up in the middle of outbreaks and working in these very complex conditions allowed me to say, wait a minute, we really have to do something here. We have to do it now. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there was a need to really understand immunity and SARS-CoV-2 infections. And because I had been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo doing these kinds of emergency studies, setting up studies in the middle of an Ebola outbreak, out there in the field working on mpox, there had been this ability to set up these studies quickly. And so, I really applied what I had been doing already in DRC to the U.S., and with colleagues at UCLA, started a study to better understand asymptomatic infection and immunity and health workers here in Los Angeles. And so, we’ve also been following this group here in LA. So, we’ve got that study.
And now, when the mpox outbreak started in the western hemisphere here and globally — we had this global outbreak of mpox or monkeypox—my team and I immediately said, “Well, we understand the issues related to durability of immune response and understanding vaccine effectiveness,” so we’ve set up a study in partnership with a group here APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles), where we’re doing vaccine effectiveness and durability of immune response study, looking at mpox vaccines. So, really applying what we did in DRC now back to the U.S.
[00:28:04] Laurie: Which is truly awesome, because everyone always thinks of it the other way around, right?
[00:28:09] Anne: Exactly.
[00:28:09] Laurie: That what you learn in the United States applies, but it’s actually the other way. So, do you have any thoughts, any initial findings, or questions that you’re asking in that study? Because I think so many people are going to want to know how we think about the contours of long-term immunity, about what kind of behaviors initially we can encourage in the public health environment that would lead to long-term immunity and so on. What kind of questions are you asking in the study?
[00:28:37] Anne: There are different studies, and there are different places. So, for Ebola, we really want to understand what previous infection means. If you get vaccinated with a particular vaccine and you have a booster, what does that mean versus not having a booster? Do you get re-exposed and have small exposures still? How protective is this vaccine? And for how long? We never know for how long these vaccines are effective.
And it’s really the same concept with our mpox study here in the United States as well, we’re trying to understand. And, in particular, it’s even more complicated with the mpox study because we started where there was a vaccine shortage, and there were different modes of giving the vaccine. So, there was a subdural versus the subcutaneous way of administering that vaccine to try and conserve vaccine. Some people got one dose. Some people got two doses.
Some people had had exposures. Also, understanding the role of asymptomatic infections. It could have been a previous infection that you had; somebody might not have known that they had it. Does it give you sterilizing immunity? Or, do you end up with an asymptomatic infection? And if you have an asymptomatic infection, can you still spread that virus? Do you have a less important viral load?
These are all the things that we’re looking at. And you think about this, this goes back to what we had talked about before. It’s not about the disease, it’s really about the methods. Because if you think about these questions that we were thinking about with Ebola, they’re the same questions that we have related to COVID-19 and the same questions that we have related to mpox vaccine.
[00:30:20] Laurie: And this connects, of course, to the bigger issue that we’re seeing state by state in so many different kinds of ways, which is vaccine hesitancy. And so, make those connections, because I know that’s also an interest of yours, and what you’re finding.
[00:30:36] Anne: Well, it’s been really interesting to do this work on vaccine hesitancy, which is now so completely intertwined. I think that that’s one of the things that the pandemic really showed us, is how you can’t separate the science from the sociology and the medical anthropology and the behavioral epidemiology and, in fact, politics as well because it’s people’s belief systems that really do dictate what they do, at the end of the day. And I think it was just really underappreciated previously.
We’re doing studies on vaccine hesitancy here in the United States. We’re doing these studies in DRC as well. We do find that there is also vaccine hesitancy in DRC. And the drivers are, sometimes, a little bit different, but it still does have to do with your fundamental belief system and how you interpret science and how you interpret scientific knowledge and who you trust and who your trusted messengers are. And we knew this from Ebola. This was not new. It just now was something that we were really confronted with in such a big way.
[00:31:48] Laurie: I’m thinking about the cultural perceptions about the people giving the vaccine and the intentions of the people giving the vaccine have been a huge piece of United States and DRC over and over again. And that, I think, is a really powerful driver. So, if we could just stay on this for a second, because it is intersecting with all of your interests and culture and history and science. So, it seems to me that, part of the work — your work — is about shedding light and not heat. And you probably think vaccines are good things to do and to have in the world. And generally, they’re effective and they’re also imperfect, right? All of those things are true. And you have to improve them, as we go along. And sometimes, earlier versions are less effective than later versions. So, how do you, as a public voice on this topic, shed light and not heat, particularly in this polarized environment? And I’m really interested in this because that is your work right now, in part. And that’s what our country needs you to do and the world needs you to do, in some ways. So, tell us a little bit about how you do that and how you speak about that in public.
[00:33:05] Anne: Well, it’s been something that’s been evolving over time. I used to have people come and talk to me. I’d have people come and visit DRC and follow me around. And I would talk to people about Ebola or some of these other things. But my role as a science communicator really increased dramatically during the pandemic. Because, first it started with COVID, and I was somebody who the media had come to because, for the Ebola and monkeypox (mpox) work that I had done for 20 years in DRC. But then, all of a sudden, to be thrust into doing this with COVID, it really did change things. And trying to figure out how to be able to communicate things to people in a way that was just truthful and transparent and taking into account that not everybody has the same belief system that we have or is coming from the same place that I might be coming from. So, I’ve tried to be as objective and to be as straightforward as I possibly can and to talk about things in the most relatable way that I possibly can and to not discount anybody’s belief system.
[00:34:25] Laurie: Can you give a good example of a moment where it was really important that you take that belief system into account and it actually changed the health behavior of the people you were working with toward the positive?
[00:34:38] Anne: I think, in DRC, that messaging around vaccines has really taken into account, where people are coming from. And the best way to do that is to make partnerships with trusted leaders in the community. And so, working with traditional healers, working with the chiefs and what we call the chef cotiñe or the traditional chief. So, they’ll have a political chief and a traditional chief in a village. Working with opinion leaders, whoever they are, and really trying to get to understand what they are thinking and what their concerns are and how they might be able to incorporate the idea of vaccination, or having them understand it from a very basic level, where there may have been cleared up any confusion or rumors that there might have been, has made a really big difference.
In terms of the U.S., it’s interesting, I think, just presenting as much information as you can. A sticky subject right now has been this issue of where the origins of SARS-CoV-2. And what I say very honestly is that, I don’t know. I have no idea where it actually came from. And I think everybody has to be open to all scenarios. Could it have been a lab accident? Could it have come from nature? Well, I don’t know. But what it really means is that, if both are plausible scenarios, what we need to do is focus on lab security and focus on preventing animal-to-human spillover and better detection. I have no opinion either way as to which it was, but I can tell you what you need to do in the future.
And I think it’s the same thing. Masking has become such a controversial subject for people and just to say, well, listen, here’s what a mask can do. And these are the reasons why it could be very important for people to wear it. And particularly you want to protect yourself, protect your loved ones. But not making judgements on people who make other choices, I think, becomes very, very, important. And focusing on how you can communicate to people who don’t necessarily come from the same place that you might be coming from is the key. And figuring out what’s important to them and what might resonate with them, but being respectful of other people’s beliefs.
[00:37:01] Laurie: I grew up in a medical family, so I have deep respect even though I’m not in the field any longer. And one way that I was… these long conversations with my father about medical stuff. We were talking about the vaccine and what it meant. And, of course, growing up in Massachusetts, there’s a history of really interesting conversation around resistance to vaccines and overcoming it in the 16th and 17th centuries, right, in terms of smallpox back to history.
[00:37:28] Anne: Mm-hmm.
[00:37:30] Laurie: And my father once said to me, the best way to talk about a vaccine to someone who might be almost ready to have it or not, but just is thinking about it, is it’s enough to allow the body to practice an immune response, which I thought was a great way to talk about it. Just give it a little bit so the body can practice, which is not exactly biologically accurate, but it’s close enough that people can conceptually make that leap from there.
[00:38:01] Anne: I agree.
[00:38:02] Laurie: Yeah. Well, that’s good. It’s good to know that it’s a metaphor that the one of the great science communicators from Middlebury would agree with.
[00:38:10] Anne: I definitely agree.
[00:38:11] Laurie: Oh, good. That’s great. So, I’d love to hear more stories from you about things that gave you joy in your work, because so much of this is the white-hot public glare of polarized debates and people not trusting each other on, really, basic health issues and people’s survival being at stake. So, I know you need joy to continue to do this work. So, share a story or two, if you could, with us about what gives you joy and what gave you joy. What was a moment in your career that gave you the most joy?
[00:38:48] Anne: Well, my career is a career of trying to make a difference and change people’s lives in a positive way. And I think, sometimes, when you see a policy change in Congo or some place, that’s really great, and you can see these kinds of big changes. But I would say that the things that are really tangible to me are seeing the changes that you can make changing people’s lives. So, for example, one of our studies in DRC was in a place called Kikwit, where an Ebola outbreak occurred in 1995. And the head of the Ebola Survivors Association was actually a nurse, and he was just really so smart and just really understood science and had been doing all these little epidemiology studies himself. And so, what we were able to do was, actually, I helped him get into the Kinshasa School of Public Health to get a master’s in public health, who’s the first Ebola survivor to get it. With funding from the Fawcett Family Foundation… And Ben Fawcett was in my class.
[00:39:52] Laurie: Oh, I love it.
[00:39:53] Anne: He had a younger brother, also, at Middlebury. But Ben’s dad, Russ Fawcett, actually gave me the funds, and the Fawcett family gave me the funds to be able to support this Congolese Ebola survivor who really has spent his career now helping do work on Ebola, really make those translations for Ebola survivors, make the links, and do work on something that’s really important. And it’s like thinking outside the box and trying to find, there was no way to get him funding for this. And so, really thinking about where could we get funding to do something really concrete and important and making a difference in somebody’s life like that, that was something that was really fundamentally important to me.
[00:41:43] Laurie: So, my last question is, so John Spencer was your guy in many, many ways. We have an oratory prize now named after him. Everybody loves the Spencer Prize competition. All the judges are there. Lots of people come and listen. And everyone’s rooting for everyone. So, I think there’s really interesting ways in which, as we have such a strong program in training people through oratory now, through the Spencer Prize competition, in how to communicate and how profoundly relevant communication skills are in today’s world, in today’s society.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you see yourself both as an epidemiologist and a science communicator. That’s got to be a lot of pressure. All the critiques made some of our top science communicators. You have to have a very cool demeanor and way of being in the world. How have you managed that? You’ve appeared in major news outlets, LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, of course, in writing, but I know you get interviewed all the time in news media and so on. How do you keep that cool demeanor? And how have you managed the white-hot pressure that you must get a lot in real-time moments of communication?
[00:44:09] Anne: Well, my role really has shifted quite a bit. To be a science communicator on a daily basis, in a way, and being on camera and being on news media and doing all of this has been very, very, interesting. I think it’s hard. It’s complicated. And there’s the rise of anti-science, the attacks on scientists. I’ve certainly been a victim of that myself. It can be very scary and very unnerving. And this goes back to, where can you make a difference? And, to me, if you can make a difference, if you can give somebody information that is going to be useful to them or make a difference in their lives, it’s worth it. It’s so worth it.
And those are the things that do. And when you get feedback and say, “I didn’t know this, or I hadn’t thought about this before,” or, maybe if you can change somebody’s mind or change somebody’s ability to think about something, in a way, it’s worth it.
And how do you handle it? You just have to be yourself. And I think, if you’re true to yourself, that it makes it much easier to handle, that you’re not trying to play a role on TV or be somebody that you’re not.
[00:45:23] Laurie: You said something important earlier, which is that sense of purpose, if you know your sense of purpose, then the worry and the anxiety or the fear goes away, because you’re connected to that sense of purpose all the time. And I think that’s such a profound and important role that education can play. You’ve got your Spencer skills. Clearly, you’re thinking about those, because I know he trained you in oratory, in addition to history, right?
[00:45:49] Anne: He earned it. I actually have to say, whenever I’m on TV, I think about it. I watch it afterwards, and I think, oh, gosh, Mr. Spencer would not have liked all those “ums” in there. He hated the “ums.”
[00:46:04] Laurie: I love that.
[00:46:05] Anne: So, I do want to say one other thing that you had mentioned before, because I could give you about 1,000 stories about the things that give me joy. But one of the things that really gives me joy now at this point, too, is all the mentorship that I get to do. I have all of these incredible students, both here in the United States and in Congo. I just had two of my doctoral students just defend in the last two days. And just to see these young people going out there, and that we’re going to have these, that gives me the most joy, is to see today these young people who are going to go out there and make a difference and be able to embrace and keep changing things.
[00:46:56] Laurie: Well, Anne Rimoin, it’s been absolutely delightful to talk to you. What you’ve reminded me of is that there is both legacy, and you shared so much about the Middlebury legacy that you carry with you, of which we are so proud. As well as future, some folks describe education, the educational process, as a Hail Mary pass into the future. I think it’s a lot more than that. But there are times when you don’t even know what the results of your educational efforts are going to be. But I think you’re in an incredibly fortunate, as well as well-earned position to see the results of effective science communication and effective epidemiological research close up in that your students are carrying it forward. So, we feel connected to your students, too, by virtue of the fact that there’s a Middlebury link there.
And I wish you all the best. It’s been fantastic talking to you. And keep on doing the really wonderful work that you’re doing. We need it. We see you. And we are behind you. We hope Middlebury is the wind beneath your wings, as you continue with this really brave work.
[00:48:07] Anne: Well, thank you so much. I said it at the beginning, I’m going to say it again. Middlebury, really, was the foundation of what did bring me to where I am today. And my path is so linked to it. And I think, back to what I learned at Middlebury, and not just the academic side, but just the full experience of being at Middlebury and benefiting from it, and I really attribute a lot of where I am today to Middlebury. And I think fondly of it all the time. So, this has just been an unbelievable pleasure. Anything that ties me back to Midd, I’ll take it.
[00:48:45] Laurie: All right, well, come back and see us soon.
We’d like to thank Anne Rimoin, “The Virus Hunter,” for joining us in conversation today. Midd Moment is by me, Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury. The podcast is executive-produced by Matt Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, and produced, engineered, and edited by Caitlin Whyte and the terrific folks at the podcast agency, University FM. Research on this episode was provided by Sara Thurber Marshall. For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.