Last Fall, when I asked Dr. Deborah Birx, a fellow member of the class of 1976, to speak at Houghton’s 2020 commencement, neither of us could have imagined that, within the next six months, she would become a household name throughout the country.
I had asked Dr. Birx to speak because of her accomplishments in global public health, which showcase the impact of Houghton’s outstanding science programs. She’d accepted for the opportunity to return to see her alma mater with her children and witness the beauty of Western New York in the spring. This year, we are all learning to imagine the unimaginable!
I always look for graduation speakers who have modeled throughout their journeys the values that we at Houghton hold up before our graduates. Dr. Birx has certainly done that. She has been a lifelong learner, pursuing through a medical degree at Hershey Medical Center, an internship and residency in internal medicine, and two fellowships in clinical immunology the passion for scientific investigation that she first acquired in the context of high school science fairs in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Birx does whatever she does with all her mind and heart. Whether it is an honors project in Houghton’s Chemistry department or HIV/AIDS vaccine research at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, she has sought to master the data thoroughly and to follow the data wherever it leads. Finally, demonstrating the Houghton attitude of the scholar-servant, she has made her gifts and her achievements available for the good of others.
Her reputation for expansive excellence, her commitment to sound research and her capacity to work well with people opened up ever-growing opportunities for service to her country and the world. She served in various capacities in the United States Army from 1980 to 2008, earning the rank of Colonel and rising to the position of Director of the United States Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. After serving in that position from 1996 to 2005, Dr. Birx was invited to be the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS, a position she held from 2005 to 2014. It was from that post that President Barack Obama nominated Dr. Birx to be the Ambassador at Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator as part of his commitment to end the AIDS epidemic. In 2014, she was confirmed by the Senate and served in that position until 2020. Her faithful stewardship of both her gifts and her opportunities made her an obvious candidate for the White House Coronavirus Task Force when that need rose unexpectedly this past spring.
Throughout her journey, Dr. Birx has been able to focus her attention on both the research she is doing and the people with whom, and for whom, she is doing it. It is this deep personal commitment to both the scientific and human dimensions of her work that brought her to the attention of Dr. Bernie Piersma, Dr. Larry Christenson and Dr. Irmgard Howard at Houghton College and that continues to draw comment even in the context of her work with the Coronavirus Task Force. When she stands before the public at the White House briefings, there is no question of either her command of the data or her capacity to explain those data in ordinary language to the American people. Her choice to bring her own personal style to the occasion rather than to appear in the stereotypical white laboratory coat has underscored her commitment to being her own person even in this most public of roles. While she has drawn criticism for her loyalty both to the data and to those she is serving in this highly charged moment of political polarization, these decisions have highlighted more strongly than ever her personal and professional determination to stay focused on the data and on the task at hand and to deal graciously with those around her.
Unable to speak to a Commencement audience of 1,200 in Wesley Chapel, as she and I had anticipated last fall, Dr. Birx instead delivered her message not only to our graduates but also to the world. (I know from the many comments I have received this spring that her fellow Houghton alumni are watching and listening.) Her virtual Houghton Commencement address was chosen by C-SPAN to be aired on national television. But even more powerful is the fact that she has lived out before the world in these last six months the three points she highlighted in her Commencement comments. First, be grateful to family and to friends who help you do what you are called to do. No one succeeds alone. Second, do what needs to be done wherever you find yourself. No task is beneath you. Finally, never betray yourself. Be loyal to what you believe to be the truth of the data, no matter the cost.
These are good words for this time of COVID-19.
They are good words for all times.