“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Renowned public health expert Dr. Alfred Sommer, who will speak at Union College on Thursday, has based big life decisions on his interpretation of that Yogi Berra quote.
That includes the decision that would lead him to the paradigm-shifting discovery that a vitamin A deficiency was not only blinding children in underdeveloped countries, but killing them, too.
Berra’s comment was reportedly made while giving directions to his home, which was accessible by two routes. But to Sommer, it has meant this: Choose one route or the other, and travel it well. Don’t overthink.
“Don’t let it freeze you,” Sommer said. “Take the route that at that moment is most interesting. Forget about where it’s going to lead you.”
Sommer has taken this approach since he was a student at Union College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1963. He’s now dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and University Distinguished Service Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
An ophthalmologist and epidemiologist, Sommer was choosing the more interesting route when he embarked on the work for which he is best known, in Indonesia in the mid-1970s. He’d done research abroad before, and he and his wife thought it was time for another adventure.
His data collection, on 5,000 children followed over 18 months, involved vitamin A deficiencies and blindness. But the big discovery came in the early 1980s, while he was in London, looking over the data. He saw, and then later was able to prove, that the children with night blindness were more apt to die.
That eventually led to the understanding that two doses of vitamin A a year, at a cost of 4 cents per child, could save their lives. It’s an approach now taken around the world.
Asked what that feels like the knowledge that his work has saved the sight and lives of millions of children Sommer was gracious but low-key.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “But you don’t get high on it. Because there’s always more fires to put out.”
Sommer is a recipient of some of the world’s most renowned medical prizes, including the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research, considered the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Yet his curiosity and enthusiasm seem to far outweigh his ego. Consider the time, after 9/11, when smallpox was raising fears as a potential new bioterrorist threat. He was chatting with Nobel Prize laureate Joshua Lederberg at the time, saying the government shouldn’t vaccinate first responders against smallpox, because he was sure he’d read a paper about the vaccine’s effectiveness six days after exposure.
He’d forgotten the research was his own.
In the lobby of the Hampton Inn on State Street on Wednesday morning, Sommer had enough stories with interesting twists, turns and life lessons to fill a book which he has in fact written. It’s called “Ten Lessons in Public Health: Inspiration for Tomorrow’s Leaders.”
A lesson he has taken through life was learned at Union, an all-male school in Sommer’s day. It wasn’t a particular class, Sommer said, but his professors’ willingness to let him explore questions outside the established curriculum.
“And there weren’t any girls around, so I could concentrate,” he said.
What: Union College Founder’s Day keynote address: “Health, Genes, Behavior and Environment”
When: 12:45 p.m. Thursday
Where: Memorial Chapel, Union College campus
1. Go where the problems are
2. Get into the field
3. Forget the job description
4. Don’t count on things staying the same
5. Follow most, but not all, of the rules
6. Collect good data even if you don’t yet know what important questions they may answer
7. Remember your humanity
8. Use data to set policy
9. If you think you’re right, keep pushing
10. Take the long view
Source: Ten Lessons in Public Health: Inspiration for Tomorrow’s Leaders by Alfred Sommer
- ^ Alfred Sommer (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Union College (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Yogi Berra (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Bloomberg School of Public Health and University Distinguished Service Professor (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Joshua Lederberg (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Hampton Inn (www.timesunion.com)
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