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From ISEF to the White House, Dr. Deborah Birx leads the country during a public health crisis

By Aparna Paul

Deborah Birx, 1973 ISEF alumna, is the White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator
Deborah Birx, 1973 International Science and Engineering Fair alumna, is the White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

Deborah Birx (ISEF 1973) is many things—White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator, physician, colonel, world-renowned global health expert, mother of two, grandmother, daughter, wife, military veteran and the list goes on. Just don’t call her a politician.

Deborah Birx has worked closely with three presidents—George W. Bush with regard to HIV in Africa and PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), Barack Obama as Ambassador-at-Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and now with Donald Trump on COVID-19. Her older brother, Don Birx, tells the Society, “Her goal is to focus on the science and work across political boundaries and pull people together.” For Dr. Birx, it’s about data, charts, facts and figures. “She’s learned over the years that if you are going to solve a complex problem, like HIV or the new coronavirus, you really need everyone working together as a team and have the cooperation, respect and ability to engage people who are on different ends of the political spectrum.”

But before the 64-year old Dr. Birx became the voice of scientific reason we watch during pandemic press conferences, she was a bright, inquisitive science fair kid. At 17, a junior at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania, she competed in the 1973 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in San Diego, California. Don Birx remembers his sister’s participation at ISEF well. “The reason I remember this particular fair is because I was going to school at UC Berkeley at the time and hitchhiked down to San Diego to meet with Deb. She had the fair and then came up to a friend’s house in Laguna Beach. I also remember her project.”

A photograph of Deborah Birx from her 1973 Carlisle High School Yearbook/Photo courtesy of Carlisle High School

Dr. Birx’s ISEF project, titled Paleobotany in Reference to the Carboniferous Period, was focused on geology, specifically fossils. At ISEF, she won 3rd place in the Earth and Space Sciences category, the 1st place Army award, the 1st place Navy award, as well as an Honorable Mention from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). Don tells the Society that, “ISEF and science fairs meant a lot to her and really was part of encouraging her to go into science.”

Like his younger sister, Don is in a vital leadership role. As President of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, he is working to guard his community during this crisis. “The ice arena has become a 140-bed facility. There’s also space for individuals working on the frontlines that don’t want to go home and potentially carry the disease to their families.” He added, “One of the big issues we are finding is the anxiety on the part of students going through this crisis; it’s an emotional as well as a pedagogical challenge.”

Adele Birx, Dr. Birx’s 91-year old mother, also spoke to the Society. Adele shared that her daughter’s early interest in science was greatly influenced by her late son, Danny, who was an accomplished scientist and founder of his own research company. He built his own boat, airplane and home. “He was very close with her. She was always interested in science and since she had older brothers she was always involved in their activities and observed all that they were doing. When they were taking cars apart, she was always very involved.”

Growing up, the siblings converted the back shed of their family’s home into an experimental lab. “We were allowed to run free with all our experimentation. Whether it was astronomy, geology, biology—anything we’d want to get into, we were given a lot of flexibility and freedom to do it,” Don said. “Both of our parents were valedictorians of their class and so they were both open to trying new ideas and concepts.” A memorable project the siblings worked together on was building a satellite dish antenna, an apparatus they’d move around on their roller skates, of course.

The novel, deadly coronavirus is far from Dr. Birx’s first public health fight. She’s held a 30-year career fighting HIV/AIDS. Don is not at all surprised by his sister’s current role in the White House: “She’s been training, unknowingly, for an event like this as she’s gone through the global AIDS crisis. The similarity between the two situations is that there still really isn’t a vaccine for AIDS, though there are treatments. She’s had to deal with leaders of countries from all over the world in trying to figure out ways she could help halt the progress of HIV, in countries that had to work to put those treatments into place. She’s spent a lot of time working to find where hotspots are, what procedures and processes to put in place and I think the most important thing—to get the cooperation of governmental leaders across the world in working together to try to solve the HIV crisis and I think she’s done that very successfully. It gives her a lot of toolsets as she works on the coronavirus.” 

Dr. Birx has been driven by science, but she’s also been compelled by the strong moral compass she grew up with, according to her mother. These are values of giving back and trying to make a difference in people’s lives. “She went to Africa and realized AIDS was killing the parents and leaving the children behind. Nobody would take care of the children.” She says her daughter would administer drugs to help the parents and teach them that though there was no vaccine, there were treatments that could help slow the disease. “She wanted to give them hope and she put herself on the frontlines. She’s not about politics. She’s just interested in health and people’s wellbeing.”

Don added, “Of course, we’re all very proud of her. We are particularly proud of her because she’s worked so hard to help individuals and to work across political lines and boundaries of countries with a focus on science and doing good. People are seeing that as she gets up and speaks.”

Dr. Birx’s mother and brother agree that it’s odd seeing her on prime-time television. “It’s surprising to see her on TV every night, I have to admit. She never set out to do anything like this,” said Don. Adele echoed those words. “It’s really unusual seeing her on TV. We never expected this to happen and she was certainly never looking for publicity. She’s kept busy from morning till night; she hasn’t even had time to talk with us,” said Adele. “This is the busiest she has been. We miss her.”

If you have questions about this story, please email Aparna Paul, Communications Manager at the Society for Science & the Public, at apaul@societyforscience.org.