Finding a balance between long-term planning and impromptu decision-making is crucial to success, said Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Margaret Hamburg at a Monday afternoon Master’s Tea in the Davenport Common Room.
Roughly 45 students gathered to hear Hamburg’s thoughts on the importance of the FDA, balancing career with family and the FDA’s role in quelling the Ebola epidemic.
The FDA, which falls under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for assuring the safety and quality of all drugs, vaccinations, blood supplies and many food products. In Hamburg’s words, the Administration is charged with protecting the health of the American public.
While it was initially conceived as a national organization, the FDA has had to adjust to the fact that a large portion of the food and drugs that Americans consume today come from a worldwide market, Hamburg said.
“About 50 percent of fruit, 85 percent of seafood, 40 percent of finished drugs and — the number that astounds me the most — 80 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients are being manufactured in other countries,” she said. “That means we have to have a global presence.”
While discussing her career path, Hamburg emphasized the need to be simultaneously prepared and malleable.
Quoting Louis Pasteur, who created the first vaccine, Hamburg said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” But she also noted the need to be open-minded and willing to seize opportunities as they come along.
“I have come to realize that it is dangerous to lock in too much with a particular career path,” she said. “Sometimes you have to take a chance.”
Hamburg took such a chance in 1993 after the bombing of the World Trade Center: Rather than continue to pursue the path medical school had placed her on, Hamburg began studying biological terrorism. Her background in the field ultimately helped her secure her position as FDA Commissioner, said Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld.
Hamburg added that many of her career choices, including her position as the New York City Health Commissioner and her current position, were not necessarily part of her intended career path.
“I ended up in a role that in a million years I would never have expected,” she said. “I don’t see myself as a particularly courageous person, yet I have taken on jobs that have put me at the epicenter of controversy, of challenging decisions, in the spotlight with enormous responsibilities.”
Students attending were particularly curious to understand the FDA’s role in the current Ebola epidemic. Of the questions asked during the question and answer portion of the talk, half were about Ebola.
Hamburg said that the FDA has yet to receive major media attention regarding its role in response to the outbreak, although the FDA has played a major part.
“Our job is to support the overall medical care and public health response,” she said, adding that the role includes making experimental diagnostic drugs and vaccines available.
In speaking about the history of the epidemic, Hamburg said that Ebola research used to be motivated not by fears of a natural epidemic, but by what she described as warranted fears of a potential terrorist attack.
She recalled a Japanese terrorist group from the mid-1990s releasing Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. Afterward, she said, members of the group went to East Africa during an Ebola outbreak and attempted to harvest the virus, with the intention of using it as a biological weapon.
Many students interviewed found Hamburg’s stories and advice particularly engaging because of their relevance to current events.
“It was so interesting to hear from someone who is at the forefront of decision making, vaccination research and addressing the disease,” Carolyn McGuire ’17 said.
Others, like Esteban Elizondo ’18, simply wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to learn more about the FDA
Chief of Medical Oncology at the Yale Cancer Center Roy Herbst, who played a large role in bringing Hamburg to Yale, was impressed with what Hamburg had to say.
“She is a very innovative individual managing a very large agency,” he said. “I was impressed with how she balances that with commitments like her family.”
Hamburg’s mother, Beatrix Hamburg ’48, was the first African-American woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine.