Symposium honors memory, accomplishments of former HSPH Professor Stephen Lagakos

Stephen Lagakos

November 3, 2010 — HSPH faculty, staff, students, former colleagues and guests gathered for a day-long symposium on October 22, 2010, at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center to honor the memory of Stephen Lagakos. Lagakos, a beloved long-time faculty member and an international leader in biostatistics and AIDS research, tragically died October 12, 2009, in an auto collision in Peterborough, N.H.

Among his many attributes cited by speakers throughout the day was his love of statistics and his passion for educating and nurturing several generations of students, who were devoted to him as an inspirational teacher and mentor. Lagakos founded and directed the Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research (CBAR) at HSPH. He helped develop intellectual foundations for clinical and epidemiological research on AIDS that greatly impacted science and public health during his lifetime.

Those who paid tribute to Lagakos included former HSPH Dean Harvey Fineberg, President, Institute of Medicine of The National Academies, who spoke at the dinner, and HSPH’s Marvin Zelen, Lemuel Shattuck Research Professor of Statistical Science, and Victor De Gruttola, Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Biostatistics at HSPH and chair of the School’s Department of Biostatistics, which co-sponsored the symposium. See the complete symposium agenda and list of speakers.

Lagakos had a “true passion for education,” said David Harrington, professor of biostatistics at HSPH, who moderated a panel on training the next generation of quantitative scientists. He opened with remarks recalling Lagakos as a colleague with a warm smile and a brilliant mind. “He had very direct ideas, and they were usually better than the collective wisdom,” Harrington said.

One of the many young researchers nurtured by Lagakos, Alfa Muhihi, who worked with Lagakos as a John L. McGoldrick Fellow in Biostatistics in AIDS Research and is now earning an MPH, will soon return home to Tanzania to “embark on a mission” to improve the public’s health in his country. He spoke warmly about his mentor, who took time out of his busy schedule to greet him at the airport when he arrived in the United States after his first-ever flight. “I owe Steve Lagakos a good deal of thanks,” he said.

In an afternoon session on HIV/AIDS, Stephen O’Brien, adjunct professor of immunology and infectious diseases at HSPH and director, Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute, lauded Lagakos “for his influence on students at Harvard and around the world.” Shahin Lockman , an assistant professor at HSPH and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called Lagakos a “role model.” She reviewed what’s been learned through clinical trials, including several in which she and Lagakos participated, about preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in resource-limited settings. “Tremendous strides have been made. But there is a tremendous gap between what we know works and what happens in many parts of the world,” she said.

In his keynote address, Robert C. Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV, and director and professor, Institute of Human Virology of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, discussed what led to the discovery of HIV in 1983 and the development of drug regimens, ranging from AZT therapy in 1985 to the more effective Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) in 1995. Other key HIV/AIDS advancements include the development of the safe, rapid and inexpensive blood test now used globally to identify infected individuals, and  progress in blocking mother-to-child transmission and protecting health care workers from HIV infection from patients. While education about HIV transmission is important, it’s not sufficient, Gallo said. “We need to find a way to sustain the immune response,” he said. “What we know today about HIV/AIDS is just the beginning. There is much work to be done.”

Max Essex, Lasker Professor of Health Sciences, HSPH, chair, HSPH AIDS Initiative, said Lagakos and Gallo were the two colleagues who he went to first when he had a new scientific thought or idea to discuss. Whether Saturday mornings on the phone or over a meal, “I was a good friend of Steve’s and, like many of you, miss him a lot. I was very lucky to have him as a close friend,” Essex said. “One morning each week Steve and I had breakfast together. We’d talk about science and float concepts off each other. I miss him for that and many other reasons.”

–Marjorie Dwyer and Amy Roeder