2008 Alumni Award of Merit winners

Fall 2008 ]

Standouts in public health tend to view big problems as boulders that must be rolled uphill, however steep those hills might be. This year’s recipients of the Alumni Award of Merit have each approached serious health threats to huge numbers of people with strong conviction and a relentless quest for knowledge.

The four who were honored at a special dinner in June are:

An epidemiologist who didn’t know what “epidemiology” meant when he started at the Harvard School of Public Health, but who has helped set world safety standards for radiation exposure;

A Norwegian “country doctor” who has been a leader in the near-eradication of Guinea worm disease;

A former commissioner of health for New York City, whose leadership in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic established model programs for controlling its spread;

A National Cancer Institute deputy director whose research involving occupational and environmental exposures has led to safer workplaces and tougher regulations.

John Dunning Boice, Jr., SM’74, SD’77

alum08boiceJohn Boice is Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University and scientific director at the International Epidemiology Institute. He received his SM and SD degrees from the Harvard School of Public Health, an MS degree in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his undergraduate degree in physics from Texas Western College (University of Texas at El Paso). For the past 30 years, he has lectured at Harvard on radiation epidemiology.

Dr. Boice is an international authority on radiation effects and serves on the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, and the congressionally-mandated Veterans’ Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction.

During 27 years in the U.S. Public Health Service, he developed and became the first chief of the Radiation Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for directing an international research program clarifying cancer risks in populations exposed to medical, occupational, military, and environmental radiation, including Chernobyl studies. His seminal discoveries have been used to formulate public health measures to reduce population exposure and prevent radiation-associated diseases.

About John Boice

An international authority on radiation’s effects on human health whose work has led to reduced population exposure to radiation and prevention of radiation-associated diseases

Scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Md.

Professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Developed and became the first chief of the National Cancer Institute’s Radiation Epidemiology Branch

Has guest lectured on radiation epidemiology at Harvard for 30 years

In 1994, he received the E.O. Lawrence Award from the Department of Energy—an honor bestowed on Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann among others—and the Gorgas Medal from the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States. In 1999, he received the outstanding alumnus award from the University of Texas at El Paso. Last year, he received the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the Health Physics Society.

His 400 publications include several textbooks on radiation effects and statistical methods, and numerous landmark studies quantifying radiation risks. He is a longtime editor of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Boice directs the Genetic Consequences of Cancer Treatment study, a multi-disciplinary study assessing the risk of genetic disease among children of cancer survivors in Denmark, Finland and the U.S. In the 1970s, he and his wife Jennifer lived in the Shattuck International House where they performed and organized classical folk recitals. They have four sons, and coach recreational basketball teams at the high school level. Dr. Boice serves as deacon at the Church of Christ at Manor Woods in Rockville, Maryland.

Anders R. Seim, MPH ’88

alum08seimsAnders Seim received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College cum laude in 1971 (where he majored in social anthropology), and his MD with honors (laudabilis) from the University of Oslo, Norway in 1978. Dr. Seim has continuously stimulated new health initiatives since, as a medical student, he coordinated a group to improve care for the dying. Norway’s first home care (hospice) program for terminally ill patients was the result, and it became a source of inspiration and information for subsequent hospital- and home-based teams giving palliative care in Norway.

Dr. Seim worked as a primary care physician in Norway until his MPH studies at Harvard, which included coursework at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. Inspired by his Harvard experience, Dr. Seim has since been engaged in innovative efforts to address degrading diseases that afflict millions, were largely overlooked, and can be eliminated if current knowledge is applied sytematically and conscientiously. Dr. Seim founded Health & Development International (HDI) to that end in 1990, a non-profit registered in both the U.S. and Norway.

Under Dr. Seim’s leadership, HDI has since its inception been one of two non-profit organizations supporting the effort to deal with guinea worm disease (dracunculiasis), which has been brought from an estimated 3.5 million cases to the verge of eradication.

Since 1997, Dr. Seim has worked on the then-nascent Global Lymphatic Filariasis (LF) Elimination Program. This public-private partnership now reaches over 380 million people in more than 40 countries. One of Dr. Seim’s LF initiatives brings improved care to patients via training in new LF-hydrocele surgery techniques. Intended as a model for other regions, the West African LF Morbidity Project provides postgraduate training to rural district doctors and nurses in several countries, professionals who otherwise have essentially no access to continuing medical education.

Most recently, Dr. Seim is responsible for the first ever Community-Based Rapid Obstetric Fistula and Maternal Mortality Prevention Project, applying elements of successful public health initiatives, including disease-eradication approaches, so many more women can survive childbirth and live in dignity, free of the degrading guarantor of permanent poverty that is obstetric fistula.

In 2003, Dr. Seim received The Karl Evang Health Education Award from Norway’s Surgeon General. This prestigious award had never before been given for health education accomplishments in the international arena.

David J. Sencer, MPH ’58

alum08sencerDr. David Sencer began his education in a backward manner. He received his MD from the University of Michigan in 1951, his MPH from Harvard in 1958, and has unsuccessfully searched for a Bachelor’s Degree.

He entered the United States Public Health Service (PHS) in 1955 after being an intern and resident in internal medicine at the University Hospital, Ann Arbor, MI. He joined the PHS to avoid Korea and to continue his interest in tuberculosis. His first assignment was to the Idaho State Health Department to conduct a survey of health problems of migrant workers. It quickly became apparent that the problems were not so much health as social problems. This awakened a lifelong concern for population health rather than individual health.

Dr. Sencer’s next assignment was to the Muscogee County Health Department in Georgia, to head the PHS’s field research in tuberculosis. This assignment convinced him that the best data for community-based research came as a result of providing a needed service to the community.

In 1960, he was assigned to the Communicable Disease Center as Assistant Director; in 1966 he became its Director, a position in which he served until 1977. During his tenure, not only did the name change to the Center for Disease Control, but the programs of health protection changed from just communicable disease to a broader concept of health protection. Family planning, smoking and health, nutrition, birth defects, environmental health, and occupational health became integral parts of the Center. Also, the Center became deeply involved in health problems in the less developed world, including malaria, disaster relief, and epidemic aid for newly emerging disease. The major international activity of the Center was spearheading the eradication of smallpox from twenty countries of western and central Africa. This effort of working with newly established governments proved that smallpox eradication was possible and allowed the World Health Organization’s program to build upon this, and eventually complete the global eradication.

After retiring from the CDC, Dr. Sencer and AIDS arrived in New York City-Sencer as Commissioner of Health, and AIDS as the major pandemic of the century. The NYC Department of Health developed a model surveillance program that helped delineate risk groups, defined the risk of tuberculosis in HIV infected persons, fought to establish a needle exchange program over political and community resistance, and worked hard to preserve the rights of infected individuals.

After voluntarily leaving the NYC Department of Health, Dr. Sencer joined the staff of the Boston-based Management Sciences for Health, where he was mainly involved in program evaluation. In 1993, he and his wife, Jane, returned to Atlanta, expecting to be retired. This has not been the case. He has been an ombudsman for the residents of long-term care facilities, is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Emory Geriatric Facilities and is now involved with Emory University and CDC in constructing an archive of disease eradication with substantial manpower assistance from CDC.

Dr. Sencer and his wife have been married 57 years and have three children and six grandchildren, and they are grand.

Shelia Hoar Zahm, SM ’77, SD ’80

alum08zahmDr. Zahm is a cancer epidemiologist and Deputy Director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG), National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Rockville, Maryland. She received a SM in 1977 and a SD in 1980 in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health.

She joined NCI as a Staff Fellow and was later tenured in 1987. She became Deputy Chief of the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch in 1996 and Deputy Division Director in 1998.

Dr. Zahm has received the American Occupational Medical Association’s Merit in Authorship Award for her development of the first job-exposure matrix, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service, the NIH Merit Award and the Public Health Service Special Recognition Award for her research on the relationship between pesticides and the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the NIH Director’s Award for her investigations of cancer among migrant and seasonal farm workers, two NIH Quality of Work Life Awards, the inaugural DCEG Mentoring Award, and the DCEG Exemplary Service Award.

Dr. Zahm serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards, including service as chair of United Auto Workers/General Motors Occupational Health Advisory Board. Dr. Zahm was elected to the American Epidemiological Society in 1995 and is an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University. Her current research interests include pesticides and cancer, the etiology of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma, and occupational cancer.

Larry Hand is associate editor of the Review.

Photo: Kent Dayton/HSPH

Originally published Fall 2008