Paving paths to eureka
UTHealth Houston lecture series muster magnificent minds to drive innovation
The principle of buoyancy was supposedly uncovered by Greek mathematician Archimedes when he noticed his bathtub water rise as he stepped in. Nearly two millennia later, Sir Isaac Newton famously formulated his gravitational theory after watching an apple fall from a tree. While these legendary eureka moments, or bursts of insight, may have helped sparked some of humankind’s greatest findings, the primary ingredients of revolutionary scientific discoveries include a mingling of brilliant minds and years of research.
UTHealth Houston sets the stage for these eureka moments through lecture series. By exposing our community—from first-year students to tenured faculty and occasionally the public—to new ideas and new research opportunities, lecture series drive innovations and breakthroughs.
The James H. Steele Lecture Series at UTHealth School of Public Health and the John J. Kopchick Research Symposium at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School exemplify how these events, and the donors who support them, make an indelible impact.
It wasn’t until Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796 that humans found a way to prevent diseases that pass from animals to people. Two centuries later, James H. Steele, DVM, introduced the idea that government could provide a systematic approach to fighting these diseases to protect people—something that has gained prominence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Standing at six feet, seven inches, Steele was a larger-than-life figure who made a colossal impact on the field of public health through his work with the federal government to establish mass vaccination and prevention programs for diseases like rabies and bovine brucellosis. His pioneering efforts earned him the title “Father of veterinary public health.”
Steele became a faculty member at the School of Public Health in 1971, serving as Professor until 1983. To commemorate his tremendous achievements, Herbert L. DuPont, MD, and the late R. Palmer Beasley, MD, then Dean of the school, created the James H. Steele Lecture Series in 1992.
“Establishing this lecture series was a way to honor a luminary in public health by bringing other visionaries to our school to share their expertise,” says DuPont. “The annual lecture provides an opportunity for our UTHealth Houston community to learn from and network with some of the world’s brightest minds.”
The first lecture was held in April 1993, coinciding with Steele’s 80th birthday. He attended each lecture until his passing in 2013, when he was 100 years old. Past lecturers represent a who’s who of public health leaders, including a Nobel laureate and directors of domestic and international public health programs. Hosted by the Center for Infectious Diseases at the School of Public Health, topics focus on efforts to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
“We especially want to inspire students who aspire to change the world, and fighting infectious diseases is among the best ways to do that,” says DuPont, who founded the Center for Infectious Diseases in 1989. “This lecture series helps us encourage our students to be influencers and leaders, just like the Steele lecturers.”
Since the beginning of Many Faces. One Mission. in 2015, seven donors have enhanced the endowment. Thanks to these extra resources, the series now hosts two lectures each year. As the series approaches its 30th anniversary, further support will enable the event to continue attracting extraordinary speakers multiple times each year.
While lecture series are often organized by experienced faculty members, that is not the case for the biennial John J. Kopchick Research Symposium at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, which is run by the students for the students.
John J. Kopchick, PhD ’80, and his wife, Charlene, established the symposium, along with several fellowships and research awards, through a generous endowment. The symposium stands out because Kopchick fellows run the show, planning each aspect of the full-day event, which includes presentations, panels, a keynote lecture, and a networking lunch for students and speakers.
“The experience of organizing the symposium is truly one-of-a-kind and one that I will take with me into my future career," says Tristen Tellman, a sixth-year PhD candidate and 2019 and 2020 Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellow. “I normally would not have an opportunity to do this until I’m a faculty member running my own research program," she adds.
In addition to leading marketing efforts for the inaugural symposium in 2019, Tristen, along with other Kopchick fellows, helped organize the November 2021 symposium by securing the keynote speaker, Maria A. Croyle, RPh, PhD, Professor of Molecular Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery at The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy. Tristen also helped choose the symposium’s theme of perseverance and failure.
“As scientists, experiments don’t always go as planned,” she says. “You have to endure failure and innovate to answer the challenging questions. It is incredibly helpful to hear scientists we look up to, like Dr. Croyle, recount how they have persevered through failed experiments and career obstacles.”
Failure is a part of science and a part of life. Lecture series, such as the John J. Kopchick Research Symposium, provide our students and faculty with the tools and knowledge to persevere through adversity to reach eureka moments that transform health care.