A collage of panelists surrounding an image of Ian Lipkin

Symposium Honors Illustrious Career of W. Ian Lipkin

April 16, 2024

Leading scientists from around the world convened on April 5 to celebrate the extraordinary career and accomplishments of W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and the founding director of the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The daylong symposium at Columbia University’s Italian Academy titled “From Broad Street to Washington Heights: Celebrating a Career in Research, Medicine, and Public Health” marked Lipkin’s 40th year in research, 50th year in medicine, and the 170th anniversary of John Snow’s implication of the Broad Street water pump in the cholera epidemic in London.

Panel discussions covered topics ranging from the link between human health and the natural environment and zoonotic “spillover” events; to advances in pathogen discovery and pandemic prevention; translational research; exposomics; post-illness syndrome and chronic disease; journalism and the arts. Panelists, most of whom have collaborated with Lipkin for decades, highlighted Lipkin’s significant accomplishments and paid tribute to his leadership and collegiality, as well as the power of collaborations to advance science.

A smiling man holds a microphone

Ezra Susser

Since the 1980s, Lipkin, has spearheaded the development of the technology of pathogen discovery which he has used to identify more than 1,500 viruses, earning him the sobriquet “master virus hunter.” In 1999, he led the detective work implicating West Nile Virus behind an encephalitis outbreak in New York. Soon after, he joined Columbia Mailman where he and his team have advanced science on infectious outbreaks and other health challenges, from autism to Zika. In 2003, he lent his expertise to public health leadership in China, helping to control the SARS outbreak there. During subsequent coronavirus outbreaks, he contributed insights into the origins of MERS, as well as methods to diagnose and treat COVID-19.

A woman speaks into a microphone

Wafaa El-Sadr

Lipkin has also been a leading light in scientific communications through journalism and the arts—notably, serving as scientific advisor on the 2011 film Contagion—as well as the propagation of OneHealth, a concept that highlights the interconnectedness of the health of humans, animals, and the ecosystems in which we live. He has uncovered the links between bats and coronaviruses and identified the viruses behind diseases in farmed tilapia. He has also led the way in pandemic prevention through scientific capacity building to help realize the idea of a “global immune system,” as seen in CII’s Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics (GAPP), which launched in 2021.

Dean Linda P. Fried thanked Lipkin for his “transformative scientific and public health accomplishments,” noting that he has been “consistently recognized over many years for his impact on public health by dozens of countries who have come to him as the world’s master virus hunter, to leadership recognition from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIH, and countless other entities that lead on the public’s health—even Hollywood.” She later added that Lipkin and his collaborators, including many of those present, have created a network for advancing public health that is “a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

A smiling man holding a microphone

Avindra Nath

Fostering Community

In many panels, participants spoke of Lipkin as a nexus for collaboration and community-building—remarks undeterred by a mid-morning 4.8 magnitude earthquake. Thomas Briese, Columbia Mailman associate professor of epidemiology and CII’s associate director, spoke of the “excitement and adventure” of his work with Lipkin and joined with Gustavo Palacios of Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in thanking Lipkin for his support, professionally and personally. Echoing their remarks, Lisa Hensley of the USDA said, “When Ian takes you under his wing, you’re more than a collaborator, you’re family.” David Perlin of Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine noted Lipkin’s ability to “build comradery and collegiality”—connections lubricated by Lipkin’s epicurean appreciation of fine dining and the arts. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School pointed to “dinners and relationships and teams that are built from those relationships.”

A seated man speaks into a microphone

Jonathan Epstein

Detective Work and Drive

Several panelists commented on Lipkin’s decisiveness and propensity to act no matter the time of day. Jonathan Epstein of EcoHealth Alliance recalled a 2 a.m. phone call with Lipkin who enjoined him, saying, “Pack your bags, we’re going to Saudi Arabia.” Nischay Mishra, assistant professor of epidemiology in CII pointed to Lipkin’s “energy and intensity,” adding that Lipkin also answers calls at all hours. J. Kenneth Wickiser, Columbia Mailman associate professor of Population and Family Health and CII’s administrative director of GAPP, pointed to the professor’s unique ability to “get into places that other people can’t go.” Vicky Whittemore at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke spoke to Lipkin’s “drive, rigorous research, and trust in the community” of people with ME/CFS that gave that community hope. Oliver Fiehn at UC Davis added that Lipkin “investigates like a detective” and “doesn’t shy away from difficult cases.” Nancy Messonnier, Dean of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, admired how he “rolls up his sleeves” to “do what he does best, which is make positive change in the world.” Summarizing the collective sentiment, Larry Brilliant of Pandefense Advisory, said, “Science is Ian’s love language.”

Hollywood and Beyond

In an afternoon panel, Lipkin joined with several Contagion alumni, including screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, producer Michael Shamberg, and Jennifer Ehle, who portrayed a scientist in the film. They reminisced about the making of the hit film and the broader context of doing justice to science in movies and other popular media. Burns recalled Lipkin’s insistence on verisimilitude, offering the example of a scene where Kate Winslet’s character dies (“she doesn’t know how to die” was Lipkin’s note). For his part, Lipkin recalled how he prevented bodily harm to Elliot Gould when the actor got too close to a tank of liquid nitrogen. The film was a bigger success than expected and got kudos from top scientists, including Anthony Fauci, although, according to Lipkin, the NIAID chief quibbled that the movie’s depiction of vaccine development was unrealistically foreshortened—ironic in retrospect considering his role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in under 12 months. Burns, who in 2020, collaborated with the professor in producing a series of COVID-19 PSAs, said the film was “an incredible journey for me to learn from some of the world’s best scientists,” notably Lipkin.

In concluding remarks, Lipkin said he organized the symposium to bring the “best and brightest” scientific minds together in one room. He thanked his colleagues for their friendship and collaboration, saying, “I have been privileged to work with you for decades.

Photos by Chris Taggart.