By Darryl Gangloff
Dr. Barbara Mahon ’78 received the Alumni Award, The Hotchkiss School’s highest honor, during a ceremony on Jan. 26. She used her time on the Katherine M. Elfers Hall stage to encourage students to pursue a career in public health, and she shared impactful stories of her work as an infectious disease epidemiologist and pediatrician.
Mahon has served in many roles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including as acting director of the Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division. She now works at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as deputy director, surveillance and epidemiology, where she is focused on improving global surveillance for pandemics and on pandemic preparedness. She has broad experience in public health surveillance, outbreak response, epidemiological study design, and vaccines. She has focused extensively on respiratory, vaccine-preventable, and enteric infectious diseases, both domestically and internationally.
Head of School Craig Bradley welcomed students, faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, and alumni, including members of the Class of 1978. “It is our great pleasure to honor you today,” Bradley told Mahon. “The Alumni Award is the school's highest honor, and this annual ceremony is one of the highlights of each year. It is a time to celebrate a lifetime of accomplishment, a time to learn and to be inspired, and a time to contemplate the significant influence Hotchkiss alumni have on the world.”
Bradley said that Mahon was one of the first girls ever to be educated as a Hotchkiss student. She arrived on campus in 1974 as one of only four prep girls. Bradley said Mahon’s classmates remember her clearly and read aloud some quotes, including one from Drew Roraback '78, P'27: “She stood out as a model of focus and integrity. It did not take long for the community to recognize that Barbara would lead an impactful life in service to others.”
Julia Tingley Kivitz ’01, Board of Governors member and chair of the nominating committee of awards, explained that the Alumni Award honors a Hotchkiss alumna or alumnus who has made a significant and lasting contribution in their field, earned the recognition of their peers on a global scale, and is an inspiration to all students. “The Alumni Award recipients should inspire in each of us the opportunity to make an impact on the world, and they are in many ways the embodiment of our school motto, ‘guided by each other, let us seek better paths.’ Barbara, your extraordinary work in the medical field as a disease epidemiologist and pediatrician, and your research in public health surveillance outbreak response, epidemiologic study design, and vaccines exemplify the school's motto and, of course, the spirit of the Alumni Award.”
Robert Gould ’77 and Elizabeth Hines ’93, P'27, co-presidents of the Board of Trustees, applauded Mahon’s accomplishments. Gould listed a number of prizes that Mahon won during her time at Hotchkiss, including the English Book Prize in her prep year. She played on the varsity soccer, varsity basketball, and varsity softball teams, volunteered with St. Luke’s, and served as a proctor and head tour guide. “Yet as important as all of these Hotchkiss accomplishments and memories are, Barbara was and is still just getting started,” he said, noting that Mahon received her bachelor's degree from Harvard University, her Doctor of Medicine from the University of California, San Francisco, and her Master of Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.
Hines then outlined Mahon’s impressive career. Mahon had just started working at the Gates Foundation when COVID-19 emerged, and she returned to the CDC to help with the organization’s response to the pandemic. She is now back at the Gates Foundation.
Mahon led the CDC’s emergency response as incident manager during the emergence of the Omicron variant. She then worked for more than a year to help establish a new permanent CDC division: the Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division. At the CDC, Mahon also served as director of the Division of Bacterial Diseases/National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; CDC lead for the Sierra Leone Trial to Introduce a Vaccine Against Ebola (STRIVE); associate director for antimicrobial resistance/Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases; and deputy chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch. She has played leadership roles in the CDC’s response to multiple public health emergencies, including the 2014-16 West Africa Ebola epidemic and the 2010 introduction of cholera to Haiti.
“She has advanced science, served as a highly respected leader and role model, and has literally helped save millions of lives. Dr. Mahon, it is our privilege to present you with the 2024 Hotchkiss Alumni Award,” Hines said.
Mahon Urges Students to Pursue Careers in Public Health
Mahon thanked the Class of 1978, faculty, staff, and trustees, and then directed her attention to the students in the crowd. “It’s you that I want to talk to this morning,” she said. “My time at Hotchkiss gave me a fantastic foundation to do consequential things in my career. You’re in a fantastic position to go into the world and do consequential things that will matter to you.” Mahon urged students to consider a career in public health, and then shared stories from her work.
Mahon arrived at Hotchkiss in 1974 on financial aid, and she was “very grateful” for that opportunity. She loved her classes, especially English and biology. “When I left, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she said. Mahon explained how a one-year fellowship to study women’s sports in Africa proved to be pivotal to her career path. “While I was there and just seeing the need, I started thinking about medicine.”
Mahon went to medical school and trained in pediatrics. She had the chance to go to Haiti for two months as a volunteer pediatrician at a large rural hospital, where she witnessed a devastating outbreak of measles. “The thing that was so riveting to me was that many of these kids … had been vaccinated with the same vaccine that we use in the U.S. on the same schedule,” she said. She decided to pursue field epidemiology and entered a training program at the CDC, where she investigated a mysterious salmonella outbreak in numerous states that was linked to alfalfa sprouts.
“My first reason for you to consider public health as a career is that you get to work on mysteries that are so interesting and discover new things,” she said.
Mahon then explained that she worked on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which caused almost 30,000 cases and 11,000 deaths. “The CDC sponsored a trial in Sierra Leone, and I was the lead for that trial. It was very, very challenging,” she said. Her team vaccinated 6,000 people during the trial to compare disease rates and followed them carefully for six months. “The trial was able to show that the vaccine was effective,” she said. The vaccine is now part of the standard response to Ebola outbreaks, and “it’s been a gamechanger.”
“The second reason why you should consider public health as a career is because you can work on problems that are incredibly consequential and will save lives,” she said.
Mahon said she has worked extensively on COVID for the last four years. “I want to highlight one innovation that I think is pretty exciting, and that is wastewater surveillance,” she said, explaining that the virus can replicate in the intestines and is excreted in feces. “Sewer sheds” offer a view of the entire population. “In fact, it turns out that screening wastewater can give you an early warning of increases in the levels of virus about a week earlier than you'll see it in hospital visits,” she said, noting that it is possible to “test for new variants and find them about a week or so earlier than screening sick people.”
She then gave her third and final reason for students to consider a career in public health: “There are so many innovative technologies like wastewater surveillance, artificial intelligence, and data science that are just coming into focus and just becoming available. And you are going to figure out how to use them for the public good.”
Mahon ended by emphasizing that public health requires “a lot of different kinds of people,” such as writers, communicators, finance experts, statisticians, veterinarians, and microbiologists. “Consider public health because it will give you the chance to work on problems that really matter, that are really interesting, and that will give you the satisfaction of having been of service.”
Hotchkiss Medical Society co-heads Jeff Shi ’24, Wyatt Towner ’24 and Alistair Taaffe ’25 asked Mahon a few questions, and then Bradley congratulated her once again. “Thank you for the impact you’re having on this world,” he said.