USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Thank you to Nifty Fifty Speaker Dr. Margaret Hamburg!

By Lisa Matthews

Bladensburg High School and the biomedical sciences program welcomed Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the FDA, on Wednesday January 15th as a Nifty Fifty Speaker, sponsored by InfoComm International.  She was honored with a color guard, musical presentation and was presented by the Mayor of Bladensburg with a proclamation honoring her accomplishments.  She reciprocated with a compelling and interesting discussion of her career path and opportunities with the FDA, and a message to the student of Bladensburg to continue on the path they have taken that focuses on math and science education.

As a young woman, Hamburg knew that she enjoyed science but was not sure that she wanted to be so focused on grades throughout her educational career.  However, she had a strong desire to help people and so eventually decided that she would study to become a doctor with a focus on internal medicine.

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About that time, world events would change her focus and direction within the field of medicine.  Many young men started coming in with a disease that had no cure.  That disease, AIDS, compelled her to study infectious diseases and to expand her interests into the public health realm so that she could help make a difference. This led her to several positions, including commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which eventually led her to her current position as head of the FDA.

She urged the students to follow their passions and that to be successful in that, you must always continue learning. She explained that everyday new challenges present themselves, and having a strong education prepares you to deal effectively with those challenges. She particularly loves that her job involves doing good for the public and that gives her strength during times of adversity.

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The FDA is a science-focused agency.  It is involved in testing and monitoring of new drugs, food safety, tobacco regulation, cosmetic safety, radiation from microwaves and cell phones and in regulating and checking devices like pace makers and other health care devices.

To accomplish its work, the FDA employs many scientists, engineers, IT experts, statisticians, support staff, and even lawyers!

The FDA partners with State, Federal, Universities and various Health Care Agencies and works with the consumers and patients as well.

Internationally, food and drug safety is now a global concern because many consumable products come from other countries.  For example, 70% of our fruit, 80% of our seafood, 40% of drugs and 80% of the ingredients for the drugs comes from other countries.

Additionally, the FDA helps companies find ways to market (show) consumers that a product is safe and effective.

How do they make sure it is safe?

By testing, reviewing and monitoring products.

The FDA studies the levels of effectiveness, the safety of the product, finally determining if the benefits outweigh the risks.

If the product is deemed safe, the FDA continues to monitor the results and if a product is found later on to have adverse effects they may issue a recall or change the recommended use.  They do this to ensure the continued safety to the public.

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Dr. Hamburg suggested that the students and public are very lucky today because of the new advances and understanding of the mechanisms of disease and how genetic testing is now helping to give the correct treatments to patients.  For example, there is a new treatment for some patients with cystic fibrosis (who have certain genetic markers) which now treats the cause rather than just treat the symptoms.  It has worked so well that these children are beginning to lead lives that are more normal and may have a longer life expectancy.

She also outlined some exciting new medical product developments, including some made with a 3-D printer.  They are now making replacement knees that perfectly match a patient,  they are able to make covers that fit perfectly on a damaged skull, and even help people with missing body parts, such as an artificial hand that works by moving the wrist.  Other research is being done to link implants with the brain.

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Because of all of these developments, Hamburg feels that it is important for today’s students to be well grounded and strong in the sciences and to understand and utilize technologies, which has already transformed how we research and develop new treatments.

Dr Hamburg stated:

“This is an incredibly important time, a time when the challenges before us are huge. We are still suffering as a nation and as a world from preventable illnesses and conditions and we see the science and technologies emerging that will enable us to really make a difference in.  And you all are at the forefront of this transformation.  What you are studying now may sometimes seem abstract but I admire you and I applaud you.  You are taking some of the hardest courses and going toe to toe with some of the best students in the country in this important area of science, math and technology.

Each and every one of you can and will make a difference. I know it.  You may be concerned about what path you’re going to take. Certainly you’re going to have some disappointments. But keep persevering because you never know what’s going to be behind the next door. And certainly, if my career is any model I’ve ended up in a place that was totally unexpected and I’ve made choices that I was unsure of and certainly  many people disapproved of.  And I’ve been in some really tough situations.  In a job like this not everyone praises you.  But you have to have faith in your convictions. You have to have some backbone. You have to trust your instincts. But importantly, you also have to know as much as you possibly can so that when you have to make those hard choices you can make the best choices you possibly can.

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We’re entering a new realm of opportunity, a future where a strong grounding in science, in math, in technology and computers and programming, all will enable us to transform the world we live in, to treat, prevent, and hopefully cure disease, improve the quality of life for all of us and really make an enduring difference. And I hope that you will use the knowledge you gain to focus on solving these important questions – because we need the best minds like yours taking on these challenges.”

Learn more about the USA Science & Engineering Festival Nifty Fifty Program by clicking here. 

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