The School of Public Health’s 24th annual Barnes Lecture featured Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, an esteemed infectious disease physician, activist, and expert in the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. He has played critical roles in several public health emergencies, including the Covid-19 pandemic, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, and the largest measles outbreak in the United States in decades.
Dr. Daskalakis currently serves as the deputy coordinator for the White House National Mpox Response and has previously served as director for the Division of HIV Prevention at the CDC, deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control, and assistant commissioner for the Bureau of HIV at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
During his conversation with Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. Daskalakis shared his journey to becoming a physician, which began playing with a Fisher-Price doctor kit at two years of age.
“In 1991, I moved to New York to study biology and pre-med at Columbia. I started to make friends, and then they would disappear—ending up at Bellevue Hospital when they got sick. This sparked my interest in becoming a physician, specifically to work in LGBTQ+ health and HIV. In 1995, I helped put on a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was a pivotal moment for me.”
During that display, he said, “there were people who came who could barely walk because they were so ill. They came to remember the people they’d lost. I had an ‘aha’ moment while standing there, saying ‘I think what I need to do is never let anyone suffer like this again.’”
After his residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and infectious disease training at Mass General Hospital, Dr. Daskalakis worked in a laboratory on acute HIV immunology, but was intrigued by news of a case of HIV infection with rapid progression and multi-drug resistance in New York.
“I called an infectious disease doctor and HIV investigator in New York and said I needed to come home. She helped make that happen and I got a position at Bellevue, the same place that used to scare me as a kid at Columbia.”
After identifying the disease strain and tracing the source of infection to a commercial sex venue in New York City, he recognized the need for HIV testing at that location, thus marking the beginning of his career in public health.
“I packed a backpack, obtained some HIV testing kits (with or without permission), and went to the venue to conduct testing,” he said. The results revealed a positivity rate of 13%.
Deputy Dean Ranney asked if he felt he had been guided by a “true north” throughout his career, from his Fisher-Price kit to his work in New York.
“It’s true,” he said. “You let it guide you and you have to be ready for twists and turns and you have to be ready sometimes to take a risk. Every time I do a twist, I have anxiety. But I think the only thing I have ever regretted in my career was when I did not take the leap.”
Dr. Daskalakis also discussed his harm reduction and sex positivity messaging during Covid as the assistant commissioner at the NYC Department of Health, which set the standard for others to follow. Despite receiving considerable criticism, he persisted in informing and protecting the community.
“You need to be the hero for people who need you to be the hero,” he said. “Your ego in public health always has to be put aside because someone is always unhappy with what you’re doing. But if you stick to the principles of public health, it’s okay. We definitely got some pushback but also a lot of enthusiasm. We pushed the envelope but we also stuck to our North Star.”
During his opening remarks, Ronald Aubert, interim dean of the School of Public Health, acknowledged the lectureship’s namesake, Dr. Frederick W. Barnes Jr. Barnes was a founding member of Brown’s program in medicine, which is now the Warren Alpert Medical School and is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. “Dr. Barnes was excited about developing physicians within a great liberal arts college and taught a wildly popular course, The Informative Way of Life, to Brown undergraduates,” Aubert said. The Barnes Lecture series is endowed by one of Barnes’ students, James S. Zisson ’74 and his wife, Anita.