Hamm Maps Unconventional Path to Career at Founders Day

September 29, 2008

Read Dr. Hamm’s lecture
Watch excerpts of Dr. Hamm’s lecture

Mary Baldwin University’s founders, Rufus Bailey and Mary Julia Baldwin were bold and brave, creating and sustaining a woman’s college that outperformed its expectations in a time when that was unheard of. Tiffany Hamm ’89, the college’s 2008 Founders Day speaker, leads her life with that same spirit. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Solomon Islands and the Kingdom of Tonga. She traveled to Kenya, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Uganda to establish services for those suffering from AIDS and HIV. She advocates for HIV research and prevention in the face of daunting obstacles.

If Hamm’s surname sounds familiar, you’re not the first to make the connection. She has a world-famous sister: Mia Hamm, Olympic gold medal soccer star. Her pride in her sister’s accomplishments equals that which she feels for each of her five siblings. Tiffany Hamm is an international sensation in her own right, securing resources and exploring new avenues for HIV research, treatment, and prevention in some of the hardest-hit countries of Africa. Hamm serves as chief of the Department of International HIV Prevention, Care, and Treatment for the Division of Retrovirology at Walter Reed Army Institute of HIV Research. Learn more about the organization at www.hivresearch.org.

After graduating from Mary Baldwin with a degree in chemistry, Hamm studied viral replication and vaccine development and worked for three years as a research assistant at a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) lab for the National Institutes of Health. She earned a doctorate in microbiology from University of Virginia, and later served in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific. In preparation for her Founders Day address October 2, Hamm talked more about her career and the topic of her presentation at Mary Baldwin, “Mapping Out Your Future: Traveling Highways and Byways.”

Dr. Tiffany Hamm, Founders Day speakerMary Baldwin News:What was your path to your current position? How did your experience and studies at Mary Baldwin prepare you?

Dr. Tiffany Hamm:My journey wasn’t exactly linear. In my senior year at Mary Baldwin I seriously considered serving in the Peace Corps, but my practical mind told me to continue with my education. I don’t think I was ready for such an unknown challenge at that time. Alhough I loved what I was learning and doing as a research assistant and then graduate student at the University of Virginia, I realized I wouldn’t be happy using those skills and knowledge in the context of a lab conducting biomedical research. After earning my doctorate, I went back to following my gut and worked with the Peace Corps in the South Pacific. In the Solomon Islands, I taught and led the science department at Pawa Secondary School, and in the Kingdom of Tonga I managed an NGO [non-governmental organization] focusing on women’s development.

When I returned stateside, one of my advisors, Dr. Davie Rekosh, from graduate school connected me with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where I have worked since March 2003. His recommendation, with the knowledge that I had field experience as well as lab experience, was key to me getting the position. I came in at a transitional time for the organization; the President’s State of the Union address just a few months before I started allocated $15 billion for evaluation, research, and development of partnerships to focus on AIDS relief worldwide, so we were eager to figure out the best ways to use that funding.

The diversity of students with whom I interacted as a Mary Baldwin student and the support of professors, such as Dr. James Patrick [professor emeritus of chemistry] and Dr. Margaret Pinkston [professor emerita of biochemistry], who challenged me academically and encouraged me to develop leadership capacity, influenced my post-graduation life. I could relate to people from different backgrounds. At Mary Baldwin I could make decisions. I played volleyball, was involved with science groups, was president of Omicron Delta Kappa and the Honor Scholars Society on campus, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. I knew I had potential, but I don’t know if, at that time in my life, I would have thrived as well in an environment different from Mary Baldwin.

Mary Baldwin News:What does it mean for you to come back to Mary Baldwin as the Founders Day speaker?

Hamm:I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes it so meaningful to me. I had wonderful professors, some of whom, such as Dr. Lundy Pentz [associate professor of biology], are still there educating the next generation. In part, coming back to give the Founders Day address honors them and, I hope, gives them a glimpse of the influence they have on students.

I also feel honored to share my story with students. I hope my words will help them understand that there are many ways to get to where they want to be. I chose the traditional — or straight — path to begin, then veered off on a detour to do something most recent science PhD recipients do not do. The combination led me to gather the experiences that developed me into the person and the position I desired.

Mary Baldwin News:What is most rewarding about being involved in HIV research, treatment, and prevention? How do you keep hope when facing overwhelming odds?

Hamm:If you look at an issue like AIDS and HIV in its worldwide breadth and enormity, you are easily overwhelmed. When you can see the impact of treatment, prevention, or care on an individual or a family, it makes it impossible not to be optimistic. I travel to Africa much less now than I did in the beginning of my tenure here, but when I do have a chance to be on site, it always reaffirms my belief that we are making a difference.

One example of how far treatment and prevention have come is a small faith-based organization we work with in the South Rift Valley of Kenya. The Live with Hope Center was started by three nuns; one from Ireland, one from Scotland, and one from Nigeria. When I first met the sisters in 2003 to talk about their organization and what they did, the focus was on bereavement support, paying for funerals and at-home care for those who, at the time, were terminally ill HIV patients. Four years later, we talk about how to further develop training in income generation for the increasing number of their clients who are healthy enough to work. We improve counseling skills that help them encourage patients to keep up with their treatments, and give them the resources to support dozens of HIV positive children who in the past would have died by age two. They now have hope for a future.

I can’t say that my inspiration comes from any one person, but my parents are certainly the people who have had the biggest influence on my life. They were always interested in doing good and grassroots activism in whatever community we were in — we moved frequently with my father in the Air Force. The compassion they show, many times for people they didn’t even know, is inspiring.