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Ian Lipkin

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Going viral is probably Ian Lipkin’s worst nightmare.

Yet, ironically, that’s precisely what happened to him last September, when it was revealed that he was the real star behind Steven Soderbergh’s terrifying science thriller, Contagion. It’s his lab the film uses for authenticity, his invented virus that makes the bone-chilling foundation of the movie, his brains Gwenyth Paltrow picked when trying to understand how a seizure feels, his life Kate Winslet took cues from when playing a virus-hunting doctor, his 3D model of a killer virus that is the central villain of the film.

Contagion’s science was praised as being one of the most realistic to come out of Hollywood ever but that’s no surprise to anyone who knows Lipkin.

For most virologists, discovering one or two new viruses during their career would be fantastic. Ian Lipkin and his team have found over 400. In the last decade alone. He’s the doctor the Chinese government trusted when the SARS epidemic broke out – and who flew to Beijing at the height of the outbreak with 10,000 testing kits at hand. In 1999, he identified the mysterious encephalitis outbreak in New York as the first outbreak of the West Nile virus in the Western Hemisphere when other doctors were still puzzling over symptoms. He was the first to use purely molecular methods to identify infectious agents, and also pioneered the use of high throughput sequencing in pathogen discovery. At his home base, the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, Lipkin leads a team of over 65 scientists who are, at any time, analysing some of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.

It was while doing his second residency, at the University of California in San Francisco, that he caught the virus-hunting bug. HIV was just emerging, and Lipkin and his colleagues often worked themselves to the bone, trying to understand why their patients were getting so sick. “I decided to devote myself to understanding how viruses cause disease and to identify them more quickly.”

Arguably the most-celebrated virologist on the planet – he holds over two dozen titles and awards from the world’s top research and medical institutions – Lipkin had been approached by Hollywood multiple times in the past – but it took Soderbergh’s cinematic intensity to convince him that the movie could play a role in educating people about disease and the role of scientists and caregivers in combating it. “Contagion was like a Sputnik moment. When I was a kid the launch of Sputnik showed us that America was falling behind in the race for space. The race here is not against another country but microbes themselves,” he says. Today, he’s less worried about contracting a serious disease – a constant possibility in his line of work – than he is about whether there will be enough trained scientists to continue this kind of work in future. “We need more kids to go into science and engineering because, frankly, we haven’t made those kinds of investments.”

He’s certainly doing his bit. A constant stream of scientists and students train with him, and his work, along with the far-reaching impact of his discoveries, has been featured by the New York Times, Wired, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, NPR, the History Channel and the Huffington Post, among others.

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