Liberal arts and STEM collide at the Flax lecture series

Photo by Blake Israel

​​Price Gilbert Memorial Library room 1280, Sept. 1, 2022 — an obscure date and an obscure location in the minds of many, but at 5 p.m., beyond the multi-colored glassy double doors on Price Gilbert’s first floor, roughly 75 students and staff from Tech and surrounding universities were illuminated on an issue unfamiliar to many.

Professor Polly J. Price of Emory University School of Law is an expert in public health law and a legal historian. 

Taking her combined interests, she shed a spotlight on her most recent book, “Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America” as the first installment of the School of Public Policy’s Meg & Sam Flax Lecture Series.

A few hours before the actual lecture began, a smaller group was invited to attend a seminar with Price to discuss a specific public health issue: Tuberculosis (TB). 

Price explained that even in a bubble, the highly spreadable, lethal disease was difficult enough to treat, however, the number of cases reported dropped significantly once the COVID-19 pandemic began.

This decrease, however, was likely not due to an actual decrease in the number of cases, but a lack of testing, reporting and availability to track increasingly mobile patients. Price elaborated in no uncertain terms the gravity of the situation.

“Tuberculosis is one of the world’s top infectious disease killers. According to the World Health Organization’s most recent Global Tuberculosis Report, pandemic disruptions caused case notifications to plummet, and tuberculosis mortality has increased for the first time in more than a decade.”

Adding to this dilemma, TB is a public health issue that is under the jurisdiction of the 2,684 individual state, local and tribal local health departments across the country.

Under this system of federalism, each department is able to govern as they chose with little interaction between them, even though an outbreak in one community can easily spread to another.

Here, with the plethora of multi-faceted moving parts on the table, is where the interactive portion began. Price challenged the group to work together to brainstorm practical changes that could be made to involve federal protocol and monetary assistance in the fight against TB.

Under Price’s guidance and after much trial and error, the diverse group — though small — agreed on several policy changes that could feasibly lead to policy implementation.

One included federally funded homeless shelters (as the disease disproportionately affects the unhoused) that would be required to comply with a national standard of cleanliness and disease prevention. 

Although the program might seem straightforward, Price herself said that “nothing like that has been done before,” indicating the ambitious nature of the project.

Afshan Hasnain, a third-year PUBP commented on the seminar.

“I was a bit nervous coming in because my primary interest is in law and I don’t have any background in public health, but it was great to see how much overlap there is between the two topics. I felt like Professor Price provided enough background for those less knowledgeable so that we were all able to take part in the problem-solving process. As a future policy maker, it was a great experience,” Hasnain said.

Liberal arts majors may find themselves at odds with the Institute’s heavy focus on STEM, but events like these lectures work to display the intersection between the two, integrating the field to create “S.T.E.A.M” — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.

When asked about the value campus events that focus on disciplines reaching beyond the traditional STEM arena add to student enrichment, Law, Science, and Technology (LST) director and event co-coordinator Chad Slieper said that “LST strives to serve as a campus hub to explore issues at the intersection of law, science and technology. Prof. Price’s examination of the role law plays in responding to public health crises is a timely and relevant topic given what we’ve all lived through with the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020. In addition to our pre-law focused activities, LST is looking forward to serving as a platform for students, faculty and the broader community to examine other contemporary issues where law, science and technology affect one another.”

For the second part of the evening’s event, the lecture focused more directly on the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Price delivered a historical overview of disease prevention and treatment starting with smallpox.

She noted that the public has long faced an odd combination of both disease hysteria and skepticism when dealing with sources of community contagion. 

Amidst all the talk of deadly outbreaks, if there was anything attendees took comfort in, it was the fact that nothing under the sun is new. In the same way that resistance to vaccines and quarantining measures been observed in recent years, a similar trend was observed during the smallpox and yellow fever outbreaks. 

And in the same way that there was public debate both then and now, the issues often wind up before legislative and judicial bodies.

Price pointed to Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a landmark case during the smallpox outbreak.

The ruling, handed down by the Georgia Supreme Court, decreed that local health officials can order mandatory vaccines when “significant threat to community vitality is present.”

Going even further, the court stated that the individual can be required to sacrifice life, liberty and freedom if the continuation of the society hinges on it.

The lecture was a comprehensive take on the history of disease and law in the Unites States, drawing in those with and without a background in public health.

Adiba Syed, first-year PUBP with an interest in public health research policy, shared her thoughts.

“I am interested in pursuing healthcare policy, so this event allowed me to see one aspect of it through epidemiology … One significant point that stood out to me is that there are pros and cons to how the unique system of federalism in the U.S. leads to decentralization in our healthcare system.”

Syed continued, describing the lecture’s real-world applicability.

“It’s useful because it is essential to address issues at the local level, but with more significant issues, it can be hard to reach a mutual consensus. Overall, it was very informative and thought- provoking … In a short amount of time, I feel as though I learned much about how epidemics have been dealt with in America,” Syed said. “If it works well with my schedule, I would love to attend the following lecture in the series.”

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the series is that it showcased the role that the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts fills at Tech.