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Five Inspiring Research Heroes

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Joanna HughesApr 25, 2017

Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. Aquaman. The Flash. These are usually the names that first come to mind when children hear the word “hero.” But as we grow older, we realize that heroes also walk among us in the form of firefighters, police officers, EMT’s and other first responders who put their own lives ahead of others’ in the line of duty every day. And then there are the teachers. In assuming responsibility for the education and wellbeing of future generations, these unsung men and women embody the Oxford Dictionary definition of a hero: “A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

But the list of everyday heroes doesn’t end there, either. Academics have also pulled off their fare share of heroic feats, including the following five people whose research transcended the walls of academia and supported the greater good.

1. Jonas Edward Salk

That Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine changed the world already secures him “hero” categorization, but what truly earned him his superhero status? That he “never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible.” In a world in which pharmaceuticals companies have turned pain and suffering into big business (see: Turing Pharmaceuticals), Salk put global well-being over his own personal gain. In doing so, he saw the number of people with polio drop from 45,000 to 910 after the vaccine became widely available.

One Salk quote we can all live by? “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."

2. Anita Roberts

A molecular biologist celebrated for her pioneering work at the forefront of wound healing and cancer, Roberts was incredibly prolific -- as evidenced by her selection for inclusion in Thomson Scientific’s Science Watch's “Twenty Years of Citation Superstars,” a roundup of the 50 most-cited scientists between 1982 and 2002.

Brilliance is one thing, but humanity another: Roberts also changed the lives of countless people on a more personal level by publicly sharing her struggles as a gastric cancer patient on her blog.

3. Noam Chomsky

A professor of linguistics by training, Noam Chomsky made an inspiring name for himself as something else: political activist and advocate of free speech. And while not all people admire his politics, he is heralded by many others for shining the light on history and crimes against humanity which might have otherwise remained in the dark. Chomsky’s steadfastness and commitment to the truth landed him a spot on New Statesman's reader survey of “Heroes of our Time.”

One respondent wrote of Chomsky, “An international intellectual figurehead for opposition against American hegemony. The incredible accuracy of his work shows a man who is dedicated above all to the truth. And though the facts may be gloomy reading, Chomsky does remain an optimist. In academic terms, few can rival him as an opponent of imperialism, globalization and state terrorism. An inspiration from whom we should all draw in our own efforts to make the world a better place.”

4. Dr. Carlo Urbani

Credited as the first World Health Organization offer to identify the outbreak of SARS, Dr. Carlo Urbani, an Italian expert in communicable diseases, played a vital role in increasing global surveillance thereby leading to the prompt and life-saving identification and isolation of new SARS cases.

Said Pascale Brudon, the World Health Representative in Viet Nam where Dr. Urbani was based, “[Carlo] was very much a doctor, his first goal was to help people. Carlo was the one who very quickly saw that this was something very strange. When people became very concerned in the hospital, he was there every day, collecting samples, talking to the staff and strengthening infection control procedures.”

Unfortunately, Urban’s heroic efforts cost him his life: He came down with symptoms just four days before WHO declared SARS to be a worldwide public health threat, and succumbed to the disease just days later at the age of 46.

5. Amartya Sen

Dubbed as the “Mother Teresa of Economics,” this Nobel Prize winner has become “India’s greatest hero.” Like many superheroes, Sen -- lauded for considering ethics alongside economics -- has an origin story of his own. Reveals The Independent, “The seed of his life work was sown when as a child he witnessed the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1943. Neither he nor any of his middle-class friends or relatives suffered in the disaster, but hundreds of thousands of rural laborers died. Many years later, in Poverty and Famines (1981), he wrestled with the paradox that famine can occur even when there is no absolute shortage of food.”

And while Sen may have ascended to celebrity status, he's still known for his unassuming countenance and relentless commitment to addressing poverty in India and throughout the world. He’s also used his Nobel Prize winnings to set up a trust fund to benefit causes in India and Bangladesh.

The overall takeaway? Not all heroes wear capes and run faster than speeding trains. Some even wear lab coats and write blogs. And while academics may often be perceived as the erudite elite ensconced in glass towers, the reality is that they can and do make a very real -- and very heroic -- difference in the world around them.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.