If you see Lisa Hensley working in her garden at her house near Baker Park, or fishing with her 10-year-old son, James, at Culler Lake, you would not suspect that she is one of the top Ebola researchers in the world, or that she traveled to Africa six times and spent a total of four months there in 2014 in the forefront of the fight against Ebola.
Hensley is the deputy director of the Integrated Research Facility, or IRF, at Fort Detrick, a research laboratory unique in the world, run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Hensley was featured prominently in the Richard Preston book “The Demon in the Freezer,” and in his October 2014 New Yorker article about the Ebola outbreak.
The flowery dress and heels worn by Hensley a few weeks ago at IRF contrasted with her attire in Africa: T-shirt and cargo pants, or a pressurized Personal Protective Equipment suit. She’s a research scientist at heart, so she liked that 98 percent of her time in Africa was spent in the lab. Her duties at IRF include designing studies, constructing security protocols and writing papers, with less than 10 percent of her time in the lab.
Lisa Hensley was born in North Carolina but has strong connections to Maryland. She went to high school in Howard County and to Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in natural science and public health, and a master's degree in immunology and infectious disease, in just four years. Infatuated with both marine biology and aviation, she was lured to Hopkins from a possible future at the Naval Academy by lacrosse; Hensley earned All-American honors as a goalie at Hopkins. She also got her scuba certification.
Her father was a practicing pediatrician who bounced in and out of research, and Hensley first took a shine to clinical medicine. Yet at her father’s office, she was drawn to the lab, where patients’ strep throat cultures were analyzed. The direction of her studies took a big turn when, as a college student in the early 1990s, she attended an HIV/AIDS conference with her father. Her father has a mild to moderate form of hemophilia. Hemophiliacs in that early HIV/AIDS era who had received blood transfusions were at high risk of contracting the disease. Fortunately, her father never did.
But a light went on for Hensley at the conference because of the possible impact of AIDS on her parents. “If we had better surveillance, could we have caught this?” she wondered. From that “moment of impact,” her career path veered toward research. She pursued graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was awarded her Ph.D. in epidemiology, as well as another master’s in public health. Epidemiology explores diseases in large populations and seeks the source and cause of infectious disease epidemics.
Hensley has advice for young people considering a career in science: “Follow your passions, follow what you believe in. My only regret is chances I haven’t taken.” She mentioned one in particular: “Lack of languages has not worked in my favor,” especially in view of her extensive work overseas. “I recommend a well-rounded approach, and if you want to work overseas — languages!”
Hensley’s research aims led her to USAMRIID, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, where she worked from 1998 to 2012 with Dr. Peter Jahrling, who later went to NIAID as director of IRF and recruited Hensley as his deputy. She built up USAMRIID’s program until it was receiving $12 million in annual grants and she was administering 30 researchers.
That success led her to the regulatory science program of the Food and Drug Administration. At FDA for just over a year before coming to IRF in 2013, Hensley left FDA for the opportunity to build IRF’s program with Jahrling — as well as for the shorter commute.
‘I got to see the full course of the disease’
Hensley’s expertise with other infectious diseases, including MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome), and smallpox put her front and center as Ebola took root in Africa and became a full-fledged epidemic.
During her six trips to Liberia in 2014, she witnessed the progression of the Ebola outbreak. Her tenure started slowly when she, along with a team from USAMRIID, arrived in Liberia with a dozen boxes to help outfit a Liberian health ministry laboratory. At that time, the outbreak seemed confined to Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“In April, we hadn’t yet seen cases, and I remember lounging on an Atlantic beach at Easter. We’d trained local personnel, and things seemed in control. When I went back in the summer, we started seeing cases and the cry went out for laboratory capacity,” Hensley said. Hensley’s lab provided training for Liberian health workers in addition to performing daily tests of blood samples taken from patients suspected of being infected with Ebola. “Diagnostics were very important. Who has Ebola, and who has died from it?” Hensley explained.
Handling potential samples of one of the world’s deadliest diseases on a day-to-day basis is Hensley’s job.
“On my first trip, one of the Liberian lab technicians just handed me a blood tube [that contained Ebola].” Hensley used a glove to handle and then wrap the sample safely. “I’ve been doing this for so many years [working with highly infectious diseases] that I’m so comfortable, and we take all the precautions necessary.”
Hensley is no stranger to what can go wrong in a lab. In his book, Preston describes an incident while Hensley worked at USAMRIID where some blunt children’s scissors, the only kind allowed, penetrated two gloves and cut her finger in the presence of an Ebola virus she was working with. Tests proved she was not infected. Another time the air filter for the air being pumped into her protective suit broke, relegating her to the air in the suit. Her scuba training kicked in; keeping her breathing regular and her heart rate down, she was able to exit in the normal fashion, avoiding an emergency decontamination.
“Most of my job in Africa was unglamorous — just processing samples,” she said. But a doctor she worked with had a patient who was possibly infected with Ebola try to bite him. Health workers she had trained frequently walked into uncontrolled situations. She heard one report on the two-way radio they used: “We couldn’t get the samples because families chased us off with machetes.” A Liberian soldier working as a health worker who once drew blood from Hensley (as a control sample) later died from Ebola.
“I got to see the full course of the disease. At first, there was almost disbelief about Ebola, then we saw panic increasing. Now, during my last two trips we saw life returning to normal — kids going back to school, less use of the buckets of bleach which had been everywhere.” The frequent bleach cleansings cracked the platinum wedding band worn by a colleague.
Hensley is uncomfortable with media attention and rarely consents to interviews. She stresses that her work in Africa and at IRF is a team effort involving other U.S. public health agencies, the World Health Organization, the health ministries of African countries, non-governmental organizations, and private companies pursuing vaccines. “None of what we do here is in a vacuum,” she said.
The world health community is learning a lot from Ebola. “We learned the importance of surveillance — early detection — the importance of education, and cultural sensitivity and working with folks on the ground, the importance of being humble. Mistakes were made out of arrogance and making false assumptions,” said Hensley. The Ebola outbreak was first regarded by many health officials as one that could be controlled and easily dealt with.
“We learned the importance of sharing information quickly, both positive and negative.” The Ebola experience has encouraged NIH to promote the sharing of negative data, an unnatural concept to researchers who strive to publish successful studies.
NIAID is now involved in two promising clinical studies to produce a vaccine for Ebola. As the outbreak recedes, it can hamper clinical trials for lack of enough patients.
Hensley’s trips to Africa in 2014 played havoc with her role as a single mother. And she experienced her share of negative reactions by those who wondered how she could leave her son to help strangers.
“James was 9 years old when I first went to Africa, and he was scared that first time. Over time he went from being afraid to being comfortable with it. We’ve used the outbreak to go over lots of life lessons, especially a good lesson about fear — that you shouldn’t be angry about fearful reactions — that you need to educate them,” explained Hensley.
James, who like Hensley’s father, suffers from a mild to moderate form of hemophilia, just giggled when a Johns Hopkins nurse taking his blood jumped away from him after learning his mother had been in Liberia. “He understands prejudice now,” said Hensley.
James organizes an after-school program to collect toys for orphans and clothes for families in Liberia. Hensley and others transport the donations when they go to Africa. Her son’s mature attitude is a contrast to some of the adult reactions his mother has received.
Such reactions extended to some family members; Hensley’s extended family decided to skip the traditional “family Thanksgiving” because she hadn’t cleared 21 days of twice-a-day temperature monitoring required upon reentry to the U.S. from Africa.
Hensley has used her experiences to convey an important life lesson to her son — that of global responsibility and the need to step up when the situation warrants. James understands he must share his mother’s special set of skills with the world. So the normal demands of a 10-year-old have moderated. When mother told son that she needed to travel to Africa again late in 2014, his response was: “Mom, I know they need you — but can you get back by Christmas?”
Yes, Lisa Hensley was back in Frederick to celebrate Christmas with James.