2020 Writing prompt:
How was Dr. Hilleman’s integrity important to his success, and how is integrity important to you?

2020 Student winners:
  • Ava Ondik
  • Sebastian Rojas
  • Hannah Shin
2020 Teacher winners:
  • Erin Belluomini
  • Sherri Fochler
  • Young-Mee Hill

Teachers listed on winning entries each received a signed copy of Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong. 

Ava Ondik’s winning essay

 Hear Ava read her essay.

Today, the word “integrity” is thrown around quite a lot, and not in a good way. You hear about people’s integrity being doubted, about people of “questionable” integrity, about compromised integrity of various projects. Today, when you hear the word “integrity,” you expect to be bombarded by pessimism. But we already have enough of that in the world, and that is not what integrity is supposed to stand for – after all, integrity means “having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.” We have the chance to focus on integrity in a positive way, to celebrate and honor those who exemplify it instead of scorning those without it. And what better way to reflect on integrity than by reflecting on a person who embodied it with every thought, every action?

Scientists are generally not the first people who come to mind when people think about valiant heroes overflowing with integrity. But if Dr. Maurice Hilleman saved literally millions of people, doesn’t that make him a bigger hero than Tony Stark? And just like any hero, his heroism, though of a different nature, is rooted deeply in his integrity. 

Dr. Hilleman’s integrity is what allowed him to succeed, because his integrity was not just personal – it was global. Dr. Hilleman cared so much about the world, about the people in it, about the children who would become the future. He did not study as hard as he did, develop vaccine after vaccine, simply to glorify himself. After creating his first vaccine, Dr. Hilleman could have easily become complacent, given himself a pat on the back, and basked in the success he had already attained. As Dr. Anthony Fauci stated in 2005, “Just one of his accomplishments would be enough to have made for a great scientific career.”  But that’s not who Dr. Hilleman was. He did not keep his ambition and his genius for himself – his integrity simply prevented anything of the sort. He could not stand to stop his live-saving, life-changing work. If he had, there would be no reason for him to create over 40 vaccines. If he had, there would have been nothing driving the man whose work would save millions – millions – of souls. Dr. Hilleman knew he could make a difference in the world, knew he had an ability that the world needed, and he rose to the challenge, dedicated himself entirely to his life-saving mission, because his integrity – his sense of an ethical responsibility to the world – demanded that he do so.

As someone who knows that she wants to pursue a career in biology, Dr. Hilleman reminds me that as much as I may know, and as much as I may achieve, everything I do is for naught unless I have integrity – the type of integrity that Dr. Maurice Hilleman so consistently exemplified. A global type of integrity, where I research and create, not to glorify myself, but to help heal the world. There are so many people in this world who were not born into the kind of life I am fortunate enough to have, and so I must believe that the reason I am so lucky is so that I can contribute to science and medicine – not for myself, but for those without access to the fantastic education and resources I have. 

After all, the purpose of medicine has always been to heal. The purpose of science has always been to learn – in order to ameliorate humanity’s problems. Like Dr. Hilleman’s work, my scientific work will never be about money or fame.  It will always be about building a world full of hope.

Sebastian Rojas’s winning essay

 Hear Sebastian read his essay.

Facing a world burdened by unchecked childhood diseases, Dr. Hilleman dedicated his career to finding ways to prevent these illnesses. By pursuing this goal, he developed over 40 vaccines and became a world renowned scientist. Dr. Hilleman’s actions during this revolutionary period revealed that among his many admirable qualities, perhaps his greatest was integrity.

For as long as I can remember, my father, a Soldier in the US Army, always told me to do the right thing, even when no one is watching. I came to realize that this describes integrity, one of the Army core values that I have been raised to uphold and respect. While learning about Dr. Hilleman’s groundbreaking accomplishments, this value was repeatedly revealed.

There are several examples of Dr. Hilleman’s actions that affirm his great integrity. First, Dr. Hilleman stopped the manufacture of a polio vaccine after discovering that one of the primary ingredients was contaminated with a disease that might cause cancer. There was no evidence of the contaminant affecting humans at the time he stopped production, but his integrity would not allow him to profit personally or professionally if there was a possibility that a child could be harmed. He also risked the general public losing trust in vaccinations by raising this alert, but integrity required him to do so.

Second, Dr. Hilleman chose to produce a peer’s rubella vaccination rather than his own. After developing his rubella vaccination, one of Dr. Hilleman’s contemporaries, Dr. Plotkin, also developed a rubella vaccination. After determining that Dr. Plotkin’s vaccination was more effective, Dr. Hilleman stopped producing his version. Further, Dr. Hilleman then used his resources to begin production of this new and superior rubella vaccination. Dr. Hilleman’s integrity drove him to ensure the children of the world received the best vaccination available, not just one that would garner him more accolades.

Third, Dr. Hilleman volunteered to be amongst the first people to be injected with his hepatitis B vaccination because of concerns surrounding its safety. It was the first vaccination to rely on human blood for production, and there were concerns that diseases may be transmitted through that blood. With these concerns, Dr. Hilleman’s integrity would not allow him to ask anyone to risk something that he was not willing to risk himself.

Despite the success of his vaccinations and incredible contributions to science, a disproportionately small number of people know Dr. Hilleman’s name. Even my mother, a pediatrician who advocates for the very vaccines that he made, did not know Dr. Hilleman’s name. This fact is what punctuates his integrity. He did the right thing and didn’t care who was watching. He let the vaccines be the hero. This is the legacy of Maurice Hilleman, the man who put the world first.

As I mentioned above, I have been raised to demonstrate and respect integrity. As a military child, I move every 1-2 years. It is hard to make strong, lasting relationships in such short periods of time. These relationships are my “roots.” In order to grow strong and deep roots in such short periods of time, I have to be adaptable, resilient, and always demonstrate integrity. These traits let people know that it’s ok to get to know me and that it’s worthwhile to keep in touch with me after I move. I will never be in one town or school long enough for everyone to know my name. But, I always have the opportunity to impact lives. In that way, I find unity in the story of Dr. Hilleman and his profound career.

Hannah Shin’s winning essay

 Hear Hannah read her essay.

When you look into her eyes, there is no fear. She grins from ear to ear and radiates joy. She does not have measles or meningitis threatening to dim, or even end, her life. She does not struggle to breathe, and her parents are not faced with the unbearable grief of losing their beloved child. She smiles brightly without fear of the future, an image that would have had to fight the odds over a century ago. As I reflect on this photograph of my two-year-old self, I am so thankful that I was born into a world where I did not have to roll the dice to see if I would be lucky enough to live beyond childhood.

What has changed since the dire times of looming child mortality rates to create a much safer world? The main figure to thank, among others, is Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman, a name that deserves to be on a Hollywood gold star or in a Hall of Fame. Dr. Hilleman is a hero who saved millions of children's lives and changed the landscape of epidemiology forever. Through his invention of over 40 vaccines and prevention of a flu pandemic in 1957, he prevented so much suffering, heartbreaking pain, and grief.

Dr. Hilleman, a brilliant scientist and an even better person, made a lasting impact on this world, and integrity paved his path to success. Integrity played a key role behind each step that he took, and the high moral character he exemplified is an integral part of why we still honor this man today. Dr. Hilleman displayed integrity as he endlessly sought to help others in need. The drive behind his unwavering work ethic was his desire to help suffering children, and his innovations were platforms of philanthropy. He put others before himself, spending hours upon hours working to develop life-saving innovations and pressing forward through barriers he came against along the journey. He worked tirelessly to achieve his goals, all of which were designed to help people. In an interview with Dr. Hilleman himself, he stated that he sought to "be useful to the world." He is the epitome of a humanitarian as he aspired to leave the world a better place than he found it, or in his case, completely reshape the world for millions of children. Dr. Hilleman set an example as an outstanding change maker for generations to come, and he demonstrated integrity each step of the way.

Just as integrity was a crucial part of Dr. Hilleman's life, it also shapes me as a person. Integrity has always been important to me, and I strive to live by my values, sticking to them no matter the circumstance. I aspire to continue to stay true to myself regardless of what may come my way, exemplifying perseverance and resilience. I seek to help others and serve my community, assisting people whenever and however I can. Integrity is what gives life meaning because in pursuit of becoming the best person I can be, I am able to find myself on my path. Through abiding by the virtues that shape my outlook on life, I am encouraged to live diligently and with compassion like Dr. Hilleman did.

As I look into her eyes now, there still is no fear. It is scary to think that she likely would not have made it past the age of ten if Dr. Hilleman had not reaped the results he did. A teenager stares back at me through the mirror, empowered and determined to live with integrity following the example of Dr. Hilleman.