2021 Writing prompt: 
How do Dr. Hilleman's accomplishments demonstrate the importance of creativity in science?

2021 Student winners:
  • Marian Caballo 
  • Aidan Lin
  • Thomas McConkey

Scroll down to read the winning essays. 

2021 Teacher winners:
  • Mary Brinkley 
  • JoAnn Gensert 
  • Tanea Hibler 

Teachers listed on winning entries each received an invitation to the virtual celebration event for themselves and their current students; a signed copy of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, written by Paul A. Offit, MD; and a 1-year, complimentary membership to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), compliments of NABT.

Watch the short film, “Inventing Our Future: The Creativity of Science.” The world premiere of the film occurred as part of the essay contest celebration event celebrating the 2021 winners.  


Marian Caballo's winning essay

 Hear Marian read her essay.

Science is not rigid, nor is it linear. Creativity, too often excluded as a factor in STEM, is the very basis of the scientific method — the central dogma of scientific investigation itself. Researchers must come up with creative new explanations to reject null hypotheses, deconstruct older research, and then build upon previous understandings. Dr. Maurice Hilleman did just that — and he did it best. He was an inventive thinker who stretched (perceived) limits and turned his transformative ideas into reality. Face-to-face with some of the most pressing scientific catastrophes of the last century, Dr. Hilleman exemplified scientific creativity by maximizing his resources and using unconventional reasoning to challenge the established precepts of vaccinology. Without his efforts, we would live in a vastly different world.

Creativity, integral to the scientific method, begins with curiosity and questioning. Dr. Hilleman was raised on farms in rural Montana, "akin to laboratory experience," and began challenging the ideologies around him by looking at the world through a scientific lens. By the time he entered microbiology labs at the University of Chicago, he thrived in the self-guided environment where he had space for independent thinking. Dr. Hilleman acted on his own curiosity and never shied away from challenging enigmas: Why wasn't the 1947 influenza vaccine working? Was the virus evolving? Could antigen alterations be the cause? The answer was yes. Sparking his antigenic research, creative scientific inquiry led to Dr. Hilleman's groundbreaking discovery of antigenic shift and drift.

At the time, virology, "was but a fledgling branch of microbiology," requiring flexibility to fill gaps in the nascent field. However, creativity begets more creativity when there are limitations to work around. Because of his childhood experiences with fowl, Dr. Hilleman took an interest in chicken eggs and applied his poultry prowess to experiments. From using chicken eggs in his award-winning dissertation about chlamydia, to taking mumps samples from his daughter's throat (key for the mumps vaccine), Dr. Hilleman leapt at every possible opportunity for innovation. In Dr. Hilleman's own words, "sanctified confinement" in academia is unsustainable. His novel, unique, and oftentimes nonconformist solutions redefined vaccinology and continue to save millions of lives.

Dr. Hilleman also emphasized turning away from science-stymying practices, writing that skewed interests focused too heavily on "the desire to do what is the more doable at the expense of what is more urgently needed." He advocated for funding to help researchers fulfill their visions, believing that scientists must prioritize the new over the "duplication of the past." To elicit creativity in others, however, there must first be accessibility and awareness. In 1957, he put out a press release about an alarming new flu strain that jump-started a time-sensitive vaccination campaign. Dr. Hileman also spent time working as a consultant to organizations, serving as a mentor to other researchers. This is an undeniable merit of scientific creativity: it triggers a cascade of innovation that not only affirms existing research, but builds off of it in meaningful ways.

Scientists are explanatory storytellers of sorts. Characters in a novel become antibodies or antigens, and plotlines turn into complex interactions and biochemical processes. Yet, development is far too often curtailed by the dangerous discouragement of creativity and "disparate" liberal arts education. Philosopher John Dewey once said, "Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination." Dr. Hilleman had that audacity and so much more.

Dr. Hilleman's creative brilliance underscores the importance of fostering diverse, creative thinking in the next generation of problem solvers and changemakers. Not a generation of Hilleman carbon copies, but scientists with new hopes and new ideas, galvanized by the same drive to create.

Aidan Lin's winning essay

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"No! I thought she was getting better!" My mom burst into tears as she heard that her beloved 66-year-old aunt Yin in China had just passed away on Easter, due to liver complications caused by chronic hepatitis B, a disease she had been fighting since childhood. My mom's fear of hepatitis B was at an all-time high because three generations before her were tormented by this disease, and her own father died of cirrhosis at age 53. The generations were infected through neonatal infection or horizontal transmission, a tragic trend in the family. Thanks to Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman's cutting-edge work as the leading vaccinologist of the 20th century, my sister and I both received the hepatitis B vaccine shortly after birth, thereby alleviating my mom's anxiety.

The 1981 vaccine for hepatitis B was a scientific and technological breakthrough from start to finish. The recombinant hepatitis B vaccine was based on the Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) gene which was inserted into yeast or cells free of any concerns associated with human blood products. It was inexpensive to produce and was used worldwide for newborns to prevent later development of chronic liver disease. Dr. Hilleman became the first person to develop a vaccine against a virus that causes liver cancer. His innovative work has directly benefited my family and almost every family in the world.

Throughout his career, Dr. Hilleman used the combination of his intellectual brilliance, ingenuity, and tenacity to develop over forty vaccines which eradicated common childhood diseases and saved nearly eight million lives each year. His amazing ability to see the big picture enabled him to successfully stop a 1957 pandemic. When acting on reports from Hong Kong which signaled a looming flu pandemic in 1957, he convinced U.S. chicken farmers not to kill their roosters as part of a public health mobilization. Having grown up as a farm boy, Dr. Hilleman foresaw the need for enough fertilized eggs to have adequate raw materials for mass vaccination. When the flu strain hit the United States, thanks to Dr. Hilleman's prediction and creative use of resources, the country was prepared with 40 million vaccine doses.

Dr. Hilleman's accomplishments came from his imagination and creativity in everyday life. He found inspiration and opportunity in daily situations. One night in 1963, he was awakened by his daughter, Jeryl Lynn, who was sick with a sore throat. He diagnosed her with mumps and took a culture from her throat. This culture was to become the basis of the mumps vaccine that is still in use today!

Dr. Hilleman's originality and vision was driven by his commitment to finding creative ways to save lives and reduce children's suffering. Besides vaccine development, one of Dr. Hilleman's ingenious ideas was to combine the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines into one (MMR), leading to better compliance with improved coverage and injection safety, lower costs, and fewer visits to medical services. As someone with a phobia of needles, I am so thankful for MMR as Dr. Hilleman has truly made vaccination less painful for children.

I am grateful for Dr. Hilleman's persistent quest to save the world's children and his invention of the hepatitis B vaccine which changed the fate of my family. Dr. Hilleman introduced novel approaches to vaccinology that would not have been possible if he had not been a highly creative scientist. As a high school student passionate about the biomedical field, I am forever inspired by Dr. Hilleman's ingenious mind as I strive to be a free thinker! 

Thomas McConkey's winning essay

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People across the globe spanning centuries have enjoyed Mozart's symphonies, Picasso's paintings, and Shakespeare's plays. These creative geniuses are renowned for their contributions in music, art, and literature. What is not as well known is that creativity is as important in science as it is in the fine arts. Maurice R. Hilleman is a great role model who demonstrates this. Dr. Hilleman was a virologist credited with the creation of over 40 vaccines during his life. Some of his most notable vaccines include the MMR, Asian flu, and varicella. He used creative methods unlike any other at the time that involved blenders and mouse brains, chicken eggs, and his own daughter.

Japanese encephalitis is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that causes inflammation of the brain. During World War II, mosquitoes wreaked havoc on soldiers fighting on the Pacific front. Dr. Hilleman had begun development of his first vaccine around this time. He discovered that he could blend up the mouse brains, grow the virus in them, and then inject formaldehyde to kill the virus. The dead virus would provide immunization without being infectious. He and his team cleared out an old barn and began their mice dissection operation. Using his creative technique, Hilleman was able to produce enough vaccines to immunize just over 600,000 U.S. soldiers.

While he was successful in suppressing the Japanese encephalitis epidemic among U.S. soldiers, Dr. Hilleman made a greater impact on the world by being the first to predict a pandemic. He read in the newspaper of an epidemic in Hong Kong where 10% of the total population were infected. He hypothesized that this spark would carry over to the United States and eventually lead to a worldwide pandemic. As soon as possible, he collected samples of the virus from infected people. He used the samples to develop a vaccine by growing the virus in chicken eggs in order to attenuate it. As the virus grew stronger against chicken cells, it weakened against human cells. These weakened Asian flu strains were used in the creation of the Asian flu vaccine. Many people were vaccinated for the Asian flu before it even reached the US. Dr. Hilleman's innovative ideas and methods were very effective in reducing the severity of the pandemic.

During the Asian flu pandemic Dr. Hilleman had to travel across the globe to acquire specimens of the virus from foreigners. To develop his mumps vaccine, instead of taking infectious samples from strangers he was able to obtain them locally from the comfort of his home. When his eldest daughter, Jeryl Lynn, had come down with a case of mumps, he seized the opportunity. He swabbed her to extract a sample of the virus from her and used the strain of mumps from his daughter to develop a vaccine which would later be used to immunize millions of other children. The Jeryl Lynn strain is still being used today and has resulted in a 99% decrease in cases of mumps since the 1960s. If it weren't for Dr. Hilleman's mumps vaccine, he wouldn't have been able to create the MMR vaccine which is a combination of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. Never before could children be immunized from three diseases with only one shot.

Dr. Hilleman used his creative thinking and techniques to develop his vaccines. His ingenuity has likely saved millions of lives, maybe more. His vaccines are masterpieces comparable to the works of Mozart, Picasso, and Shakespeare. If their unique creations endured centuries, then surely Dr. Hilleman's vaccines will endure millennia.