2022 Writing prompt:
Maurice Hilleman was a determined scientist. Describe what this means and provide an example of determination in science.  

2022 Student winners:
  • Cole Hogan
  • Julia Li
  • Adalia Ligon 
  • Lindsay McBride
  • Ravi Prévost 
  • Soroush Torfehnejad

Scroll down to read or listen to the winning essays, posted in alphabetical order.  

2022 Teacher winners:
  • Charles Baker, École Dr. Charles Best Secondary School, Coquitlam, BC 
  • Rosemary Evans, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, ON  
  • Kambria Metcalfe, San Rafael High School, San Rafael, CA
  • Jess Reid, Academy of Notre Dame, Haverford, PA  
  • Sarah Russell, Christ the King Catholic School, Calgary, AB 
  • Denise Vinton, Central High School, Springfield, MO 

Teachers listed on winning entries each received 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.

The Vaccine Education Center would like to thank our Canadian co-sponsors for helping us expand the Maurice R. Hilleman Essay Contest into Canada in 2022.

essay contest partner logos - stacked

We would also like to thank our contest patrons:

  • National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT)
  • Mrs. Lorraine Hilleman

Determination as Inspiration
Winner: Cole Hogan, Canada

 Hear a recording of Cole's essay.

Determination has been the inspiration for many individuals in advancing our world into its current modernized state. Determination is a personal decision to achieve one’s goals or in the eyes of Dr. Maurice Hilleman, change the world. Ambitions that set out to improve the overall health of society and the strength to prevent others from interfering with one’s success and innovation, are examples of determination in its truest form. Determination drives one’s actions to accomplish utmost aspirations in a multitude of areas, such as science and technology. 

Persistent determination and scientific brilliance fueled Hilleman’s medical work. His motivated mind and ability to create solutions to problems led to scientific improvements such as the combined Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) viral vaccine, which is still used more than 50 years after its development, saving countless lives each and every day. This astonishing achievement did not come without struggles. Hilleman dedicated his life's effort to ensure the younger population could safely reach maturity, with the intention to safeguard future generations to come from the perils individuals faced at a young age. Hilleman continuously faced criticism from those who wanted to control and restrain his behaviour, which could have ultimately limited his scientific contributions to humanity as a whole. For example, after disclosing to his professors he wanted to enter industry to push scientific advancements, his professors advised against this. They suggested he enter academia, and further lengthened his studies as an attempt to guide Hilleman’s achievements. “Dr. Hilleman’s work is estimated to save about eight million lives every year” (https://hillemanfilm.com/dr-hilleman), and the absence of Hilleman’s vaccines would be catastrophic to our society. 

Similar to Hilleman, many individuals are fueled by determination. Frederick Banting’s optimism, creativity, and determination to treat individuals diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes led to his success in becoming one of the co-discoverers of insulin. Banting had the revolutionary idea of creating a purified pancreatic extract to help those suffering from Type-1 Diabetes, so that patients would no longer need to suffer through restrictive diets and other unpleasant treatments which barely kept them alive. Banting’s drive to accomplish this task was unstoppable, and although many doubted Banting's work he continued to strive, pushing through hardship and discouragement. Remarkably, in only a few months Banting and his research team had successful test results, and discovered what came to be known as insulin. Driven to succeed, no outside influence could alter the ground-breaking outcome of Banting's ideologies. Determination exhibited by those like Banting and Hilleman to advance scientific knowledge have equipped the world with medical advancements that bring relief and safety to children and adults all around the world. 

From ideas to reality, individuals determined to solve chimerical dreams are those that perpetually transform our world into its modern state. The creation of vaccines and insulin saves numerous lives daily. Both Hilleman and Banting contributed to our world in ways that others have not. Setting their minds to the task of scientific revolutionization, Hilleman and Banting surpassed others by taking risks, and continuously investing their time and effort into tasks that many others would have avoided. In turn, Hilleman and Banting’s determination enriched the health of the global population.

Hilleman Film.com, Vaccine Education Center at CHOP. “About Dr. Hilleman,” March 09, 2022, https://hillemanfilm.com/dr-hilleman
Newman, Laura. “Maurice Hilleman.” BMJ: British Medical Journal vol. 330,7498, April 20, 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC557162/
Wonder Collaborative. Dr. Banting's Miracle Drug, May 8, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVG7xlY7xVg
Tan, Siang Yong, and Jason Merchant. “Frederick Banting (1891-1941): Discoverer of insulin.” Singapore medical journal vol. 58,1: 2-3, January 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5331123/.

Determination: The Key to Success  
Winner: Julia Li, Canada

 Hear a recording of Julia's essay.

Imagine being born into a sprawling city in the early 1960s, when you had a 90% chance of being infected with the mumps disease by age 14. Mumps, a highly contagious virus that causes fever, swollen glands, and exhaustion, can kill. But now, there are only 500,000 cases globally. Mumps didn’t just disappear on its own; it took one scientist’s unwavering determination to find a solution.

It was March 23, 1963, when his 5-year-old daughter told him she was feeling unwell — a fever and swollen throat — the typical symptoms of Mumps. Without hesitation, he swabbed the back of her throat and set to work in his laboratory. Determination drove him from a single cotton bud to a new vaccine that would soon save millions of children.

This is Dr. Maurice Hilleman, a virologist that dedicated his life to developing over 40 vaccines that save nearly eight million lives each year. Science, as Dr. Hilleman so beautifully shows, is a human endeavour. A single spark can open doors to new realms of discovery, new intersections of knowledge that can move from the laboratory into industries and communities. However, science is also a journey, a never-ending collective process of tenacious resolve and steadfast commitment by driven individuals. Science is built from determination to create change.

Great discoveries arise from fierce determination and compassion. Our past and present achievements underscore that the biggest dreams only become a reality when someone was unwilling to stop. Determination is tireless; it’s a fuel that toils to achieve a goal. For Dr. Hilleman, his goal was a pursuit for humanity, to save millions of children from the ravage of infectious disease. Hilleman was driven: every time he developed a new vaccine, he would cross it off a list of all the organisms he wanted to develop a vaccine for. Determination brought him every step closer to his goal.

Determination is toughened through failure. In 1957, when Dr. Hilleman found out about a flu epidemic in Asia, he immediately isolated the virus, fearing the outbreak could manifest into a pandemic. Hilleman discovered that the vast majority of the population did not have antibodies to the virus, meaning that it could easily unfurl in America. Determined to prevent the virus from spreading, he warned the US Public Health Service and military-based Influenza Commission, but they dismissed his worries, calling him “crazy”. However, this obstacle did not cease his determination— it only made it grow. Bypassing the American vaccine regulatory agency, he contacted six manufacturers directly. By late fall, over 40 million doses had been distributed. Had Hilleman not persisted, the death rate would not have been 70,000, but a million. With determination, Hilleman pushed even harder when obstacles stood in his way.

Determination doesn’t only drive and create, it inspires. When Thomas Edison was developing the incandescent light bulb, he tested carbonized filaments of every plant imaginable and thousands and thousands of other materials. His determination is true to his words, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Both Edison and Hilleman inspire me not because of their success, but of how they achieved that success. They’ve taught me that science is not made from brilliance. Rather, science awards character, hard work, and determination. Knowing that discovery and invention are achieved through determination, is life-changing for me. If society can value determination as the key to success, all of us — no matter our race, gender, age, or religion— will be driven in a new direction. Forward.

Lise Meitner: Determination Amid War and Zero Credit
Winner: Adalia Ligon, United States 

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Science is meant to be hard, and if it isn’t, then how are you learning? If you never experience the difficult parts, you’ll never find your AHA! moment. However, sometimes the hard part of science is the part you should not ever have to do. Sometimes women have to fight for recognition in what they have discovered. In many cases, women have worked hard on their ideas, just to have men claim that it was theirs. This has happened too many times throughout history to count. 

For one example, Lise Meitner was a nuclear physics scientist, specifically studying nuclear fission. In 1906, after she received her doctorate degree from the University of Vienna, she attended Max Planck’s lectures on radioactive science, and then partnered up with a man named Otto Hahn to study radioactivity. “During three decades of association, she and Hahn were among the first to isolate the isotope protactinium-231 (which they named), studied nuclear isomerism (compounds being arranged in different ways) and beta decay, and in the 1930s (along with Strassmann) investigated the products of neutron bombardment of uranium” (Britannica.) She was at the front of modern nuclear science studies, but she was not able to continue working in the lab. Since she was Jewish, she left Germany, as it was no longer safe for her to be in the country due to the Nazi regime. There is a great possibility she would have been killed if she stayed.

On November 13, 1938 Hanh and Meitner met secretly in Copenhagen. She suggested that Hanh and another scientist, Strassmann, continue further research on some uranium products that they thought were radium. When they found out that it was actually barium, they published the results in Naturwissenschaften on January 6th, 1939. At the same time, Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch were working on naming and explaining nuclear fission, and their article was in Nature on February 11, 1939. Meitner was not in Germany at the time, but still actively working on research. The work done by Hahn and Strassman required information from the research produced by Meitner and Frisch to be completed. Without their input, Hahn and Strassman would not have been able to reach a conclusion, and Hahn would not have been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

In 1944, Hahn won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for the work he originally started with Meitner. Although Lise Meitner did a share of the work, she was not mentioned and was given zero credit for the discoveries. Hahn not only did not fight this, he even came up with a good, believable excuse to why she did not and should not get credit for her part of their discoveries.

Meitner initially decided not to speak up because she did not want to be associated with the creation of the atomic bomb. However, directly after the war, she was recognized by the United States as being instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, and her reason for staying quiet was ruined.

Though she never achieved a Nobel Prize, Meitner continued to work in her field. In the following years, she won the Max Planck Medal, Enrico Fermi Award, and the Otto-Hahn Prize for Chemistry and Physics.

As you can see, Lise Meitner was incredibly determined like many scientists like Maurice Hilleman and Jane Goodall, for she continued to work even after people saying that she was of no help to the discovery of Nuclear Fission, even though they were later found to be wrong. She was a remarkable scientist who deserved more credit than she was given.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Lise Meitner". Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Nov. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lise-Meitner. Accessed 3 June 2022.

"My Hobby is Working"  
Winner: Lindsay McBride, United States 

 Hear a recording of Lindsay's essay.

Rural Montana, circa 1926.

“Would you like a strawberry, sir?”


We can only imagine the conversations of young Maurice Hilleman, toiling on his family farm from sunup to sundown. Dr. Hilleman fed chickens, picked berries, and gathered horses — not exactly a glamorous job by any means. But it demonstrated a consistency true for much of Dr. Hilleman’s life: the work with the least fame can often have the greatest impact. 95% of American children will receive the MMR vaccine, and many will have no idea that Dr. Hilleman is primarily to thank. Even some scientists cannot name the researcher behind the measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chickenpox vaccines. The New York Times has deemed him a “forgotten hero”; Forbes a “forgotten pioneer”. But it is impossible to truly forget the impact of Dr. Hilleman’s work — his legacy physically lives in each of us. Dr. Hilleman did not care about recognition; he focused on the tedious demands of research and never looked back. Dr. Hilleman put in the long hours that no one else dared match. While we can toss around the word determined in conversation, it may never compare to the example shown through Dr. Maurice Hilleman.

Determination carried the Montanan microbiologist straight to his professional and personal goals. When asked about his pastimes, Dr. Hilleman responded: “My hobby is working.” Scientists do not enter the lab and magically get perfect data, curing every disease — research is a time-consuming and often disappointing field. Viruses mutate, vaccines are no longer effective, immune responses fail. But Dr. Hilleman was not caught up in the downfalls. He framed these events as research questions, and used them to revolutionize the field of virology. In 1957, Dr. Hilleman persuaded six vaccine makers into producing 40 million vaccine doses, bypassing the FDA standards at the time. In 1963, Dr. Hilleman’s daughter had symptoms of the mumps, so in the middle of the night, he swabbed the back of her throat, went into the lab, and by 1967, there was a vaccine. It may not have been a word he used to describe himself, but determination was embedded into the essence of Dr. Hilleman’s work.

Another example with the same core message of diligence involves the late scientist Sara Josephine Baker. Dr. Baker focused most of her career on reducing infant mortality rates in New York City’s poorest areas, where up to 4,500 people died each week. Thanks to Dr. Baker’s efforts in educating mothers about sanitation practices, blindness rates decreased by ninety-nine percent. But it didn’t stop there — when 3,000 New Yorkers were infected with Salmonella typhi, Dr. Baker was determined to find the source. Neither vaccines nor antibiotics existed to treat the epidemic. When Dr. Baker and the police finally found “Typhoid Mary”, she was uncooperative and evaded them for five hours. But Dr. Baker did not give up, and successfully tracked Mary as the source of the outbreak. This is impressive enough on its own — but it changes when we realize only 6% of doctors were female in 1900. Even fewer were openly lesbian. In a time filled with prejudice and homophobia, Dr. Baker remained committed to serving the most vulnerable populations. Her story is deeply reminiscent of Dr. Hilleman’s undying passion for vaccine research; both offer a potent reminder of how we can persist when challenges arise.

Determination took on many forms in Dr. Maurice Hilleman’s life, whether unsellable fruit or unsuccessful experiments. Inspired by the legacy of Dr. Hilleman, we must stay the course in our own lives, too — vaccines will there to protect us along the way.

Determination in the Face of Setbacks and Skeptics   
Winner: Ravi Prévost, United States

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Determination is a key component of the scientific process. Without it, important discoveries are abandoned due to a failed hypothesis or unexpected issues derailing the outcome. Dr. Maurice Hilleman’s tenacity resulted in numerous advances in the fields of microbiology, infectious disease, and vaccinology. The development of the Japanese Encephalitis Virus vaccine is a key example. He was under contract with the U.S. army as this virus was devastating American troops in the Pacific theater during World War II. Under strict time constraints, he grew the virus in mouse brains and crushed them with blenders, an arduous task given the method of preparation, which resulted in the occasional leak of liquified brain tissue. Despite numerous obstacles, Dr. Hilleman produced an effective vaccine that saved the lives of soldiers and people who lived in endemic regions.

Pathologists Barry Marshall and Robert Warren provide a more recent example of this type of determination. Based in Perth, Australia, they frequently saw hospitalized patients with gastric ulcers that bled severely and sometimes necessitated radical surgery. Stress was the prevailing hypothesis behind the etiology of gastric ulcers. Patients were treated with antacids to suppress stomach acid production. However, the ulcers usually returned, and doctors were stumped on how to prevent these relapses.

Suspicious of stress as the culprit, Marshall and Warren investigated alternative explanations. While not trained researchers, they knew how to take biopsies from afflicted patients and use those samples to identify potential causes. The pair cultured a possible agent, a bacterium then referred to as Campylobacter pylori (Now Helicobacter). However, finding an organism in diseased patients was not enough to demonstrate causality. In addition, they couldn’t find a suitable animal model for studying their hypothesis. Since the bacterium only colonizes primates, access and ethical concerns prevented this avenue of experimentation. In desperation, Marshall used himself as a subject and drank a broth containing the bacteria to see if he would develop an ulcer. Instead, he contracted acute gastritis and treated himself with metronidazole and bismuth. No ulcers formed.

Koch’s postulates are used in infectious diseases to demonstrate causality between a pathogen and a related disease. This series of tests was laid out by German microbiologist Robert Koch. It involves extracting the organism from a diseased subject, exposing the subject to the organism, and then extracting the same organism from the latter subject’s tissues. The difficulty with Helicobacter pylori is that infection isn’t usually symptomatic and can be cultured from healthy individuals. In fact, most people worldwide have some level of infection, making the bacterium hard to distinguish from a passenger organism that coincidentally inhabits diseased tissues.

An alternative method to demonstrate causality shows the efficacy of a treatment known to work against the organism to cure the disease. For gastric ulcers, Marshall and Warren needed to prove that antibiotics could prevent recurrence. They ran experiments to demonstrate success using metronidazole. To address skepticism, their findings were independently verified. Metronidazole became the standard of treatment for gastric ulcers, leading Marshall and Warren to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.

Proving their hypothesis took determination over a decade. They had to face numerous setbacks and limitations of experimentation. While their fellow scientists and physicians were intrigued by their idea, they demanded rigorous evidence due to the existence of an already-established treatment with known efficacy. Ultimately, the overwhelming amount of evidence was able to turn their hypothesis into a theory. As a result, gastric ulcers went from being a chronic disease to an easily curable condition, improving the lives of millions worldwide, much like Dr. Hilleman and his numerous life-saving vaccines.

A Second Look at Brilliance   
Winner: Soroush Torfehnejad, Canada

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“It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.”

-Joseph-Louis Lagrange

“After I have been executed, raise my head and count how many times I blink.” Those were the famous last words of Antoine Lavoisier, a French Chemist from 18th century. In his last moments he dedicated his mind, body, and soul to the improvement of science and medicine. His devotion to chemistry and mathematics created the foundations for many scientists after him such as Maurice R. Hilleman who create world-changing vaccines and treatments. Even though their early lives and societal influence were vastly different, they both had one similarity: their dedication to the improvement of science and wellbeing.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” Winston Churchill depicted how we create our surroundings, which later “shape us.” Lavoisier and Hilleman, who came from vastly different backgrounds, contributed much to their respected fields. Lavoisier was born a child of a wealthy aristocratic family in the 18th century with many connections and opportunities; however, Hilleman didn’t have those prospects, being the youngest of eight siblings raised only by their father and uncle on a farm. Later on, he worked hard in high school, acquiring scholarships for higher education during the harsh times of the great depression. Needless to say, Lavoisier didn’t work hard, but his father never approved of his profession, wanting him to become a lawyer like him. In his later life, Lavoisier created the basis of modern chemistry and wrote the first chemistry textbook. With Lavoisier’s dedication to chemistry, he was able to create the foundations for many scientists such as Hilleman, to create vaccines for a variety of diseases, saving the lives of children world-wide. Their environments, families, and “buildings” were polar opposites to each other; however, they both helped to improve modern science and medicine. I agree with Churchill that people’s surroundings will inevitably “shape” them, but with dedication they can surpass those concrete “buildings” and create a luscious garden.

Success is an iceberg. People see the top of it but there is so much work that had to be done under the water to be able to create the tip. We only look at success, never the challenges, hardships and problems that come with it. A scientist may fail a thousand times before a breakthrough. When Lavoisier was just seventeen years old, chemistry was not considered a true science like physics. He persevered through challenges and created a laboratory where many scientists performed experiments. He worked day and night in that lab until he discovered one of the most famous chemistry concepts. The conservation of matter theorem is a concept that is used by anyone who’s involved in chemistry and biology. This theorem was applied by Hilleman while calculating the product of his compounds. His strides in medicine saved many lives. The first thing he said after joining the E. R. Squibb pharmaceutical company, was: “I came off a farm, I wanted to make things!” Both men had the dedication and determination from square one to help humanity.

As we look though history, we can see many people who have worked hard to improve medicine and science. Hilleman created forty vaccines, with nine of them being a part of the fourteen essential vaccines for kids. Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, created the foundation on which many other scientists built. His death was a mistake that the French have officially apologised for but: “France may not produce another [scientist] like [him] in a century.”