2023 Writing prompt:
 Preparedness is an important component of science as demonstrated by Maurice Hilleman when he identified the 1957 influenza pandemic. How is preparedness critical in science today?

2023 Student winners:
  • Brendan Bai
  • Gilia Madel Clemente
  • Jai Nair
  • Aneri Shethji
  • Gabriel Small

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

2023 Teacher winners:
  • Jerry Citron, Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
  • Brian Eberhardt, Lake Middle School, Woodbury, MN
  • Janellen Lombardi, North Allegheny Senior High School, Wexford, PA
  • Clara Salja-Morris, Sunrise Ridge Elementary, Surrey, BC
  • Ava Thompson, Garden City Collegiate, Winnipeg, MB

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 membership to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), compliments of NABT.

The Vaccine Education Center would like to thank our 2023 Canadian co-sponsors:

2023 essay contest co-sponsor logos

We would also like to thank our contest patrons:

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


Crowd-sourced Preparation 
Winner: Brendan Bai, Canada

 Hear a recording of Brendan's essay.

Download Brendan's essay in French, as it was originally composed. 

With the constant threat of viruses, preparedness through science is more crucial than ever. The ability to predict and respond quickly is essential when dealing with a virus, or a deadly disease, and in many areas of science. Microbiologist Maurice Hilleman showed the importance of preparation with this ground-breaking work. Preparedness is important, especially in today's times, because of proactivity, global connections, and audience connections.

One of the most essential things with preparation is preventive research. Presence of mind and proactivity enable researchers to prepare for impending challenges, such as virus mutations, and mass outbreaks during a pandemic. A perfect example of preventive research was the approach of Maurice Hilleman when he formulated a vaccine for influenza A. Hilleman saw that there was an epidemic of the new disease, and with his proactivity he formulated a vaccine against this virus before it arrived in America. Today, preventive research is essential to monitor and develop effective solutions.

To develop a solution in science, collaboration and global cooperation are necessary conditions. In today's interconnected world, collaborating with other healthcare organizations has never been easier. There's no reason not to do it as soon as possible. With global surveillance, shared resources, and a compilation of expertise around the world, scientists can speed up the process of formulating vaccines. The development of the Covid-19 vaccine has shown unparalleled global collaboration. Everyone is working together to develop a solution, and thanks to that, Covid can be controlled. Dr. Hilleman recognized the importance of collaborating with other health organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Preparedness is not just about preparing scientists. It is preparing the public as well. Maurice Hilleman knew that facts were important because he was doing everything he could to win the public's trust, and he was advocating for vaccines. But today, the importance of having the trust of civilians is more important than ever, especially with the spread of disinformation and fake news. Scientists need to be a trusted source in the public eye. The best way to do this is to involve people and provide reliable and understandable information.

In today's ever-changing world, preparation is valuable and essential. Lessons from Maurice Hilleman, such as his proactivity, his enthusiasm for collaborating with organizations around the world, and his engagement with the public underscored the importance of preparedness. If scientists continue to follow these principles, science will move much faster than if they never prepared. But with the preparedness, and the influence of Hilleman, science will be able to develop and continue to save millions of lives.

Light or Shadow for Greatness and Discoveries 
Winner: Gilia Madel Clemente, Canada

 Hear a recording of Gilia Madel's essay.

Science is full of mysteries; everything has possibilities that no one might predict. Threats and risks from various occurrences may happen as a result of our ignorance. Our world now and then can be a horrible place to live because of natural disasters or the spread of disease. The influenza pandemic of 1957 demonstrated how helpless humans are in the face of a virus and how swiftly life can be taken. However, Maurice Hilleman showed that we can take control of the virus if we can prepare for it. Preparedness, if sustained, can be a light that will always lead us to greatness and discoveries, but if forgotten, it can also be a shadow of darkness that will seize mankind rapidly.

Science is a field where being prepared is crucial since scientists are concerned with both the present and the future. Being ready gives us the opportunity to view the world from a different perspective and innovate further. Yet, preparedness can’t be easily obtained, because it requires continued and connected actions. Dr. Hilleman showed how effective but difficult preparedness can be. He started getting ready for the new influenza strain by learning that the prior vaccination wasn't going to work because the virus was continually evolving. While reading the newspaper, he kept an eye out for Hong Kong's outbreak of the Asian Influenza. The succession of his influenza vaccine wouldn’t be possible if he didn’t have a vigilant eye for every single matter that can be trivial in the end.

Preparedness is a big risk and you might be skeptical of errors, but when you proceed, it can reduce failure. Dr. Hilleman also had this experience when he dared to speculate about what might occur when classes resumed in the fall. However, Dr. Hilleman lessened the likelihood of failure and casualties because of the preparation he took. Due to his ability to anticipate what would happen, he had enough time to prepare. Thus, when the Asian influenza hit, many lives and resources were saved.

When individuals become comfortable, this kind of readiness is often forgotten, and this could lead to a period of dark times for science. Asia experienced coronavirus in 2019. Like influenza, the new virus had severe lung impact. Countries were unprepared for the sickness and let their defenses down, costing many deaths. Now, scientists were under pressure to create a vaccine because the world is depending on them because of the crisis. After 1-2 years, many countries appear to recover immediately, but the quality of life during a pandemic in a low-income country is still on the verge of catastrophe. More people are constantly dying, businesses are shutting down, and some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to steal money from the people.

Not every nation will be able to keep up with the disaster response phase. Futures were snatched from many children in a nation with poor incomes. Although the pandemic is no one's fault, it does show how inadequate preparation, particularly in less adaptable nations, may cast a shadow over a country.

Although we can't predict what will happen tomorrow, that doesn't mean we can't take action today. Even if we are only simple people in a strange universe, science gives us a chance to live. Science is more than just a field; it is a perpetual struggle with the unknowable, and preparedness combined with science makes breakthroughs possible. The value of preparation is frequently overlooked, but it serves as a link and a shadow between science and a breakthrough or a dilemma.

Today's Idea, Tomorrow's Solution  
Winner: Jai Nair, United States 

 Hear a recording of Jai's essay.

Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” Our slow and recent recovery from the COVID19 pandemic has made us understand how important it is to be prepared for a future where there might be a sporadic infectious disease or other public health outbreak. How can we stop it from happening again? Better yet, how can we fight it before it happens? With the different pathogens discovered every year, we might not be able to prevent infectious disease outbreaks, but we can surely be prepared for one. Preparedness and planning will help us manage, mitigate and recover sooner and help save millions of lives. Scientific preparedness is a set of precautionary measures that include predicting or identifying the future threat, analyzing data, conducting evidence-based research, developing the required therapies/vaccines, testing new innovations, establishing effective response systems, recruiting and training healthcare workers, and maintaining robust distribution capabilities.

 Dr. Maurice Hilleman, who is regarded by many as the father of modern vaccines, was a proponent of using preparedness to actively track and predict outbreaks of infectious diseases. After graduating from the University of Chicago with his PhD, Dr. Hilleman worked in the pharmaceutical industry developing vaccines. He developed a vaccine against the Japanese B encephalitis which was required to immunize the US troops during World War II. He joined the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to study military-threatening illnesses and how influenza can undergo changes in characteristics, which he dubbed as “drift and shift.” This experience allowed him to foresee the influenza pandemic in 1957. He urged manufacturers to develop the vaccine within 4 months, which substantially reduced the number of deaths in the US. He continued to actively study other pathogens and emerging infectious diseases and research vaccine developments.

 Like Dr. Hillman, other scientists, like Jonas Salk, developed the first effective polio vaccine. His dedication and preparedness helped in the near eradication of polio worldwide. Most recently, Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, played a crucial role in the development of the mRNA vaccine technology. Their discovery of modifications that made the mRNA molecules stable and immunologically inert to avoid adverse immune reactions while still effectively delivering the vaccine antigens laid the foundations for the development of the mRNA-based COVID vaccine. It was instrumental in the global response to the pandemic and helped save many lives worldwide. Now, many programs have been put into place that help us be prepared for future outbreaks. An example is the WHO’s (World Health Organization) Health Emergencies Programme, or the WHE, which focuses on managing and responding to health emergencies worldwide. Also, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has enhanced its preparedness by funding infectious disease research, encouraging collaboration between different scientists and research institutions, supporting specialized training and education, facilitating emergency and rapid response research to address emerging disease threats etc. Through this, NIH is fostering the response capabilities for public health emergencies of the nation.

 Preparedness is now a global campaign. All the nations in the world identify the need for preparedness in science and consequently have in place systematic measures to ensure the safety and security of its people. It has become essential for scientists to be prepared with the required knowledge, technologies and resources to identify and respond as quickly and effectively as possible. This common enemy of infectious diseases does not see country boundaries and different socio-political backgrounds and attacks without purpose or intent. We need to be prepared to coordinate and fight back together to win the war against these microscopic threats.  

Anticipating the Unexpected: Harnessing Preparedness for Scientific Advancement
Winner: Aneri Shethji, United States 

 Hear a recording of Aneri's essay.

In scientific exploration, a steadfast component shines with unwavering importance: preparedness. It illuminates the path for scientists as they navigate through the vast landscapes of uncertainty. Dr. Hilleman's achievements serve as a testament to the pivotal role of preparedness in scientific endeavors. They emphasize the importance of knowledge, meticulous research, and proactive steps to navigate and respond effectively to emerging challenges. Preparedness is an indispensable attribute in modern science, empowering scientists to address issues by leveraging strategic planning with interdisciplinary collaborations, taking precautionary measures, and considering externalities.

Dr. Hilleman’s dedicated work during the 1957 influenza pandemic exemplifies the importance of preparation with integrative partnerships. During the emergence of the H2N2 strain, Hilleman swiftly identified the virus. Drawing upon his extensive background in virology, he recognized the significance and potential severity of this new strain, which enabled him to rapidly mobilize his resources and initiate the development of a vaccine. However, Hilleman's preparedness extended beyond the scientific realm. He recognized the critical importance of effective communication with governmental health agencies, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies. This awareness fostered a synchronized effort in addressing the pandemic, amplifying the impact of his scientific preparedness. His legacy continues to inspire scientists today, reminding them of the critical significance of preparedness as they strive to make breakthroughs and protect public health.

Furthermore, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 demonstrates how preparedness proved pivotal in developing response strategies. As scientists meticulously monitored the volcano, they detected a series of warning signs—seismic activity, ground deformation, and increased gas emissions—signaling an impending eruption. Equipped with advanced monitoring systems and established protocols, their preparedness allowed them to gather and analyze crucial data. Scientists accurately predicted the eruption's magnitude and timing, empowering authorities to swiftly execute precautionary actions. Evacuating over 60,000 people from surrounding areas, they averted a potentially catastrophic scenario. Lives were spared, and the potential devastation was mitigated through their preparedness. The historical episode of Mount Pinatubo highlights the profound significance of preparedness in scientific monitoring and response planning.

Today, a lack of preparedness can be seen in the new artificial intelligence (AI) era. The rapid development of AI technologies has outpaced our ability to comprehensively address their ethical and social implications. Privacy breaches, algorithmic biases, and job displacement have become rising concerns surrounding AI. As these systems become more autonomous, their impact on society magnifies, illustrating a necessity for preparedness. The lack of preparedness in anticipating the socioeconomic implications of AI automation has resulted in challenges related to job displacement and the need for retraining and reskilling programs. There is an increased risk of unforeseen biases ingrained in AI algorithms, perpetuating discrimination and exacerbating societal inequalities. Ethical considerations, such as transparency, fairness, and accountability, must be integrated into the fabric of AI development to mitigate these potential risks. By acknowledging the transformative power of AI, we can actively shape policies to ensure a smooth transition and equitable distribution of benefits. The path to responsible and beneficial AI lies in our ability to recognize the importance of preparedness and take the necessary steps to shape its development in a way that aligns with humanity’s values and aspirations.

As the frontiers of science continue to expand, preparedness remains an unwavering companion, empowering scientists to anticipate, respond to, and mitigate the impact of emerging challenges. From the notable example set by Maurice Hilleman to the multifaceted dimensions of preparedness in science today, it is evident that readiness is a cornerstone of scientific progress. By embracing preparedness, scientists can protect public health, enhance knowledge, and contribute to a better future for all.

Educating the Populace 
Winner: Gabriel Small, United States 

 Hear a recording of Gabriel's essay.

It was March of 2020, and lines crowded any convenience store in sight, whether a local bodega or a Target. The news on the block was that a new virus was coming to the United States, and it was coming fast. As people lined up to prepare for the oncoming storm, many had realized that it was already too late. Toilet paper was long gone, and with it, kitchen staples. Without preparation, it was clear that a harsh summer lay ahead.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical preparation was soaring at a rate never seen before. By the time of the major North American Covid waves, Moderna was already undergoing clinical trials for their vaccines, thanks to brand new and increasingly popular mRNA technology. Using mRNA, the vaccines can make the human body produce viral antigens, creating a defense in a safe and effective manner. So safe that by December, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were already authorized for emergency use.

The one roadblock left standing: the lack of preparation within the populace. Along with the rise in vaccine technology over the past decade has been a steep rise in vaccine skepticism. Whether with the MMR vaccine or the polio vaccine, anti-vaccine communities and activism was at an all-time high, and with the lack of education and the surplus of misinformation, there was no sign of it lessening. Even though the government and other trusted sources insisted that mRNA vaccines were safe, social media led to a proliferation of conspiracies such that even educated people were starting to have doubts. The real danger which nobody prepared for was the power of vaccine misinformation, and the danger that it would cause, not only to individuals, but also to the herd and its immunity.

Preparedness is critical in science today, as it minimizes the casualties for future events, whether pandemics or droughts. Hand in hand with the technology though, lie the people who are to use such technology, which is why scientific education is paramount to preparedness. We can learn from our mistakes in the past, and use them to power us forward, leaving us super-prepared for the future.

In times of crisis, people look for comfort in what they want to hear, allowing conspiracies to grow. When even powerful politicians preach the uncertainty of medical practice and science, doubt is bound to erupt, but this is not without reason. People fear the unknown, and science, as simple or complicated as it is, lies in that category for most people; it is unfamiliar. This is where not only the scientific community has to step in, but society as a whole. People should learn how vaccines work, albeit in a simple form.

Instead of being delegated to advanced classes, such as biology, where people might not listen, not remember, or not even learn about vaccines, vaccines should be presented to people early on, so as to not be alienated from the process. If everyone could understand at least a little bit how vaccines work, there would be no room for conspiracy or fear (aside from fear of just a needle).

If everyone understood how vaccines worked, we would’ve been much more prepared for Covid, and as a result, many lives would have been saved. On the other hand, right now we stand at a crossroads, where we can predict how a pandemic might replay in the future, and we have the opportunity to start to prepare. Beginning with education, not only will we be ready to vaccinate people and protect people, but a new generation of scientists and doctors will be born.