Q&A: Husker alumna talks small-town Nebraska, football, women in virology

· 5 min read

Q&A: Husker alumna talks small-town Nebraska, football, women in virology
Women's History Month: Groundbreaking Husker Alumnae

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Connie Schmaljohn

Editor's Note — In observance of Women's History Month, Nebraska Today is honoring Husker alumnae who have made their mark on the world.

The Nebraska Center for Virology is currently hosting Flyswat, an annual retreat that draws virologists from around the country. This year’s retreat features an address by Connie Schmaljohn, senior virologist with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease – and a 1975 Husker graduate in microbiology.

Early in her career, Schmaljohn became the first to characterize hantaviruses, a family of rodent-transmitted viruses that can trigger hemorrhagic fever, kidney failure and other serious maladies in humans. In 2017, she received the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Senior Professional, the highest annual recognition given to senior-level employees of the U.S. government.

The native of Crete recently took time to answer a few questions from Nebraska Today about her Nebraska roots, her decision to work for the Army, and her path to prominence as a woman in virology.

How did growing up in a small Nebraska community shape your trajectory?

I loved almost everything about growing up in Crete. My best friend and I walked to school together every day from first through 12th grade, and we are still good friends. A huge advantage to the Nebraska small-town lifestyle was that we all had similar circumstances. No one was rich, and no one was poor, and the social standing of your parents was never even discussed. That sort of safe and non-judgmental environment provides young people with a sense of self-worth that carries through a lifetime.

In terms of practical shaping of my life, I think that working as a student gave me opportunities to see where I might want to go in the future. Detasseling corn was clearly not something I wanted to do for a lifetime, but working in the Crete Hospital Laboratory was fun and led me to work in hospital labs in Lincoln and Omaha all through college, too.

What do you remember most fondly about your undergrad experience? What did you carry forward from your time as a Husker?

This is an easy question: football. My first two years of undergrad included beating Oklahoma on Thanksgiving, Johnny Rodgers’ Heisman trophy, (an) Orange Bowl win (and a) national championship. I still tell people that although I had a National Merit Scholarship and could have gone to college many places, there was only one place that I could go to Nebraska football games. I am still a huge football fan and try to come back to at least one game each year, and of course (am still) tailgating with my Nebraska friends.

Outside of football, I loved some of my classes and professors. In particular, I have very fond memories of my first woman mentor, Dr. Ardyce Welch, in the microbiology department. I did a research project with her when I was a junior. This was my first introduction to virology. I witnessed her excitement when she was awarded a (National Institutes of Health) grant, which at the time I had no idea was something that was hard to do.

Being a Husker is part of my identity. I have lived in Maryland for more than 35 years, and my daughter was born and raised here. However, our frequent trips back to Nebraska prompted her to apply to graduate school at Nebraska. She recently completed her master’s degree in history there, studying immigrants in Nebraska.

My least fond experience? Organic chemistry.

What drew you to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease?

It was the facilities and the ability to do work on the most dangerous pathogens known to humans. In my postdoc interview tour, I went first to (the National Institutes of Health), which is where I thought I wanted to end up. However, my next stop was at USAMRIID, where I met my adviser. He convinced me that the work that USAMRIID did made a big impact on human health, which was my goal all along. USAMRIID was one of very few high-containment laboratories at the time, and the opportunity to do work in those laboratories is what ultimately drew me here.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman in virology?

The women who do well in our field are all strong, independent, very smart and work extremely hard. Despite often being the only woman, or one of a few women, in certain Army meetings, I have rarely felt that my opinion was discounted because I am a woman. That said, a lot of my success and strength came from having an excellent female graduate adviser, followed by a strong male mentor who was intent on furthering the careers of all of his people, regardless of sex.

I do believe that there is still a misplaced attitude that strength in women is not a good quality. Women are more harshly judged for being assertive than men are. Despite this attitude, I think that, overall, awareness of how women should be regarded has improved since I entered science. Nevertheless, I still need to remind colleagues, both men and women, to include women as chairs of panels, keynote speakers and invited contributors to publications. In the (United States), I don’t think that women are usually excluded on purpose, but they are just not the first to come to mind, even when they should be.

What would you say to young women considering the field now?

I have loved my career. The opportunities to explore and develop new ideas, then devise ways to test those ideas, are almost endless. I have traveled around the world, met many of my current close friends, and have had the most interesting collaborations I could imagine.

Science is not, however, an easy path to follow. Many evenings and weekends will be spent working on grant proposals or running into the lab to check on experiments. I suggest that anyone considering this field have a broad look at what sorts of jobs exist in various areas of academia, industry and government. There are many, many directions to go, and it is worth trying more than one of them if you aren’t sure where you want to end up. My most practical advice is to try to get a good postdoc (appointment) with an adviser who will help you achieve your potential.