Scientist, Powerhouse, Immunologist, Researcher, Doctor, New York City

On March 23, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported cases of Ebola Virus Disease in the forested rural region of southeastern Guinea. The identification of these early cases marked the beginning of the West Africa Ebola epidemic, the largest in history. World Health Organization (WHO) convened an urgent meeting to assess the efforts underway to evaluate and produce safe and effective Ebola vaccine as soon as possible. Dr. Patricia Fast was part of the WHO’s task force in Geneva that ended up organizing four clinical trials to prove the vaccine candidate was safe and gave an immune response, a scientific triumph.

Dr. Fast is trained as an immunologist and a pediatrician. Since 1990 she worked on HIV vaccine clinical research and developed live influenza and Cytomegalovirus vaccines. Dr. Fast oversaw, developed and ran first HIV vaccine trials in Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, and India. Her accomplishments also include overseeing the first trial in Africa of a prophylactic HIV vaccine based on a virus strain that is prevalent in Africa.

For as long as I’ve known Pat, she has fought for the underdog, listened to, mentored and encouraged countless women. She is continuously optimistic and humble about her incredible achievements (to a point where you find out some of the interesting tidbits about her life as asides while she praises other women in Question 20). As another WOW Woman put it “Pat is an amazing combination of tough, caring, brilliant and genuine.”

It make me so happy to shine a spotlight on this WOW Woman.

1. Name.

Patricia Evelyn (Pat) Fast MD PhD.

 2. Where is your hometown?

Good question! I grew up in Los Angeles and Delta Colorado, mostly. I’ve lived in England, Michigan, Maryland and Northern California. Now (my husband) Mike and I split our time between New York City (Washington Heights) and San Jose California, plus lots of visits to our children in Tallahassee, Denver and Las Vegas.

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

Clinical investigator—trained as a pediatrician and an immunologist.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?

The journey was a bit haphazard. My proudest accomplishments are a happy marriage (40 years) and a family full of wonderful individuals, son, two stepdaughters, their spouses and each has a daughter. Professionally, I have worked for many years on how to prevent diseases, mostly HIV/AIDS, but also influenza and cytomegalovirus, working on the clinical trials that help to find effective vaccines and the epidemiology studies that help us decide how these diseases spread (so we can stop them).

5. What did you study in school?

Biology, immunology, medicine, pediatrics.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

At 20 I was trying to keep going with college while pregnant. I didn’t have a great vision of the future—I guess I thought I’d be a scientist/professor.

7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

There isn’t an effective HIV vaccine. I plan to keep working on it, and to work on the ‘end run’—giving people antibodies that are made in advance to protect people from infection.

8. Advice for other women?

Believe in yourself, be kind to those around you, don’t accept dogma and don’t give up.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

I encountered quite a bit of stated and unstated bias, and it definitely held me back at times. Somehow, though, I always felt optimistic that I could do whatever I wanted if I kept trying. Women need to learn how to fight back but only when they have to, and not to take the competition personally. Our goal should be the focus—and we need to work with whomever can help us get there (but there are some rules they have to follow about behavior of course).  And I think we need to work toward a world where everyone’s feelings and contributions are valued (even the guys).  

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

Swimming in the ocean.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

I’m not a very creative person—I like to cook for friends and family.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I want to speak Spanish, read a book every day or two, and have some small political impact.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I’m mostly OK with my fears, like fear of heights for example. I am a bit shy about meeting new people or strangers—would like to be more extroverted.

14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?

Visit my grandparents more. They were so wonderful to me when I was small.

15. What inspires you?

I’m most inspired when I meet people who are not necessarily privileged, but who make their life and the life of those around them better by being thoughtful, imaginative, hard-working and who have integrity.

16. What are you hopeful about?

We are making a lot of progress on curing diseases and I think better health will be in our grasp….IF we can just figure out how to do 2 things. 1) share with those who are not rich and 2) convince people to take the actions needed to preserve their health.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Friends, honesty, humor, work, and getting out of doors.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Don’t be such a self-centered brat.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I’m reading “Blink” and “Motherless Brooklyn”. Sometimes I give people books by Oliver Sachs.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?

1) Elizabeth Clark, (Grand Haven, MI). She took me under her wing when I moved to the Midwest as a divorced mother and introduced me to her great, diverse group of friends—weavers, potters, painters, scientists, you name it. Then she quit her job and sold her house and went to law school at 38, later becoming the first real ombudsperson at a big pharma company. Now, well into her retirement, she has become a very accomplished quilter. (I quit my job at 38 to go to medical school, so she was a real inspiration to me).

2) Susan Allen, (Atlanta GA). Susan went as a young doctor to Rwanda to do pathology and encountered the new, poorly understood HIV epidemic. She listened to the women she was testing for HIV, who said they could not tell their husbands for fear of being blamed, beaten, ostracized. She and her colleagues started to bring couples in together for testing, and Couples Counselling is still one of the most effective ways to reduce risk of transmission. She has worked for decades to support scientific discoveries and progress in prevention, and to foster the careers of many African colleagues.

3) Suzie Zolla-Pazner. Suzie is an immunologist who has studied the human immune system for decades. She is incredibly persistent and an out-of-the-box thinker. So far, only the one vaccine against HIV actually has protected people in a clinical trial, and she may have provided the critical clue as to how it works.

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

No web sites. My papers are on Pub Med.