Developing the Next Generation of Biosecurity Leadership

When I was a new analyst, I thought that the only thing I needed to correctly interpret and make unique contributions to biosecurity policy was the highest possible volume of raw data, facts, figures, statistics and stories that I could shoehorn into my brain. The more well-read I was, I thought, the more sound my research and other output would be. Frankly, younger me was dead wrong. Of course, reading (smartly) in your field on a daily basis is absolutely critical, but there are limits to what information alone can accomplish. To use an old chestnut, it is necessary, but not sufficient, for success.

If I was asked to identify the single most important factor for success, it would take me half a second to answer -- my network. The people who I can bounce my latest crazy idea off of, the people who I continue to learn from, and the people that inspire me to get better day in and day out. Hands down, my coworkers at the Center for Health Security, and my growing ring of colleagues and contacts, have been responsible for more intellectual growth than all of the information I’ve willed myself to absorb over the years. To that end, I'd offer the following recommendations: 

  1. Identify people who are smarter than you

  2. Actively learn from them. This involves asking a lot of questions.

  3. Talk about what you know. Don’t be a knowledge miser.

  4. On occasion, go out for a beer. 

Now here’s the rub. Is this process replicable? While concerns regarding and planning for biological emergencies have been a serious focus of governmental interest since at least the Second World War, what we now call health security (which encompasses biosecurity) is a relatively young and insular area of study, policy and practice. With several exceptions, it’s not taught in graduate schools, and there has not been an obvious path for graduate students or early career professionals to learn about the field, or how they might contribute. That is, until recently.

In 2012, the Center, with support from the Department of Defense, launched the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). ELBI’s goal is to provide a path into the biodefense world for young scholars and practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds and expose them to both historical and current issues in biosecurity writ large. To date, we’ve had 81 highly talented alumni go through the one year program, and it’s been gratifying to watch them rise in their respective careers. They either are currently, or in the near future will be, the people whose phones ring when the next crisis erupts. It’s our hope that the nation’s health and security will benefit from their service, and hopefully, from the lasting bonds they’ve created.

Today, we’re opening the application period for the 2016 class. If you’re at all interested in biosecurity as a discipline, I’d encourage you to apply, because sometimes, it’s who you know that matters most.