Trinity may be a liberal arts college, but it’s produced a disproportionately large number of outstanding scientists in its 190-year history. One such scientist, Christopher Hillyer ’80, president and CEO of the New York Blood Center and a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, appeared at a Common Hour event Thursday, kicking off a semester-long series called “Science for the Greater Good.”
The series of lectures featuring Trinity alumni is aimed at answering the questions: How is science used for the greater good? How does science contribute to society? And how are Trinity alums active in this process?
Hillyer, who majored in biology at Trinity, is a prime example of a Trinity graduate who, after attending medical school, has utilized his experience and knowledge to make advances in the field of transfusion medicine, which is a subspecialty of hematology, and to help combat diseases such as AIDS and malaria, primarily working in Africa.
Hillyer told students in the Washington Room in Mather Hall that science is an attitude, a way of thinking. “Every single field is related to science in some way, shape or form,” he said. A major goal, he added, should be to “apply scientific methodology to advance society.”
Although Hillyer noted that at one time blood transfusion was thought of as “a lazy little field of hematology,” it has grown significantly in its importance. For example, many infectious diseases are spread through blood transmission and large numbers of mothers and their babies die during childbirth because of inadequate or unavailable transfusions.
Hillyer decided that Africa was fertile ground to conduct work and to establish safe ways to make blood safe and thus limit the risk that something could go horribly wrong if a sick person is being transfused. “The whole purpose is to transfuse people so they don’t die,” he said.
Blood transfusions are also critically important when dealing with victims of car accidents. For example, 5 million people die from trauma each year, he said, and it’s the leading cause of death for people ages 5 to 44. In the African nation of Rwanda, traffic collisions are the third leading cause of death, primarily because victims aren’t transported to hospitals quickly enough to receive blood transfusions.
Through his work and using various grants, Hillyer has trained African doctors to operate blood centers and he has created standard operating procedures for them to follow.
Hillyer offered many insights that he’s gained over the years, which he shared with the students in the Washington Room: Care about people. Thank people. Step outside of your comfort zone. Give credit but take the blame. You can’t change the rock, but the rock can be climbed. Be flexible. Be fallible. Build consensus and take responsibility. Do 10 percent more each day. When it’s not going your way, change your game. Learn to write.
Before accepting his job with the Blood Center in New York City, Hillyer was the Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, where he also served as director of the Emory Center for Transfusion and Cellular Therapies.
He is an editor of eight textbooks in transfusion medicine, including the 16th -18th editions of the AABB Technical Manual, as well as the author of more than 120 articles pertaining to transfusion, human immunodeficiency virus and herpes viruses.
Hillyer is also a past president of the board of directors of AABB and a former trustee of the National Blood Foundation. He’s been awarded millions of dollars in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies. He is an associate editor of Transfusion.
Hillyer was recognized for his work in Africa as part of the AABB/Emory cooperative agreement from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and is the recipients of two Tiffany Awards from the American Red Cross.
A co-founder of Transfusion & Transplantation Technologies, Inc., he holds more than 20 patents or patents pending.
After receiving his B.S. from Trinity, Hillyer received his M.D. from the University of Rochester Medical School of Medicine, with postgraduate training and fellowships in hematology-oncology, transfusion medicine and bone marrow transplantation at Tufts-New England Medical Center.