January 20, 2013

Michael Callahan, M.D.

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Michael-CallahanMichael Callahan, M.D., an alumnus of the UAB schools of Medicine and Public Health, has pioneered revolutionary methods of producing vaccines and predicting and reacting to virus outbreaks. 

Callahan has been on the scene at some of the world’s most famous—and dangerous—virus outbreaks, including H5N1 avian flu in Hong Kong in 1999 and 2001, SARS in Hong Kong in 2003, Marburg in Angola in 2004, and so on. He also has responded to recent Ebola virus outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lassa fever in Nigeria, and controversial laboratory accidents resulting in the infection of scientists at foreign biohazard laboratories.  

But Callahan’s most enduring contribution to health care may come from the lab rather than the field. Since 2005, he has been a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the secretive R&D center of the American military. Callahan was recruited to DARPA “to work on fast-paced solutions to health threats,” he says. His biggest mission: Create a government-funded drug research and production capability focused strictly on national priorities, such as defense and pandemic preparedness, rather than profits.

“The Department of Defense had no idea how to make drugs, and neither did I,” Callahan recalls. But they knew they needed to learn how.

Callahan’s interest in combining medicine and travel started early. The Boston native put himself through college at the University of Massachusetts and graduate school at UAB by working as a paramedic. He started traveling overseas on relief missions in the early 1980s; in 1988, he founded a charter organization that provided emergency medical evacuation and refugee medical care in developing countries.

He determined to pursue a career in infectious diseases, and was initially attracted to UAB by the well-regarded Master of Public Health program in international health at the School of Public Health.

“I came to UAB at a time of explosive research growth in the late 1980s, during the heyday of the HIV epidemic,” Callahan says.

After graduation, Callahan worked in a research lab at Tufts University for a few years before returning to Birmingham to attend the UAB School of Medicine. In 1996, he was awarded the Tinsley Harrison Scholarship for his work in infectious diseases.

To learn why Callahan's considered a "Master of Disaster", read the full story in UAB Magazine. Photo by Joseph Ferraro, Massachusetts General Hospital