Tom Daschle Takes to the Classroom to Discuss the Future of Biodefense

By Dixie Downing

Former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle (D), left, praises Schar School for entering the field of biodefense as program director Gregory Koblentz looks on. Photos by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

“Oftentimes, we are reactive instead of proactive, but you all are being proactive,” said Tom Daschle, in praising Schar School and George Mason University students for studying biosecurity.

The former Democratic Senator from South Dakota joined 25 Schar School students and the director of the biodefense master’s, graduate certificate, and PhD programs, Gregory Koblentz, for a discussion followed by a question-and-answer session. The Tuesday, February 19, afternoon talk was Daschle’s first conversation regarding biodefense with a classroom of students interested in the field, he said.

Daschle’s ‘reward’ for making his Schar School debut—and his first talk with biodefense grad students—was a tee shirt.Since leaving the Senate in 2005, Daschle worked as a policy advisor before starting his Washington, D.C., consulting firm, the Daschle Group. It’s primary focus is providing public policy representation to Fortune 500 companies on concerns such as biodefense and health policy.

Daschle opened his remarks by recalling the horror and the uncoordinated response to an anthrax attack in his Capitol Hill office a month after 9/11. Daschle, then Senate Majority Leader, and his staff received letters laced with deadly anthrax spores. More than two dozen individuals in his office tested positive for the disease. There were no deaths.

Schar School students asked questions on a variety of biodefense related topics including the anthrax attack on Congress, never-before-seen diseases, and what governments can do to defend citizens against future biowarfare. Daschle spoke passionately about the importance of biosecurity breaches, stressing the urgency to take meaningful steps towards stronger biodefense policies.

“You all are the leaders that we will turn to when this [biological threat] happens, and it will happen in your lifetime. When it happens, we are going to need you.”

The former senator’s message was clear: Students in the field of biodefense will one day be at the forefront of national security and health policy.

Christy Caudle, a freshman global affairs student from Austin, Texas, said Daschle’s directive on the importance of biodefense research “is very necessary to increase the resources we have to cater to the threats we are seeing.”

“From being a policy-maker to an advocate on the outside, it was a great experience to get his perspective,” Koblentz said.

The talk, Koblentz said, “was really engaging, and he had some really good advice for the students. Students should study biodefense because this is a threat that will never go away. We need to be prepared, and in order to do that, we need to have background in science and policy—which is what you get here." 

The biodefense graduate programs at the Schar School give students a working knowledge of natural and manmade biological threats. Annette Prieto, a master’s student in biodefense from Miami, found Daschle’s classroom discussion thrilling and a fitting compliment to other aspects of the program.

“I appreciate the networking opportunities and how the professors do a really good job of connecting with the students,” she said. “We have professors that are in the field working right now. They give us advice on not only what we need to look for now, but what we can do in the future.”

Anthrax attack survivor Daschle to students: ‘You all are the leaders that we will turn to when this [biological threat] happens, and it will happen in your lifetime. When it happens, we are going to need you.’