News

Alumna Focus: Sallie Permar ’97 Recognized by White House for Contributions to Global Pediatric Health

by John Syme
Sallie Permar
Sallie Permar, photo courtesy Duke Photography (Les Todd)

Sallie Permar, M.D., Ph.D. '97 has won a 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Permar, a Duke University Medical School research physician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, knew from the start that she wanted to pursue scientific research at Davidson.

Soon, her undergraduate research mentors helped her discover a corollary passion: applying research in the lives of real patients, children in particular. Now, with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a medical degree from Harvard, Permar's passion for pediatric medical research has only grown since her first experience in the field, at a Zambian hospital as a Davidson pre-med.

"As a pediatric scientist and the mother of two children, I am passionate about giving children the best possible start to a full and healthy life," she said.

In October 2013, a Smithsonian magazine article, Discovered: A Natural Protein in Breast Milk That Fights HIV, profiled a research paper by Permar et al, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences. In December 2013, the White House notified Permar of her award, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Since then, she also has been named the 2014 Young Investigator Award winner of The Society for Pediatric Research.

Permar's current work centers on two viruses, and the havoc they can wreak in the lives of infants around the globe: HIV and human cytomegalovirus, or HCMV. The latter is a herpes virus that can go unnoticed in healthy people, but can be life-threatening for vulnerable populations and newborns.

Microbiology and global health are complex, so Permar counts daily on the solid communications skills of her Davidson liberal arts education, as well as her two doctoral degrees, to think critically-and simultaneously-about scientific detail and about the big picture.

A passage from the Smithsonian magazine article:

"Whatever those other factors are, though, the finding vindicates recent changes to UN guidelines that recommend even HIV-positive mothers in resource-poor countries should breastfeed, if they're taking anti-retroviral drugs to combat their own infection. That's because-as statistics bear out-the immense nutritional and immune system-boosting benefits of breast milk outweigh the relatively small chance of transmitting HIV through breastfeeding. Tenascin C, it seems, is a big part of why that transmission rate is surprisingly low, and sufficient access to anti-retroviral drugs can help drive it even lower-as low as 2 percent.

"‘I don't think it's in breast milk to combat HIV specifically, but there have been other, related infections that have passed through breastfeeding,' Permar says. ‘Our work has shown that Tenascin C's activity isn't specific to HIV, so we think it's more of a broad-spectrum anti-microbial protein.'"

Building Confidence, Gaining Success

A Raleigh native, Permar recalls her interest in scientific research as relatively "undifferentiated" when she arrived for her first year of studies at Davidson. Under the mentorship of Professor of Biology and Director of the James G. Martin Genomics Program Malcolm Campbell and Paul B. Freeland Professor of Biology and Director of the Pre-Medical Program Jerry Putnam, she soon found herself on a Davidson-sponsored trip to spend a summer at a rural Zambian hospital run by a Presbyterian missionary.

She remembers that the windows in the cinderblock walls of the bare-bones hospital had no screens. More strikingly, she remembers that there was no "middle generation" of villagers due to the AIDS epidemic, which had wiped out huge numbers of young adults across Africa. When a measles outbreak hit, part of Permar's work was to figure out how to open an isolation ward in such a setting as that bare-bones hospital.

"I remember thinking, ‘And this is a disease we have a vaccine for,'" she said. "I knew that this was where I wanted to contribute my efforts, reducing the effects of infectious diseases through vaccination."

Back on campus, she asked Campbell about next steps. Though he didn't teach immunology per se (Davidson now has an immunologist on its biology faculty), Campbell invited her to collaborate with a project involving antibodies. She was reminded then of why she chose Davidson in the first place.

"There's no cadre of grad students, fellows and post-docs in a Davidson laboratory setting. If you run into a hurdle, you could ask Dr. Campbell, who's not going to always be right there with you, or you can figure it out yourself. So there was a great deal of independence. I owe a lot of my confidence and success to him," said Permar.

That confidence and success was her springboard for earning dual doctoral degrees from two different universities simultaneously, an endeavor for which many told her she was, in a word, crazy. She forged ahead.

"Don't accept no for an answer. If it's something you really want to do, just keep trying. I didn't let anyone tell me I couldn't achieve it," said Permar, who employs two fellow Davidson alumni/ae in her own lab now.

She views her work with HIV and HCMV on the broader canvas of modern medicine. For instance, she said, when the vaccine for rubella, a disease which can cause blindness and deafness, came into widespread use, some schools for the deaf and blind eventually had to close for lack of students.

The hope of such a success for today's most serious childhood viral infections continues to inspire Permar.

"We may have all the tools in our hands, but we need to put all those tools together and study which ones will be most effective as a vaccine," she said.

From vaccines to immunology, from White House award ceremonies to African missionary hospitals, the bottom line is the same for Permar:

"I think everyone should be able to be born with a clean slate and a healthy outlook."

Media Coverage

News & Observer names Permar Tarheel of the Week.