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Harbiger dinner

Alumnus shares perspective from a career of pursuing cures

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When the world was gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, Dr. Greg Poland frequently found himself at center stage in the national and international media. The SIU School of Medicine alumnus (Class of 1980) is a professor of medicine, infectious diseases, molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

His knowledge of virology made him a reliable scientific resource for journalists and broadcasters seeking explanations of best practices for our best defenses. 

With a gentle yet authoritative manner, he is able to convey complex, ever-changing data in ways that the public can understand.

He has decades of experience and innovation to draw upon. At Mayo, Poland founded the Vaccine Research Group, which created the field of viral vaccine immunogenetics and the immune response network theory, helping develop novel vaccines important to public health. He has published nearly 700 scientific papers on the group’s work.

Dr. Poland has been an outspoken advocate for mandatory flu shots, inspiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation for all persons over the age of six months to get one. He has received numerous career accolades, including Mayo Clinic’s Department of Medicine Lifetime Research Achievement Award and SIU Medicine’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Poland is also editor-in-chief of the journal Vaccine and has been a medical advisor to four U.S. presidents. As the son of a career Marine, speaking truth to power came gradually to the Arlington Heights, IL native, but he has grown to embrace it. And he is still a practicing physician, treating his patients holistically, with care and empathy.  

Dr. Poland returned to Springfield in Spring 2023 to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater and speak at the school’s annual Harbinger Society Dinner. During his extended visit, Poland met with as many SIU faculty, staff and student groups as time allowed. He also made it his mission to confer with leaders in the medical community from outside of the SIU organization and discuss what they considered vital to improving the region’s health care.

On Saturday, May 20, Poland was again at center stage, ready to congratulate and motivate the newly minted doctors in the Class of 2023. First, he offered a sobering assessment of the challenges they faced. He expressed frustration over the current state of medicine, which he believes is failing in its mission of providing affordable and equitable care for all. With eloquent fervor he identified several “problems, predicaments and possible paths forward.”

A primary concern was the nation’s lack of a shared, trusted reference point. Without a consensus from which to guide and govern, the U.S. pandemic response was less sure-footed at a historically crucial time, Poland  remarked. It led to bad outcomes; vaccine uptake and adherence to preventive measures were low despite having ample resources.

He viewed the growing narcissism in society as an aggravating factor. When a population is increasingly self-centered, consideration for the well-being of others recedes. “There needs to be a profound shift from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ mindset,” Poland said. To combat the erosion of trust in medicine, he encouraged the new generation of health care professionals to take “the narrow, hard, lonely and less-traveled road” in their careers and focus on service to others.

“‘Dreamer,’ you may say. But I remind you that what seems impossible today can move to improbable, then to possible, and finally to inevitable. We must see that the surest way to make dreams come true is to live them and to insist upon them.” 

Poland’s determination, knowledge and “insistent” approach has been a boon to public health and the global medical community for the past 40 years. He is living proof that a physician on a mission can have a terrific impact.

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