RALEIGH — Spend just a few minutes talking to Dr. Sallie Permar about her career path and life here in Raleigh, and it’s even more impressive that such a humble, gracious, down to earth mother of two is also one of the most prestigious pediatric specialists in the country on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Permar was recently appointed the new chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and Pediatrician-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and its Komansky Children’s Hospital. She was recruited from Duke University School of Medicine, where she serves as professor of pediatrics, immunology, and molecular genetics and microbiology; associate dean of physician-scientist development; and founding director of the Children’s Health and Discovery Institute.
It is no surprise that since earlier this year, the North Carolina native has spent much of her time working towards the development of a coronavirus vaccine that can be used to safely treat children. In addition, her normal research focuses on the treatment and prevention of viral infections in newborns. She and her team are working on the development of vaccines to prevent mother-to-child transmission of viruses such as HIV, Zika and cytomegalovirus (CMV). She discovered a protein in breast milk that neutralizes HIV, and developed a nonhuman primate model for congenital CMV infection, now being used to test CMV vaccine strategies. “If you can prevent an infection from the first day of life, or from very early on, you’re giving that child a chance at a lifetime of development, health and wellness,” Dr. Permar says. Among her peers, Dr. Permar is known for mentoring the next generation of pediatricians. She says, among other things, she views her work in immunology and studying the human immune system as her way of being able to give back to humanity through her community.
Q: You grew up in Raleigh. What about your education and upbringing in North Carolina informed the path you have taken?
A: “Well my love of science originated early on in school. I grew up in the public schools system having attended a magnet elementary school, Washington Elementary, then I went to Martin Middle School and later to Broughton High School. I think it was the public schools system that really introduced me to science. It was my 9th grade science teacher Mr. Baker actually that really sparked my interest in science. At the time, it was really unique for a female to be so interested in the STEM subjects, STEM was not as big a part of the curriculum back then as it is today, so a lot of young girls weren’t encouraged to pursue science like their male counterparts. But at no point in my education did I feel any different than the guys in my class. That is to say my teachers all encouraged me to pursue my love of the sciences because that is where I excelled. I’d also say my parents fostered my love for community service and giving back to others which is what I feel I do every day in my role as an immunologist and physician-scientist. I want to give back to the community and help people and the way I see myself doing that is through my research and improving the health and well-being of humanity. That really all came from seeing my parents engage in community service.”
Q: Who are some of your personal and professional mentors/heroes?
A: “I certainly had some very strong mentors who cared about my career and where I ended up, not just that I was working on what they were working on at the time. While I was at Davidson College, it was my biology professor Dr. Malcolm Campbell that was my mentor. While in graduate school, it was Dr. Diane Griffin that I looked up to. She studied viruses in children. And then in medical school, it was Dr. Norman Letvin, who studied nonhuman primates which is something I currently do as well in my research. I looked up to him and he actually studied under Dr. Fauci at one point. I actually have a few former mentors who studied under Fauci. He has had an impact on a lot of physicians lives.”
“I want to give back to the community and help people and the way I see myself doing that is through my research and improving the health and well-being of humanity.”
Q: Throughout COVID-19, your experience as an immunologist has been sought after, and you have advised numerous local organizations in NC. What innovations and mistakes have been made in your opinion, and how soon do you predict we’ll get back to some sense of normalcy?
A: “No one could have seen this coming, but we should have been more prepared. We had warning signs in previous years when both the SARS and MERS viruses hit. Those were also transmitted to humans via animals. But we have spent the last several years underfunding public health and haven’t made things like testing, tracing, or isolating part of our priorities. I think if we’d developed rapid testing for COVID sooner and had leadership from the top warning us just how deadly this virus could be things would be very different right now. I mean, we still have a debate going on now about the efficacy of masks! In terms of getting back to normal, I have sat on the advisory boards for my kids’ schools and the YMCA of the Triangle and advised them to open back up for safe socially distanced learning and operations so I hope we get back to normal relatively soon because I think we need to do it for our kids’ sake.”
Q: How should our response to COVID as a country inform our nation’s public health policies moving forward? What policies have worked during the pandemic both nationally and statewide?
A: “Yes, over and backwards MASKS! But also putting testing strategies in place in co-living environments like universities. Duke has done a great job containing any major outbreaks through systematic and even random testing. This can often catch outbreaks before they balloon.”
As a physician-scientist Dr. Permar spends the majority of her time doing research and the other time seeing patients. She says she realistically thinks the earliest we could have a vaccine for treating COVID in children is next summer because up until now trials have only been done on adults and the elderly and a whole new round of clinical trials will need to be performed on kids. On a personal note, Permar says she will certainly miss North Carolina but is excited for the new chapter. She begins her new role at NewYork-Presbyterian on December 1, but plans on doing the first few months virtually while her husband, a PR professional, looks for a job and also in order to help her kids finish out the school year and more easily transition to life in the Big Apple.