Spotlight on Tom Ksiazek, director of high-containment laboratory operations, Galveston National Laboratory

May 17, 2016, 10:03 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
ksiazek_Sierra Leone
Tom Ksiazek, DVM, PhD, talks to a police officer in Sierra Leone during the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. Ksiazek spent six weeks there directing efforts tostop the outbreak through contact tracing and the development of a comprehensive database of patients and their close contacts.

Thomas Ksiazek, DVM, PhD, is a world-renowned virus expert with 40 years of experience on the front lines of some of the worst outbreaks the world has ever seen. He currently serves as director of high-containment laboratory operations for the Galveston National Laboratory, as well as professor in the departments of Pathology and Microbiology and Immunology.

Before coming to UTMB in 2008, Ksiazek was chief of the Special Pathogens Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he coordinated outbreak and control responses to especially dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, Marburg and SARS. In fact, along with a colleague, he discovered the SARS virus. Through the years, he has played a significant role in disease discovery and outbreak response efforts in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Ksiazek retired from the military in 1991 after 21 years of active-duty service with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Kansas State University, a master’s degree in virology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a PhD in epidemiology/virology from the University of California, Berkeley.
What does the future look like for you?
I still learn things from my participation with younger colleagues and students, and my contribution is often with older classical methods or techniques that folks no longer seem to get in their formal training. So the situation continues to be one of mutual benefits for myself and the younger generation of scientists that I have the privilege of working with each day.

You’ve said luck and timing have made your career interesting. How so?
I came of age in the ’60s and graduated from veterinary school in 1970. This was in the midst of the Vietnam War and I, like many of my classmates, was subject to the draft. A lot of us volunteered for the military through something called the Early Commissioning Program and then went on active duty when we graduated. I discovered that the Air Force offered advanced training in return for future commitment on my part. That got me into graduate programs at the University of Wisconsin and subsequently at UC Berkeley.

Somewhat similarly, some of my early science assignments provided practical experience with more senior individuals that had been working on infectious diseases in the field in the developing world. That combination of formal training and field experience, coupled with the luck of being in the right place at the right time and being able to collaborate with other individuals who had similar backgrounds, has made my professional career pretty amazing.

Through the years, you have worked in the “hot zone” of deadly virus outbreaks, including Ebola. Have you ever been concerned about your safety?
A longtime colleague and friend, Bob Swanepoel, often says that the safety aspects of working with “deadly” pathogens is 95 percent using your head. That includes understanding the way the viruses are spread and acting accordingly. For Ebola and several other agents, this means understanding that they are not transmitted by person-to-person transmission in the community, but rather by very close, unprotected contact. Once that is established, it should remove the personal fear factor from the equation. There are still higher risk aspects to dealing with outbreaks—patient care being the most obvious. If one doesn’t do patient care, the risk is essentially not there for folks who respond. When I was at the CDC, we used to say, “We always bring back the same number of people we deploy.”

What was your first job?
When I graduated from veterinary school, I worked in an animal hospital for small and large animals in upstate New York prior to my delayed entry in the Air Force.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I like woodworking and what I call recreational welding. I like to do mechanical things with my hands. It probably comes from my fraternal grandfather who ran a metal fabrication shop.

I understand you are a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast. Any favorite musicians?
I like all kinds of music, mostly older music from my younger years. I guess today you’d call it “classic rock.” I like to listen to it while I work. My interests are broad, but I suppose if I had to choose, I would say some of my favorites include the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Guns & Roses, ZZ Top, and I also like a lot of Motown and am a fan of movie soundtracks. I lived overseas a lot and missed some of this music when it first came out.

Do you have any hidden talents?
I also like photography, and in the last few years, I’ve done video compilations of images and music (sort of a la Ken Burns) of past events and outbreaks to commemorate anniversaries of things like hantaviruses in the Americas or the SARS outbreak.

What’s something you always wanted to do but have not done yet?
I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this, but I would love to go back in time to early periods in some of the places that I’ve lived or worked, particularly to see what they were like during Colonial times