skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXV, No. 3
February 1, 2013

previous story

next story


Nearly a Century of Research Combined, Two NIAID Infectious Disease Experts Retire

Drs. Robert Purcell and Albert Kapikian, world-renowned virologists in the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases (LID), have retired after remarkable careers at NIH.

Purcell, chief of LID’s hepatitis viruses section, came to NIAID in 1963. He is perhaps best known for his contributions to the development of the first licensed vaccine for hepatitis A and to the creation of vaccines for hepatitis B and E.

Kapikian, chief of LID’s epidemiology section, has worked at NIH for more than 50 years. Known as “the father of human gastroenteritis virus research,” he and his colleagues were the first to identify norovirus, initially called Norwalk virus, as a cause of epidemic gastroenteritis. He also led a decades-long effort to develop the first licensed vaccine for rotavirus, the most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea worldwide.

“Bob and Al are two giants in the field of virology,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “Both not only have made seminal contributions to the understanding of viruses, they also have translated their discoveries into vaccines that are today preventing disease and saving lives.”

While at NIAID, Purcell helped change the landscape of hepatitis research. In 1972, he and colleagues at the CDC developed the first hepatitis B animal model, a breakthrough that finally allowed researchers to observe the course of disease. The following year, he, Kapikian and Dr. Stephen Feinstone identified and characterized hepatitis A virus. In 1978, Purcell demonstrated that hepatitis non-A, non-B (now called hepatitis C) is transmissible by blood and can remain infectious within the body for a lifetime. Purcell’s noteworthy discoveries continued in the early 1980s, when he and his collaborators discovered hepatitis D, and in the 1990s, when he and his colleagues identified the fifth strain of hepatitis, hepatitis E.
Photo of Dr. Robert Purcell Photo of Dr. Albert Kapikian Photo of Purcell at left and Kapikian at center are shown with Dr. Stephen Feinstone next to an electron microscope

Dr. Robert Purcell (l) and Dr. Albert Kapikian (c) recently retired after nearly 100 years combined at NIH; in photo at right, Purcell (l) and Kapikian (c) are shown with Dr. Stephen Feinstone next to an electron microscope now on display in the lobby of Bldg. 50.

Purcell’s research did not stop with characterizing hepatitis viruses. He helped develop the first licensed vaccine for hepatitis A and played a major role in developing a licensed vaccine for hepatitis B. He and his collaborators later demonstrated that vaccination against hepatitis B protects against hepatitis D. Purcell also has worked to develop a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis E, which has not yet been licensed.

Purcell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has authored or co-authored more than 700 publications. He received the Gorgas Medal from the American Association of Military Surgeons for distinguished work in preventive medicine and the Squibb Award from the Infectious Diseases Society of America for excellence in the field of infectious diseases. He will continue to conduct research at NIH as a special volunteer.

“When colleagues leave NIH, I have a tradition of comparing them to a single baseball player,” said Kapikian. “Bob reminds me most of Derek Jeter, the star shortstop of the New York Yankees, not only for his great talents and achievements, but also for his consistency, modesty and care for the welfare of the team—attributes of a real Hall of Famer.”

Kapikian made several discoveries during his NIAID career that broke new ground in the study of gastroenteritis viruses. In 1974, while conducting studies in infants and young children hospitalized with diarrhea, Kapikian and his colleagues detected human rotavirus. This was the first reported detection in the U.S. of the virus, which had been discovered in Australia a year earlier.

Kapikian led a nearly 25-year effort to develop a rotavirus vaccine. He and his research group defined the mode of transmission of rotavirus, identified the viral proteins critical for triggering an immune response and formulated a vaccine aimed at protecting against several important rotavirus strains. Their efforts ultimately led to the development, testing and FDA approval in 1998 of the first rotavirus vaccine. Kapikian’s work has led to second-generation rotavirus vaccines and ongoing efforts to improve rotavirus vaccines and expand their use in the developing world.

“Al’s relentless good will, kindness and rigorous approach to science set a high bar,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “He has been a touchstone for everyone working in the field, both in this country and across the globe. Without Al, the development of a rotavirus vaccine would have taken considerably longer.”

Kapikian’s accomplishments earned him the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal, the Children’s Vaccine Initiative Pasteur Award and the Maurice Hilleman/Merck Award, among many others. He will continue to work part-time at NIAID to help oversee the licensing activities of LID’s rotavirus vaccine candidates.

“One of the joys of working in the LID for almost 50 years has been my association with Albert Kapikian,” said Purcell of his colleague and friend. “Al has always been extremely generous with his time and expertise, and his love of good science is exceeded only by his love of baseball—specifically, the New York Yankees. Scientific discussions almost always include a baseball story.”

NIGMS’s Tompkins Retires to Embrace Life as an Artist
By Kirstie Saltsman

A colorful glass disk with an abstract design glows in the window of Dr. Laurie Tompkins’ office. Tompkins, who retired from NIGMS in December 2012, said she made the piece on a cheerful spring day, and, as with all of her fused-glass artwork, she improvised as she went.

The same spirit of spontaneity had a hand in bringing Tompkins to the institute 13 years ago. At a review meeting for NIGMS grants, Tompkins, who was then an NIH-funded biology professor at Temple University, told the scientific review officer that his job seemed interesting. To her surprise, he stepped away briefly and returned with the description for an NIGMS program director vacancy that seemed like a perfect fit. The only problem was the opportunity closed in 2 days.
Photo of Dr. Laurie Tompkins Photo of The glass sculpture “Anemone” she created.
Dr. Laurie Tompkins recently retired from NIGMS; she’ll now concentrate full time on her career as an artist. The glass sculpture “Anemone” she created.

Nevertheless, she applied, got the job and joined the NIGMS Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology in 1999. She rose to chief of the division’s Genetic Mechanisms Branch in 2008 and acting director of the division in 2011.

Tompkins is an expert in genetics. She earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University in biology with a concentration on genetics and conducted postdoctoral research on neurogenetics at Brandeis University. Her Temple lab studies focused on the genetics of reproductive behavior in fruit flies, one of many model organisms that scientists use to study human biology. She used her knowledge in these areas to nurture and expand the portfolio of NIGMS-funded research related to the genetics of behavior, including the 24-hour “circadian” rhythms that help our bodies keep time.

“She took over a program that was very small, and over time built it into a very prominent program focused on circadian biology,” said Dr. Marion Zatz, a close colleague of Tompkins’ who also retired from NIGMS. “It flourished under her management.”

Another area she developed was genomics resources for studying model organisms. As a former fruit fly researcher, Tompkins understood the value of and need for comprehensive resources on model organisms. She spearheaded the trans-NIH fly initiative and oversaw several other trans-NIH and even trans-governmental efforts to establish and maintain model organism databases.

Tompkins is also credited with helping to create an entirely new program for funding innovative, potentially high-impact research that could transform a scientific field. The Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) program grew jointly from her research experience and her artistic, avant-garde spirit.

As a former researcher, she said, “I understand the frustration of not being able to test wild and crazy ideas because of lack of funding to do them. I always challenged hypotheses when I did research. I like to test the limits, both as an artist and as a scientist.”

In 2012, EUREKA was subsumed by the NIH-wide NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program, supported by the Common Fund. Tompkins helped guide the program’s expansion and served on its steering committee until her retirement.

In addition, she is highly lauded for her scientific, communication and organizational skills.

“I hear so many compliments about her from applicants and grantees, especially about the outstanding guidance she has provided to help them navigate NIGMS’s and NIH’s often-confusing programs and policies,” said acting NIGMS director Dr. Judith Greenberg. “Her communication skills have been greatly appreciated by both the outside community and her colleagues at NIH.”

What will Tompkins miss most about NIGMS? “The people,” she said, without hesitating. She said her colleagues at NIGMS are the best people she’s ever worked with.

“They give you a nudge when you need it, and they give you support when you need it,” she said. “The people here make you do your best.”

Tompkins looks forward to embracing life as an artist. She and her husband plan to move to their house in Hawaii, where the ocean views and resplendent garden will provide ample inspiration during the next phase of her life.

New Program Directors at NIGMS
Dr. Tanya Hoodbhoy
Dr. Robin Broughton
New NIGMS program directors Dr. Tanya Hoodbhoy (top) and Dr. Robin Broughton

NIGMS recently added two new program directors to its scientific staff.

Dr. Tanya Hoodbhoy joins the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, where she oversees research grants in the area of developmental genetics. She was formerly a program director in the Office of Strategic Coordination of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives. Prior to that, Hoodbhoy was a scientific review officer for the biology of development and aging integrated review group at CSR.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Occidental College and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, Riverside. Hoodbhoy conducted postdoctoral research on the molecular mechanisms underlying mammalian fertilization and early development at the University of California, Riverside, and NIDDK.

Dr. Robin Broughton joins the Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity. She administers the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement, a development program for students from underrepresented groups. Before joining NIGMS, Broughton was an AAAS science and technology policy fellow at NCI, where she served as a project manager in the Office of Cancer Genomics. Prior to that, she was an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Meharry Medical College.

Broughton earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from North Carolina State University and a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Wake Forest University. She conducted postdoctoral research on the role of cellular membrane proteins in HIV budding patterns at John Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Children’s Inn CEO Russell a ‘Washingtonian of the Year’

Photo of Kathy L. Russell

Kathy L. Russell, chief executive officer of the Children’s Inn at NIH, was named one of 10 Washingtonians of the Year for 2012 in the January issue of Washingtonian magazine. She was cited for her lifelong commitment to “creating a haven for kids battling illness.”

Russell was a founding member of the inn in 1990. She also helped launch Special Love, a nonprofit that runs Camp Fantastic, a summer program for kids with cancer.

Dr. Philip Pizzo, the inn’s first medical director when he was chief of the Pediatric Oncology Branch at the National Cancer Institute, was quoted in the Washingtonian: “It’s because of Kathy Russell that thousands of children and families have been supported through the perilous journey of catastrophic disease. In a nation that sometimes struggles to find true heroes, Kathy stands out for her integrity, love for others and devotion to making Washington and the world a better place.”
The story is online at


back to top of page