As a Luther student in the 1970s, Mike Osterholm was an adventurous sort, scuba diving in the underwater caves of Northeast Iowa. Mike and his friends plunged under cliffs and sumps, and swam through murky tunnels to emerge in caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. “Some of those spots were so tight,” he says, “you’d breathe in and get stuck, then breathe out and push yourself forward.” Luther mentor, Professor of Biology David Roslien ’59, warned Osterholm of the dangers. “When it comes to adventure, you’re talking to a brick wall,” says Roslien. “Mike’s a driven man. If there’s something under there, he’s going to discover it.” Why such a dangerous hobby? “It was challenging,” Osterholm says simply. ”We went places no humans had ever seen before.”
In more recent years, as the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and Professor in Schools of Public Health and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Michael Osterholm is a scientist and speaker in high demand on important everyday (and often dangerous!) public health matters such as influenza and the efficacy of flu shots, the dangers of E. coli and food-borne illnesses, or the spread of Lyme disease and HIV. Osterholm is always informed—and informative—to the public he serves. He is a calm voice of reason, with a knack for dissecting and explaining the most complex scientific processes deftly, and with aplomb.
One might also find this modern day Renaissance man on PBS, the BBC News, NBC’s Nightline or chatting with Oprah Winfrey about much, much bigger international issues such as of the possibilities for a global pandemic, bioterrorism, and national security. Over the years he has earned the reputation as a crack scientist whose brutal honesty sometimes casts him as a doomsayer. An engaging speaker, he has a gift for finding just the right metaphor to make his point so that people understand exactly what he is talking about.
Dr. Osterholm lectures worldwide and is the author of a bestselling book, Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophes. His public appearances are vital to developing an informed and balanced approach to the and all-too-real issue of international public health and security. Dr. Osterholm is a world leader in helping business and governments address pandemics and bioterrorist attacks—a dual threat that many view not as a matter of if, but when.
“I worry that too many policy leaders dance around this issue fearful that somehow they will either offend or frighten the public,” Osterholm said, answering critics who complain about his dire warnings. “Our job is not to upset people or to calm people. Our job is to tell the truth. I am not trying to scare people out of their wits,” he said. “I am trying to scare them into their wits.”
“Pandemics happen,” Osterholm is fond of saying. But most people don’t know that pandemics—diseases that can spread quickly through the world—are as inevitable as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Or that the flu—in its so-called “common” form, which usually kills 3,500 to 48,000 Americans each year—can potentially kill millions more. In September 2014, Mike's opinion piece, "What We're Afraid to Say About Ebola," a warning about the Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa, appeared in the New York Times. As of November 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) and respective governments reported a total of 17,145 suspected Ebola cases and 6,405 deaths.
Dr. Osterholm has been an international leader regarding our preparedness for an influenza pandemic. His invited papers in the journals Foreign Affairs, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature detail the threat of an influenza pandemic and the steps humans must take to better prepare for such events. He served as a personal advisor to the late King Hussein of Jordan on bioterrorism. He is currently advising health officials in the Middle East with the outbreak of another SARS-like virus.
From 2001 through early 2005, Dr. Osterholm, in addition to his role at CIDRAP, served as a Special Advisor to then–HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson on issues related to bioterrorism and public health preparedness. He was also appointed to the Secretary's Advisory Council on Public Health Preparedness. In 2002, Dr. Osterholm was appointed by Thompson to be his representative on the interim management team to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With the appointment of Dr. Julie Gerberding as director of the CDC, Dr. Osterholm was asked by Thompson to assist Dr. Gerberding on his behalf during the transition period. He filled that role through January 2003.
When Dr. Osterholm is not hustling off to his next public appearance, or consulting with officials in Washington, D.C., or the Middle East, he enjoys spending time at his home in Allamakee County, Iowa, not far from Decorah.
And lest one think epidemiologist Dr. Osterholm is something of a pessimistic killjoy, he is not. In a bold expression of optimism, Mike Osterholm, the biologist, landowner and conservationist, recently restored 100 acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, as well as the three trout streams on the property. One of the streams, Brook Creek, was restored to its original location in 2004 by Osterholm. Brook Creek, which starts from a large spring, was channeled in 1949 to make way for a cornfield. The work was done with the cooperation of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited, and other conservation organizations, using a 1949 aerial photograph of what the stream looked like before it was channeled.
After the stream restoration, the DNR stocked Brook Creek with the rare Iowa native South Pine Creek strain of brook trout. The fingerlings have since flourished, and spawned more of the native fish. Other fauna have followed: frogs, birds and insects… lots of insects! With scientific samples recording 2,000 aquatic insects per square foot of stream surface, the trout are “fat and happy,” says Mike.
“I have always loved to fish brook trout, and my interest in native prairie goes back to my days at Luther… I remember doing restorative prairie burns in college.” As much as Mike enjoys trout angling, he will not fish in Brook Creek, nor will anyone else. The stream’s legacy will be as a refuge for the native “brookies,” available to the DNR as a stocking source for other streams and milt and eggs for hatchery use.
Dr. Michael Osterholm has received numerous honors for his work, including election to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition he has an honorary doctorate from Luther College and has been awarded the Pump Handle Award, CSTE; the Charles C. Shepard Science Award, CDC; the Harvey W. Wiley Medal, FDA; the Squibb Award, IDSA; and the Wade Hampton Frost Leadership Award, American Public Health Association. He also has been the recipient of six major research awards from the NIH and the CDC.