By Megan Zahneis, News Editor
Matt Mannion was up late one night last July, idly channel-surfing. He stumbled upon the 1993 documentary “And The Band Played On,” chronicling the life of epidemiologist Dr. Don Francis, who had a heavy hand in the initial discovery and treatment of the HIV/AIDS virus.
Mannion, a senior pre-med and biology double-major, had stayed in Oxford to conduct research in his biochemistry lab. The documentary piqued his interest, given his field of study, and the credits mentioned that Francis still lived and worked in San Francisco.
So, naturally, Mannion decided to give Francis a call. He’d be heading out to the San Francisco area for vacation in a few weeks, so, he reasoned, why not see if Francis would be up for coffee?
Dr. Rick Page, Mannion’s biochemistry professor in Hughes Hall, was all for it.
“I encouraged him to reach out to him,” Page said. “[It was a,] ‘If you don’t contact him, you’re definitely not going to meet him’ kind of thing.”
“‘Let’s give it a shot,’” Mannion remembers thinking. “And so I found his phone number, called this big not-for-profit that he works for.”
The voicemail system at Francis’ nonprofit, Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, told Mannion he could “press one to speak to Dr. Don Francis”, and a few weeks later, Mannion and Francis were sitting down for lunch in San Francisco. Mannion said they’d planned on spending 45 minutes together, but the three-hour conversation included a tour of Francis’ lab and a lift to the airport for Mannion.
Mannion was so inspired by Francis’ work — which includes a 21-year career at the Centers for Disease Control working with such diseases as smallpox, hepatitis B and measles and a stint as a member of the World Health Organization team investigating the world’s first Ebola outbreak — that he decided to ask Francis whether he would consider visiting Miami.
“Matt was a very clear thinker,” Francis said. “I thought it was worth supporting the way he thought and what he wanted to do. Even though it’s a long trip and a couple of days of my life, I thought it was worth supporting his efforts.”
Mannion said Francis typically speaks at prestigious medical institutions such as Harvard, Yale and UCLA, so his willingness to make the trip to Oxford came as a bit of a surprise.
Francis was on campus Thursday to deliver a lecture, also titled “And The Band Played On,” and to speak with a variety of classes and student groups throughout the day, from journalism to business students. His expertise in the medical field, social and political matters, and in entrepreneurship, Page said, make him a worthy role model for Miami students.
“He’s just incredibly impressive, [not only] from a pure academic standpoint, but the fact that he’s willing to come out here on the invitation of an undergraduate and come out and spend an entire day at Miami, meet with so many groups,” Page said. “His focus during this whole visit is that he wanted to interact with as many students as possible. That’s what he told us: he wants to meet with as many students as possible, have the maximal impact that he can.”
Page said the fact that Mannion, who has worked in his lab for the past two years, took initiative to hold the event came as no surprise to him.
“If you give him a glimmer of an opportunity, he’ll seize it and he’ll go after it and run with it,” Page said of his pupil.
And Mannion has been rewarded for his efforts. During his three-hour lunch with Francis, he asked for some advice.
During one particularly rough night on duty in his emergency-room internship, Mannion was confronted with a 21-year-old gunshot victim. The experience left him shaken and unsure. He found the prospect of a life spent dealing with tragic situations intimidating.
“I talked to Dr. Francis about, ‘How do you see that one day and come back in?’” Mannion said. “There was a period with AIDS when, he was telling me, ‘I was having ten, fifteen patients die a day, every day for years.’
“[He said], ‘You just have to press on and keep trying to get better the next time that case comes in,’” Mannion said. “Essentially the takeaway was, if you do nothing, then nothing will get done.
“As hard as it is you keep pressing on, or keep fighting on.”