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His finalist year: 1967
His finalist project: Studying how crayfish react to different ecological niches
What led to the project: Haig Donabedian learned about science close-up from an early age. His father, public health expert Avedis Donabedian, moved the family from Lebanon to the U.S. (and ultimately to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) when Donabedian was six-years-old to further his academic career.
Haig, too, thought research was worthwhile. The summer before his senior year of high school, in 1966, he attended a summer science training program at the University of Nevada, Reno. ("It was the closest I ever came to summer camp," he says.) The students spent time hiking around the various ecological niches of Nevada, from the desert to Lake Tahoe. For his independent project, he decided to study how animals adapt to those different niches.
Specifically, he studied how crayfish in Lake Tahoe reacted to various osmotic pressures—that is, the difference between salt concentrations in two bodies of water. He changed the amount of salt in the water, and measured oxygen consumption. It turned out "it had been done before," Donabedian says. "I was just an ignorant little high school kid." But when he entered the project in the 1967 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Donabedian credits his Westinghouse honor with helping him gain admission to Yale University. However, he had decided on a career long before he studied crayfish. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., he had contracted mumps and became totally deaf in his right ear as a result. The experience gave him an enduring fascination with infectious diseases.
At Yale he studied biology and chemistry, then enrolled in the school's MD/PhD program. He eventually decided to skip the PhD part; he finished medical school and did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Donabedian landed at the National Institutes of Health for four years (1978 to 1982) studying patients with immune deficiencies and then began working at a hospital that ultimately became part of the University of Toledo.
Originally, he meant to build a research practice in addition to caring for patients. But two things conspired to send him in a different direction: His wife died of ovarian cancer in 1988, leaving him as a time-strapped single father of two young children. And, as an infectious disease specialist with expertise in immune deficiencies, in the mid- to late 1980s, he began seeing case after case of extremely sick, dying young men. As the rest of the country would later learn, the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and caring for these patients soon left him with no time for running a lab.
Years later, it's hard to remember the panic that HIV/AIDS first caused. At the time, recalls Sue Carter, a social worker at the University of Toledo, "HIV had people scared to death"—including some health care providers. But Donabedian was "the first physician in Toledo to work with these people. He never had a problem." He would go on television and assure people that "there is nothing to be afraid of." He also assured HIV/AIDS patients that his hospital would care for them, even when other places didn't want to. "Not only did he set the tone for our hospital, he set the tone for the community," Carter says.