Name: Donald R. Roberts, PhD (Lt. Col., MSC, USA-Ret.)
Titles: Professor of Preventive Medicine (Ret.), Edward F. Hebert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md.; Chair, World Health Organization's Working Group on Indoor Residual Spraying; Member, External Scientific Advisory Committee of the Gates Foundation's Innovative Vector Control Consortium; Member, Board of Directors for Africa Fighting Malaria
Summary of Accomplishments: Dr. Roberts was drafted into the Army in 1966 and retired from his position as a tenured professor at USUHS this summer. In the 41-year interim, he served in an Army preventive medicine unit in Thailand, conducted field research on malaria in Brazil, ran the Department of Entomology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Washington, D.C. and collaborated with his USUHS research team to develop laboratory assays that screen chemicals for their behavioral actions. While malaria was at the center of Dr. Roberts' research from the very beginning, as his career progressed he became more focused on the behavioral responses of mosquitoes to a controversial chemical-Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. By demonstrating that DDT can be safely and effectively used to repel mosquitoes from homes, and by trying to deliver this message to malariologists and policy makers, Dr. Roberts has been on a mission to reverse global policy that has been against DDT. This mission has recently borne fruit: last September, the WHO abandoned its 30-year anti-DDT policy and endorsed indoor spraying in its fight against malaria, a disease that kills more than one million people worldwide every year.
"It's certainly been growing," Dr. Roberts said of the number of his colleagues who are beginning to advocate for the use of DDT. "And what helps us is that every place that it's used, it proves to be remarkably effective. When South Africa restarted its use of DDT [in 2001], it dropped the malaria rates 80 per cent within just the first few months."
Path to Accomplishment
First Exposure to Malaria: Midwestern wildlife may be partly responsible for Dr. Roberts' career trajectory-he grew up in Oklahoma and Missouri, where he collected insects and even kept a colony of voles.
"I was one of these bizarre young people who used to bring home crows and chipmunks and squirrels," he said. "All those things made me happy."
After earning a Bachelor's degree in wildlife, Dr. Roberts moved into medical entomology for his Master's. He had received draft deferrals to finish this degree, but he was not able to receive another to pursue a PhD. After graduating from the University of Missouri in September 1966, he was drafted into the Army, went through basic training and was sent to WRAIR, where he worked with Dr. Imogene Schneider in the Department of Entomology. There, he helped her raise sterile malaria vector mosquitoes for her research on rodent malaria. The objective was to harvest sterile malaria sporozoites from the mosquitoes, and then use the sporozoites to make a malaria vaccine. A company called Sanaria has had some recent success in producing sterile mosquitoes, Dr. Roberts said, but back then, raising the insects was a more rudimentary process.