The Science in National Security
H-SC Alumnus Battles Disease in Defense of Country
from the Record, Fall 2020
By Karen Huggard
“For me, science is all about understanding,” says Taylor of his motivation. “Whether it’s HIV or coronavirus, I’m interested in understanding what makes a virus tick: how it operates, how it replicates, how it enters cells, and how it affects cells.”
At a biosafety level-three lab in Aberdeen, MD, Taylor leads a team of scientists performing in vitro assay services for the nonprofit research organization Battelle. Their work puts them at the forefront of scientific research as they juggle COVID-19, Ebola, HIV, and vaccine studies as well as toxicology and decontamination work. “We adapt our skill sets to offer solutions in diverse areas,” Taylor explains. “The variety of work keeps me on my toes. I’m constantly learning new things and reading scientific articles to keep up as the world around us changes.”
His work at Battelle also impacts national security on a daily basis as Taylor and his team provide verification testing of field instruments used to detect biological threat agents. “As threats evolve and change, the lab’s work evolves and changes,” Taylor says of their ongoing detection diagnostic work. “What we do is by all means in direct support of Department of Defense missions on the frontlines,” he continues. “In 2014, for example, we supported Operation United Assistance by fielding the instruments and verifying sample storage methods used to test for Ebola in West Africa and Liberia. That work carries on now as we evaluate Ebola vaccines in pre-clinical trials.”
Taylor learned early on how quickly scientific research becomes political during his time at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology, led by Dr. Robert C. Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV and developer of the HIV blood test. “Working with Dr. Gallo and many of the original discoverers of the virus was my first foray into science and politics. I saw firsthand that science is actually a lot of politics, which you continue to see in the current pandemic. I try to stay out of the political part, though,” he says with a laugh. His time at the University of Maryland included work with other scientists who have become household names, like Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Taylor, who entered Hampden-Sydney with medical school aspirations, didn’t expect to pursue a doctorate in microbiology and immunology. From childhood he was interested in the natural world, and summer jobs at a horse farm and then a large-mammal research lab reflected his growing interest in the life sciences. But it was a biology class at Hampden-Sydney that turned his focus to the microscopic. “A microbiology class with Dr. Ann Lund piqued my interest in the underlying things that affect us as humans. As we swabbed door handles and water fountains and then grew and manipulated the bacteria we had gathered, I became interested in looking into the actual causes of diseases, how those organisms interact with the human body, and how the human body in turn responds,” he explains.
A four-year Tiger Lacrosse player, Taylor says he split his time at H-SC between the lacrosse field and Gilmer Hall. “We would run from practice to the dining hall, slipping in for the last ten minutes of dinner, and then I would keep going back through the building to Gilmer,” he laughs. “As a student athlete I learned how to set a schedule and manage my time. It set the stage for everything I have to manage now.”
Hampden-Sydney continues to influence Taylor’s work, which now includes pre-clinical work for development of COVID-19 vaccines. “The liberal arts education at Hampden-Sydney set the foundation for me as a scientist to be able to think critically, and the Rhetoric Program set me up to articulate clearly. Being able to express myself well on paper makes my job easier,” he says. “Dr. Lund and Dr. Alex Werth were instrumental in pushing me and giving me the foundation for doing research. The type of analytical thinking that I do now is reflective of what they instilled in me.”
But it was the camaraderie on the Hill that really set Hampden-Sydney apart, according to Taylor: “Hampden- Sydney was more of a family than anything else. The relationships between faculty members and students were full of meaningful conversation and interaction. We became friends and colleagues and equals, rather than simply teachers and students. And to this day, I can call any one of my Hampden-Sydney brothers up and they’d be on my doorstep in a minute.”