Paul Duprex sitting next to microscope
Features & Articles

Award-winning virologist Paul Duprex wants the best and brightest working on vaccines

  • Technology & Science
  • Community Impact
  • Pitt-Johnstown
  • Center for Vaccine Research

On Sept. 22, the Carnegie Science Center announced award recipients for the 25th annual Carnegie Science Awards — a celebration of innovation in scientific study. Paul Duprex and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) are among this year’s recipients and will be honored during the official celebration on Nov. 5 at the Science Center.

Duprex, Pitt’s Jonas Salk Endowed Chair for Vaccine Research and the director of the CVR, will receive the Chairman’s Award, a distinction given to individuals or organizations for outstanding contributions in science that is only awarded in years where there is an exceptional recipient.

“We’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, and there’ve been amazing giants in Pittsburgh,” said Duprex of the win. He said the beauty of the award is its recognition of all involved.

Often, the face or individual is the one to receive recognition. In some ways, that makes sense because everyone needs a leader. But every leader needs a team, and CVR is not a person, but a team of people.”

The work that garnered Duprex and the CVR the award focuses on understanding the molecular basis of viral diseases and vaccine function with the ultimate goal of developing vaccines for infectious agents that post a public health risk. In February 2020, the CVR team received one of the earliest American samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to begin working on a vaccine candidate.

“Looking back on it, I’m so glad we waded into those waters,” Duprex said. “We didn't know how deep those waters were going to be. We didn’t know where we were going. Even though we talked about this, prepared for it, I think we never quite realized what we were getting into, and the Chairman's Award is important because we, CVR, did it together.”

Duprex and his team have been vocal advocates for educating the public on the science behind how infectious diseases spread and how vaccines work.

“Our University has been really great,” he said of receiving support for the CVR’s advocacy efforts. SARS Saturday, a one-day event where CVR team members taught kids about viruses, was supported by Pitt’s Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research.

“We built three-foot SARS coronaviruses out of balloons with the kids and talked about things that fight viruses,” said Duprex, who concluded the lesson by making blue balloon swords and allowing the kids to “fight” the virus. During the event, Duprex met a 10-year-old girl interested in becoming a scientist. Looking around, he was proud of the diversity reflected in the CVR team — something he believes is critical for children.

“They need to see people like them and communicating with them about why science matters.”

He also credited the University for its consistent support.

“From the get-go, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher supported us. The reason we were able to get so active is because his office gave us money, and that initial investment bought us time and got things rolling.”

While the CVR’s efforts have been covered by “60 Minutes” and news outlets worldwide, Duprex is incredibly proud of the recognition received on the local level.

“It's highly gratifying to be recognized by people in your place, your home community — and Pittsburgh is our place.”

In addition to honoring impactful leaders, the annual awards ceremony is a fundraiser to support the Science Center's mission to make science both relevant and fun and increase science literacy in the region by motivating young people to seek careers in science and technology.

“There's nothing more important than the continuum and passing it on,” said Duprex. “My generation will do things the previous generation couldn't because we have new tools, new approaches, new ways of thinking. The next generation will do what I can only dream about.”

He continued: "I want the brightest, best, most clever, the most hardworking, creative individuals to love what I love, which is my discipline of virology. Who are those people? They're the kids of Pittsburgh. They're the teenagers of Pittsburgh. Our job is to motivate, inspire and encourage them, and there's no better place in the city to start than the Carnegie Science Center."

Pitt-Johnstown alum making a difference

This year’s Science Awards will also honor University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown alumnus David J. Piemme (EDUC ‘95), who will receive the Champion for STEM Equity award for his work with Design to Make a Difference (D2MD).

D2MD is a design and engineering program whose mission is to celebrate successful maker-education programs in Pittsburgh and promote inclusion. The group aims to increase STEM equity by providing educators and students with equipment, materials, professional support, development opportunities and a platform to showcase student work.


— Kara Henderson