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Students took a leading role in creating Pitt’s new Jonas Salk exhibit

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Margaret Shaheen didn’t hesitate for a moment when picking a museum studies internship this spring. The opportunity to create an exhibit dedicated to the legacy of the polio vaccine at Pitt was too perfect to pass up.

“My grandmother had polio as a child,” said Shaheen. The vaccine, a result of Pitt research, was what allowed her to reunite with her community. “It was the perfect connection. It’s my way of honoring her.”

The resulting display in the School of Public Health building, unveiled April 28, combines laboratory equipment, awards and historical documents that were donated by the family of Jonas Salk and shipped from storage in La Jolla, California. Shaheen, a Pitt anthropology and museum studies junior in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, was one of a number of students who were at the center of the effort to craft the exhibit over the course of the spring semester.

The team’s first step was staring down a pile of boxes and a decades-old inventory. Next came a monthslong effort to prepare the objects for display.

“Getting to see it from the beginning — a giant, boxed-up collection — to the end where all of these objects have homes with alcoves and signage was a really cool thing,” said Samantha Bonawitz, a biological sciences and museum studies junior in the Dietrich School. “It was literally built from the ground up.”

A short timeline and a display area located in a busy academic building meant there was no shortage of quick decisions to make. This beaker or that one? Reproduce this award or display the original? And where should we hang that text display so it won’t get in the way?

[4 stories about Salk’s legacy at Pitt and beyond]

Along with anthropology and museum studies junior Lily Heistand and under the guidance of Alex Taylor, an associate professor of art and architecture in the Dietrich School, the group spent the semester sorting through the collection, identifying and cleaning objects and preparing the final exhibit. With help from Facilities Management, Archives and Special Collections and University Communications and Marketing, the exhibit took shape.  

It was literally built from the ground up.

Samantha Bonawitz

Though the students’ work on the exhibit is complete, they’ve only scratched the surface on what there is to learn from the collection. And throughout the effort, the teams learned about the many researchers and community members involved in the effort to vaccinate children, while getting a look at the life and mind of Jonas Salk himself.

“He left a note for his wife in a book that said he was going to Washington, D.C., and didn’t want to wake her,” said Chaviva Lebovits, a junior in the School of Public Health’s new bachelor’s degree program in public health. “But he wanted to say he loved her and would see her later.”

Discovering these glimpses of humanity is one of the things that most excited Lebovits and public health junior Haliyat Oshodi, who worked with distinguished professor and former School of Public Health Dean Donald S. Burke on a section of the exhibit.

“When we learn about him in class, you just see a famous scientist who made the polio vaccine,” added Oshodi. “But finding things that show their emotional side, like that letter, you see a real person.”

[5 highlights from the Salk legacy exhibit]

Another find of interest to the pair was a large collection of awards and certificates of appreciation, as well as poems and paintings sent to Salk by people around the world. And perhaps the most interactive is Salk’s longtime desk, open for any student to study at and think about the object’s history. Even as the team was putting the final touches on the exhibit, passing students had already claimed it.

“I was walking back one day and I saw a student sitting at the desk, like we wanted them to, preparing for finals,” said Bonawitz. “And I thought, ‘perfect.’”

Archivists continue to sift through the collection. Eventually, all will be cataloged, placed in special storage and made available for study. For more information on the collection, contact Ed Galloway, University Library System Special Archives and Collections, at edwardg [at] or Jessica Burke, School of Public Health, at jgburke [at]


— Patrick Monahan and Michele Baum, photography by Aimee Obidzinski