We recently caught up with Dr Carol Baker who is affectionately known as the Godmother of Group B Strep prevention. Read on to find out why.
Hi Carol, can you tell us a bit about your professional credentials and career path?
I am a pediatric infectious diseases specialist who has spent my entire career doing hospital-based practice consulting on hospitalized infants, children and some young adults with complex medical problems. Besides this, I have always taught students, pediatric trainees and infectious diseases postdoctoral fellows in the classroom, at the bedside and sometimes in my laboratory. I also conducted both laboratory-based and clinical research.
Why did you decide to focus on group B Strep?
I never really made a decision to focus on GBS. I was curious and dismayed that, while in pediatric training, my patients (neonates and several week old infants) began dying from a different bacterium than the one my professors said caused most infections in babies. I had many questions and when they were left unanswered, I began researching textbooks and articles, but only to be told that GBS was a disease of dairy cattle with only a few reports of human infection. So I decided to pursue infectious disease training in 1971, began to collect and summarize my cases, storing GBS isolated from patients’ blood and spinal fluid in my apartment, and wrote to the “inventor” of GBS, Professor Rebecca Lancefield, who invited me to Rockefeller University in New York, thus launching my research career.
What first sparked your interest in science, and then in paediatrics?
I was never interested, but I decided to become a physician at age 6. Science classes in high school and college were only a means to my goal of getting into medical school. What’s more, the last specialty I envisioned in medicine was paediatrics. I learned within a week of entering medical school that my male classmates expected me to become either a paediatrician or psychiatrist (I was one of two women in the class). Objecting to the thought that others would decide my road in medicine, I worked hard to avoid paediatrics. But an elective in Neonatology erased my resolve. I fell in love with children, especially babies, but I also loved gathering facts about my patients, putting these together like pieces of a puzzle, and making a diagnosis so that a “cure” could be found.
How would you explain your work to a non-scientist?
I learned quickly in clinical medicine that prevention is far better to treatment. Once I knew that GBS was often carried by healthy pregnant women and silently transferred to their newborns shortly before or during the birth process, I observed that only a few of the babies became ill. Knowing this, I asked, “Was this because the mothers often were immune, in other words, had blood proteins called antibodies in their blood that were transferred to the baby by the placenta and protected most of them?” Answering this question required 2 years of science (laboratory research) at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970’s. First, I had to chemically define the outer surface of GBS (a capsule that is a collection of sugars) and develop an assay to measure this immunity to it. I proved that immunity to GBS is conferred by sufficient amounts of antibodies to the GBS capsule. Knowing this I began to dream about making a vaccine that would be given to all pregnant women to prevent GBS disease in mothers and babies.
What would you like to achieve personally in your work on group B Strep and what changes would you like to see in 5 – 10 years’ time?
My personal work in science and testing candidate GBS vaccines is done. My work in policy and as an advocate for maternal immunization to prevent neonatal and young infant bacterial infections like GBS, pertussis, and others is ongoing. What I have wanted to see for decades remains my desire—a GBS vaccine licensed for use in pregnant women worldwide.
What motivates you, and do you have a favourite quote or saying that keeps you going?
My career in academic medicine and research has been a joy. It really wasn’t work because every day brought delight, discovery, and fun with colleagues and patients, most of the time. My motivation was always making things better for others, and in turn, I was helped by so many around me, especially my students, patients and their families.
A favourite quote is from Langston Hughes, “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
Do you you have a favourite success story in your work?
There are many but I think my favourite was when I had all but given up with trying to “do something” about GBS as a postdoctoral fellow. My letter to Professor Lancefield resulted in her written response, an invitation to study in her laboratory for 4 weeks. It was a quick course in science, but everything thereafter was grounded in her teaching.
What do you do when you’re not doing ‘science’?
I was a runner for 34 years, and now enjoy walking, swimming and working in the yard. For indoor activities, I enjoy chamber music concerts, films, and fiction, especially British mystery novels.
Lastly, any advice for budding scientists, who might want to follow your career path?
If you truly love medicine or science, pursue your dreams and ignore the advice of those who would direct you to the easy way. Use courage to face times when you are wrong, when you are criticized, and when you are working harder than others. Put your trust in God and value patients more than yourself.