PHILADELPHIA — When Deborah Birx told classmates at Carlisle High School that she planned to compete in the local science fair, some laughed.
It was the early 1970s, and Birx was a pretty girl with a bubbly personality. She waitressed after school at a Carlisle drive-in restaurant and went to school football games on weekends. Back then, few people in the Cumberland County town about 23 miles from Harrisburg were expecting her to be good at science.
But Birx’s project on paleobotany in the Carboniferous period won a 1973 science fair, then won an international science competition in California. She was 16.
Birx wasn’t just good at science. She excelled in school generally, graduating after her junior year, and putting herself on an accelerated path to medical school.
Fast-forward 35 years and she is now a globally renowned figure in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Most people, however, will recognize her for her daily appearances next to President Donald Trump during the White House coronavirus news briefings. Birx is the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force and has been the calm in what can often be combative news conferences.
But Birx has also drawn criticism recently over comments about Trump and what she said is his attention to “the scientific literature and the details and the data.”
Former classmates watching her on TV from their homes in the Carlisle area are rooting for her.
“I’m glad Deb is up there with all the intelligentsia,” said Anne Humer Wade, a 1974 Carlisle High graduate. “You can just see the wheels turning in her head.”
“I’m enjoying watching her,” said Kim Smith Fleming, a high school friend. “She deserves whatever success she has.”
Birx is the youngest of three children and the only daughter of Donald L. and Adele Birx. Her father was a mathematician and electrical engineer, her mother a nursing instructor.
Birx had most of her schooling in the Lampeter-Strasburg Schools in Lancaster County. By her sophomore year, she knew she wanted to go into biological research after college.
“I’m very interested in the past, and in many ways I think it holds the key to the future,” she told the Intelligencer Journal in 1972. “I agree history may not help you predict the future, so that’s why I like rocks. They’re more consistent than people.”
That year, Birx placed third in the Lancaster City-County Science Fair. Her project was comparing fossil formations 230 million to 290 million years old taken from the anthracite coal region of Sullivan County with plant life today.
To complete her project, she said, she spent 30 days digging in coal from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
She saw her third-place finish as a challenge.
“Third is all right, but I’ll be back,” she said then. “I want that first prize.”
After her sophomore year, the Birx family moved and she enrolled at Carlisle High.
In her year there, Birx made friends and was well-liked.
“She had a good sense of humor and she was smart without showing off,” said Fleming, who waitressed with Birx at Zizzi’s, a local spot. “She was a good worker — bright, bubbly personality that attracted people. She was nice to everyone.”
Fleming recalled Birx telling her she would be graduating early and planned to do the same in college so she could get to medical school more quickly and get on with her career.
In her junior year, Birx submitted another project on paleobotany in the Carboniferous period for the 1973 Capital Area Science and Engineering Fair, an improved version of her presentation from the year before. That project landed her the Girls Grand Champion trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Army and Navy’s 24th Annual International Science and Engineering Fair in San Diego — which she won.
“She knew exactly what she wanted to do from a young age. … She had that all timed out,” Fleming said.
Birx’s two brothers also had successful careers in science and engineering. Donald L. Birx, an engineer, is president of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Daniel Birx, a research scientist, died in a small plane crash with his wife in 2000.
Deborah Birx graduated from Houghton College in western New York state in 1976 and went straight to Pennsylvania State College of Medicine in Hershey.
She trained in internal medicine and clinical immunology at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, according to her biography on the Department of State website. She started her lengthy government career in 1985 at the Department of Defense as a military-trained clinician in immunology, focusing on HIV/AIDS vaccine research. She attained the rank of colonel and worked with the U.S. military’s HIV/AIDS efforts throughout the world.
Birx is an ambassador-at-large serving as the federal government’s coordinator in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
Earlier this month, when the White House named her the coronavirus response coordinator, the news release said she was a “scientist, physician and mom” — the third title is something she has said she holds dear. She has been a constant presence at Trump’s side, often taking questions from reporters and calmly explaining the response to the pandemic.
Fleming said she had lost touch with Birx after high school and always wondered what had become of her. When Fleming turned on the television to watch Trump’s first coronavirus news conference, she heard the name Deborah Birx, then she saw her old friend.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s what happened to her!’”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer