hands, frequently and thoroughly.
Every surface around you -- your desk top, your steering wheel, your coffee cup and that pen you're gnawing on -- is covered with microscopic life. Pifer
has spent her
life studying the most vicious of these life forms, the opportunistic ones that kill when people are weak, and she
has learned to wash her
hands. Pifer is a professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, part of the College of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
These days she's
teaching courses in virology, microbiology, human genetics and parasitology.
not teaching, Pifer
is still thinking about unseen life around us.She's
one of three key people on the development of the Biocontainment Lab being built at UT in partnership with the Department of Homeland Defense
also devotes some time to monkey pox, transmissible to humans and probably an easy bioweapon.
The world of infectious disease is often a creepy, unnerving place and the people tend to fall into two categories: they're either grim harbingers of doom, or they're like Pifer
: upbeat, fascinated by the science and confident that human medicine can stay a step or two ahead of the next global pandemic.
mother, a proper Southern lady, tried to raise Pifer
to wear white gloves, but she
was destined for latex gloves instead.The girl devoured science, and remembers being punished for reading her
biology book during math study time. Her
models of the moon and rockets won Pifer
a trip to Hartford, Conn., at age 17 to compete in a national science fair. After college she served stints at the University of Oregon-Eugene and UT-Memphis, but it was in 1973 when she was hired by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital that she started on the path to international fame within the circle of microbiology.
St. Jude was beginning to make strides in treating leukemia at the time, but too many patients were dying of a lung infection by pneumocystis carinii, a primitive fungus that takes advantage of a compromised immune system.Pifer's goal was to find a way to culture the fungus in the hopes of making a vaccine against it.She
was the first to develop a culture, and the first to create a non-invasive diagnostic test.
Because of lung disease at St. Jude, Pifer
was instrumental in discovering the pathology of HIV/AIDS, and spoke at the first NIH conference about the disease.She
still shudders to remember how she
handled those blood samples without gloves or masks.She
was even pregnant at the time.
Memory of Pifer's
AIDS breakthroughs ties to another, the death of her
high school sweetheart and husband for 29 years.