James and Robin Herrnstein Donate $3M to Stony Brook University to Establish Global Health Institute
Simons Foundation Challenge Match Creates Total Impact of $6 Million
James and Robin Herrnstein have launched an ambitious new effort to bring healthcare resources to Madagascar with their recent gift of $3 million to help establish a new Global Health Institute at Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio. The Institute will drive cutting-edge health research in the region while working closely with the Herrnsteins’ new nongovernmental organization (NGO) PIVOT, which, beginning September 2013, will commence its ambitious mission to establish an evidence-based model health system for Madagascar.
The Herrnsteins, together with Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, who is a nationally renowned expert in the field of emerging infectious diseases, expect the new Institute will take on broad global health research initiatives. Bench science, including molecular biology, microbiology and infectious disease research, will certainly be a major component, as will a broad range of health-related sciences.
“Having Centre ValBio as a state-of-the-art research and academic hub is an incredible advantage for this partnership,” said President Stanley. “Another major advantage is the Herrnsteins themselves. In Jim and Robin, you have two people who are very special. They have extraordinary commitment to this, and I’m continually impressed by their dedication.”
The Herrnsteins previously supported Centre ValBio when they funded the state-of-the-art research facility NamanaBe Hall, which opened in 2012 and includes a biosafety level 2 laboratory for infectious disease research. The 15,000-square-foot facility also houses robust conservation biology and infectious disease research programs.
The research center is the product of nearly three decades of work by world-renowned primatologist Patricia Wright, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook who founded Centre ValBio in 2003 after establishing nearby Ranomafana National Park in 1991. Wright’s close relationships with local Malagasy communities and the rich scientific potential of Centre ValBio are what drew the Hernnsteins to Madagascar. Jim is chair of the Centre ValBio advisory board and Robin serves on the board.
The island of Madagascar encompasses a wide range of ecosystems, from deserts to dense rainforests, but despite its rich biodiversity, the country is among the ten poorest in the world. When Wright initially travelled to Madagascar in 1987, she went with the intent of tracking down a lost species of lemur. Her field research eventually transformed into a full-blown conservation and humanitarian endeavor as she led the effort to coordinate outreach programs to help the struggling Malagasy villages.
“Pat lives in a world where what’s good for the people is also good for the rain forest,” said Jim. “She doesn’t believe it’s an either/or scenario. If you educate the people, teach them about conservation, improve their health and provide them with some sort of economic boost, perhaps via eco-tourism, it will be good for the people and it will be good for the rainforest and the lemurs. That’s her holistic view, and it’s hard not to buy into it when you visit Centre ValBio.”
Stony Brook’s new Global Health Institute will work hand-in-hand with PIVOT and Centre ValBio’s research facilities. In addition, PIVOT will receive support and guidance from Partners in Health, an organization with ties to Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital that’s successfully led healthcare interventions in Rwanda, Haiti and other locations.
“Everybody is doing what they do best,” Robin said. “People with PIVOT will be working on actually delivering healthcare, and the University will focus on research and education, but we’re all doing it together, at the same place and at the same time. If the Global Health Institute can build a reputation for doing that well, I think we’ll call it a success.”
The Herrnsteins want to break the cycles of poverty and disease. They hope to find answers to questions such as: Are the people sick because they are poor, or poor because they are sick? Are high birth rates driven primarily by infant mortality rates, by economics or by ignorance? What is the relationship between ecological and human well-being?
“The answers will undoubtedly be as complicated as the questions, but we feel we are in a special position to address these problems head-on,” said Jim. “In the process, we hope to save many, many lives, and this is the bottom line we are focused on. But we also hope to make real progress in understanding the dynamics of, and interplay between, poverty and disease.”
The Herrnstein’s NGO PIVOT will rely on the guidance of healthcare intervention experts from Partners in Health, including Matt Bonds, a Harvard researcher who holds doctorates in economics and ecology, who serves as PIVOT’s interim director.
“What’s most unique about the overall scheme in Madagascar is its extra focus on research and scientific inquiry, led by Stony Brook, that aims to amplify the health impact,” said Bonds. “That’s where I see great potential, and it’s especially exciting if done well.”
Although benefits will be dramatic in the region around Centre ValBio, they will likely extend far beyond Madagascar.
“Global health is an immediate problem for everyone,” said President Stanley. “With today’s jet travel, there is no more natural isolation. Controlling and containing infectious diseases in other regions helps prevent their spread around the world, so advances in health delivery and implementation can have positive impacts in the U.S. as well. As we think globally as an institute and as a country, the benefits of promoting health worldwide are immense.”
About James and Robin Herrnstein
James Herrnstein is the founding chair of the Centre ValBio board. Together with his wife Robin they spend significant time with Professor Pat Wright and her team analyzing challenges and potential growth opportunities facing the Centre. Herrnstein is a Harvard University graduate (BS, PhD) and won the Bok Prize at Harvard in recognition of his dissertation work while obtaining a doctorate in astronomy. He was a Jansky postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico. In 1999 he won the prestigious Miller Fellowship at Berkeley and another prestigious fellowship at Cambridge, England, but chose to join Renaissance Technologies in Setauket, New York, instead as a senior researcher.
Robin McGary Herrnstein graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Furman University with degrees in mathematics and physics, and holds a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. While doing her graduate work she was a Harvard Merit Fellow and recipient of the Harvard Teaching Award. From 2003 to 2005 she was a post-doctoral fellow in astronomy at Columbia University and an instructor for the Frontiers of Science Program. She has worked at a variety of sites, including the Very Large Array in New Mexico, which is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.