A Friendship Built on Science Fosters a Vital Legacy
They met by chance at a Beirut beach resort. It was 1986. Fuad El-Hibri, a successful businessman in the biotech industry, overheard Alan Shikani, MD, talking about Johns Hopkins University. Both were Lebanese Americans. Both had a passion for protecting lives. The friendship sparked that day lasted decades, until on April 23, 2022, Fuad El-Hibri passed away from pancreatic cancer. He was 64. One source of solace for his family and longtime friend was the legacy Shikani helped El-Hibri leave at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Fuad cared deeply about education and was a generous philanthropist,” says Shikani, MD, “so when I suggested we do something together, he agreed right away.” The result was twofold: the Shikani/El-Hibri Faculty Prize for Innovation and Discovery and the Shikani/El-Hibri Humanitarian Health Scholarship—both created in 2014 with significant financial contributions from Shikani and El-Hibri.
When El-Hibri died, he was just weeks into his retirement as CEO of Emergent BioSolutions, the global specialty biopharmaceutical company he founded. Pursuing his passion to protect lives, he built Emergent’s portfolio to include several products aimed at mitigating significant public health threats, including medical countermeasures for anthrax, smallpox, botulism, and chemical warfare agents. Under his leadership, the company also played a significant role in battling the opioid crisis, supplying Narcan to public health agencies. And during the pandemic, Emergent delivered over 120 million dose equivalents of the COVID-19 vaccine. “Fuad was a remarkable individual,” says Shikani. “It’s hard to describe the difference he’s made during his life and career. He had a very keen mind for science and came every year to the award presentations, where the recipients presented their research. I am glad his legacy lives on at Hopkins.”
Shikani has a long affiliation with Johns Hopkins University. It’s where he completed his residency and fellowship training in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and where his sons earned advanced degrees—a Master of Science in molecular microbiology and immunology for Henry, and a Master of Public Health for Patrick—so he was inspired to give back. He knew his financial contribution, combined with El-Hibri’s, would be put to good use supporting Bloomberg School basic scientists whose work carries the potential to translate laboratory findings into public health impact.
Since the faculty prize was created, eight Bloomberg School researchers have won the $100,000 award. The most recent recipient is Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Professor Fengyi Wan, PhD. The prize recognizes his work published in Cancer Discovery in 2022, showing that certain types of bacterial infections can increase the risk of colon cancer in mice, even if the infection is only transient. “Being awarded a Shikani/El-Hibri Prize will greatly facilitate my establishment as an independent investigator,” Wan says. “It will also make it easier for me to obtain more protected time and additional freedom to continue to combine my previous research and to develop more robust strategies for prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer.”
The Bloomberg School is distinct in that it is home to three robust basic science departments. “This faculty prize recognizes the importance of foundational research at our institution and to the field of public health,” says Greg Kirk, MD, PhD ’03, MPH ’95, vice dean for Research at the Bloomberg School. “And it is not an award for proposed research, but in recognition of work already done, work that has the potential to, or already has, made a significant public health impact.” Kirk goes on to note that Wan’s discovery is fundamental and could “contribute to shifting paradigms in our understanding of pathogen-host interactions and eventually, can be translated into control measures to combat colon cancer.”
Shikani and El-Hibri joined forces with the Bloomberg School again in 2020, this time motivated by an urgent desire to address a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, a country close to both their hearts. That year, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded, causing at least 218 deaths and 7,000 injuries and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. The disaster had a particularly devastating effect on local children. In response, Shikani and El-Hibri quickly funded a joint effort by students from the American University in Beirut (Shikani’s alma mater) and the Bloomberg School to study the mental health effects on children and make recommendations on how to support them in the future.
“Although the initial crisis is over, the children of Lebanon still need help,” Shikani says. “Fuad and I wanted to make sure they were not forgotten.” The student collaboration the two men funded led to the creation of the Johns Hopkins Humanitarian Health Scholarship, awarded to master’s or doctoral students focused on international health, with preference given to students from Lebanon or the Middle East. This scholarship is extremely important for the School’s students, notes Paul Spiegel, MD, MPH ’96, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health. “The School has made a commitment to cover the cost of tuition for PhD students, but their work in the field is not necessarily covered. Some students must join already-funded faculty projects, but this scholarship affords them the freedom to study what they are passionate about. For this, we are thrilled and grateful.”
The inaugural scholarship winner is Jennifer O’Keeffe, a PhD candidate in international health leading an investigation into different methods of mortality measurement in global humanitarian crises, like the Beirut explosion. Without the scholarship funding, her fieldwork would not have happened. “Mortality is an exceptionally apolitical and effective measure to look at the scale and severity of a crisis,” says O’Keefe, who hopes her team’s findings will shed light on which methods will work best in different contexts.
“Because the methods we’re looking at are used by humanitarian actors across the globe, including UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, and local community organizations, we hope our findings will likewise be used by these agencies in their own work. As the lead author on the research, I hope to disseminate the results widely, providing me with the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to serving populations in crisis.”
“Alan and Fuad have created funds that will allow our students and faculty to contribute to improving public health worldwide,” says Dean Ellen MacKenzie. “And what’s more, these funds perfectly align with the Bloomberg School’s values and goals, as we are committed to increasing financial support and accessibility for our students and always looking for ways to recognize and reward innovation in basic science that can lead to public health solutions.”
“Science is rarely a solo endeavor,” says O’Keeffe. “Findings represent the collective efforts of a group of people who have come together to address a problem. In being the first to receive this award, I am reminded of Margaret Mead who said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Receiving this scholarship support has shown me once again what is possible when we combine our resources and our efforts.”
Throughout his life, Fuad’s passion for his family—wife Nancy, three children, and three grandchildren—was equaled by his visionary business acumen to push for innovative solutions that could improve and save lives around the world. But those who knew him understood that he believed strategic philanthropy was the best way to address complex social issues. “Fuad will be missed,” says Shikani. “I hope future generations of researchers will thrive and remember him.” Shikani also hopes his friend’s passion will inspire others to support the important work of Bloomberg School scientists. And perhaps, it already has.
“I’d like to say a very sincere thank you to the donors who made these funds possible,” says O’Keeffe. “Altruism is a characteristic that is vital to our society, allowing things to happen that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Awards like the Shikani/El-Hibri Humanitarian Health Scholarship are often a jumping-off point for students to pay forward the assistance they have received. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity made possible by the funds and will work hard to assure that this generosity is paid forward throughout my research and future career.”
Tracey Palmer is a freelance writer for the Office of External Affairs at the Bloomberg School. For more information about supporting the School’s research, please contact Heath Elliott, associate dean for development and alumni relations, at email@example.com.