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"I Learned the Meaning of Service at GW"

Tara O’Toole, M.D. ’81, Receives Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award

“I don’t know many people outside my class who can say that they loved medical school, but I loved being a GW medical student,” said Tara Jeanne O’Toole, M.D. ’81, one of three recipients of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. O’Toole was honored at the 77th Annual Alumni Achievement Awards on Sept. 26, where she was introduced by her medical school classmate Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D. ’81, G.M.E. ’85, vice president for health affairs and dean at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).

“If you were to poll the class in 1981 to ask ‘who amongst the classmates would be receiving the distinguished alumni achievement award of this university’,” said Akman, “Dr. O’Toole would have won hands-down.” Akman cited O’Toole’s passion, thoughtfulness, ability to galvanize individuals, and energy focused on social justice, medicine, and public health as factors in her success as the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and later as Under Secretary for Science and Technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

O’Toole credits her professional success to the foundation that her SMHS education provided her. “I learned the meaning of service at GW,” she said. “I think much of my subsequent career in government was founded on my experience and fascination with the promise and the power and the difficulties of trying to form groups of very different people into a collaborative effort with a shared purpose. We had to do that in medical school in order to form support groups to help us get through the experience. It wasn’t all pleasant or easy, but we did it.”

According to O’Toole, there are two tasks facing the country in the next decade that GW will be instrumental in helping to accomplish. “One is to design and forge a new partnership, a new relationship, a new deal between government and universities. We need to figure out how the incredible intellectual firepower in the universities can help government and we have to figure out how we can support and sustain the great universities that this country has given birth to, GW amongst them,” O’Toole said. “Secondly, we have to ensure that government at all levels — federal, state, and local — is served by people who are technically literate and have the analytical skills to run this country and handle the challenges ahead of us. I think GW has unique strengths, both by virtue of location, tradition, and talent, to lead on both fronts,” she said.

Akman fondly recalled O’Toole’s graduation speech for the SMHS class of 1981 ceremony. “It brought together all of her amazing talents and energies and voice to send us all out into the world as doctors and future potential public health officials,” he said.

Among the other Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awardees honored that night was Ariel Hollinshead, M.A. ’55, Ph.D. ’57, professor emeritus in SMHS’ Department of Medicine.