Fond words and accolades are rolling in for Steven Wakefield, who retired last week from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center after 20 years of bridge-building between vaccine researchers and underserved communities in Seattle and around the globe.
As external relations director for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Wakefield traveled to 32 nations to develop ties between the Hutch-headquartered operator of clinical trials and the communities where volunteers roll up their sleeves to test potential vaccines to stop HIV/AIDS.
“What I can do at the age of 67 is not what I could have done as a younger man,” he said. “My cardiologist has become my interior decorator: My first week of retirement I will get rid of either my sofa or my La-Z-Boy and replace it with an indoor bike.”
It is a change of pace earned from a lifetime of activism.
“He has been, for me, a moral compass, a wise adviser and a close friend,” said former Fred Hutch president and director Dr. Larry Corey, who cofounded the HVTN. When the organization received funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 2000, Wakefield was a key initial hire.
“His values, his voice and his intellect just don’t permeate our culture — he created the DNA of our organization. No one has had more of an impact on how we operate.”
Wakefield, who long ago dropped “Steven” and prefers to be known by the single name “Wakefield,” had been an activist since he was an 8-year-old member of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, which later became Operation PUSH, in Chicago.
As a young man he began volunteering in a storefront clinic that provided testing and treatment for gay men with sexually transmitted diseases, and showing that penchant for leadership, he became chair of its board of directors. When HIV emerged a mortal threat to his community, he helped to secure one of the first publicly funded AIDS research grants.
By the time Corey began setting up HVTN as the world’s largest publicly funded collaborative for development of HIV vaccines, Wakefield had already co-founded AVAC, a New York-based global advocacy group for HIV vaccine research. (Wakefield only recently retired from AVAC’s board of directors.)
He had been working in South Africa, helping epidemiologists develop volunteer community advisory boards, before returning to Chicago and learning about Corey’s newly funded HVTN. Soon he began shaping its outreach and communications programs, forging critical ties between vaccine researchers and the people from hard-hit communities they needed to recruit from for clinical trials.
As Corey told Fred Hutch News Service’s Mary Engel (on the occasion of Wakefield being named a grand marshal of the 2018 Seattle Pride Parade), “He understands science, he asks hard questions and pushes back when anything doesn’t seem right or principled.”
Renowned HIV researcher Dr. Glenda Gray, leader of the South African Medical Research Council and co-principal investigator for HVTN, said Wakefield helped to expand clinical trial capacity in her country through his skill in working with both scientists and community advocates.
“His vision and passion for Africa resulted in a vibrant and highly successful program. He rejected the concept of Afro-pessimism and helped promote the growth of science in Africa. For that I will always be grateful,” she said.
Wakefield’s retirement is a bittersweet moment for those who have worked closely with him. Kimberly Louis, outreach manager for the Seattle Vaccine Trials Unit, part of HVTN’s web of clinical trials sites for vaccines for HIV (and now COVID-19), called Wakefield “the godfather of the community work for the network.”
“He taught me that outreach was a conversation. Before you can make an ask of recruitment to a vaccine trial, there has to be education. There has to be reciprocity. You can’t go into communities asking them to support us without giving them something back,” she said.
Dr. Michele Andrasik, senior staff scientist in the Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, said Wakefield was “always making connections, opening doors and ensuring that those doors stay open.”
Dr. George Counts, a retired University of Washington professor of medicine, said working with Wakefield in South Africa and Botswana were among the most memorable moments of his career.
“He has extraordinary people skills,” said Counts. “He earned the respect of scientists at the highest level of government, academia and industry.”
After 20 years, Wakefield said it was time for a younger person to take on the grueling hours required for such work, which now encompasses the crash effort to run massive clinical trials of potential COVID-19 vaccines.
Corey has named Dr. Stephaun Wallace to succeed Wakefield as director of external relations, a selection Wakefield heartily applauds.
Wallace has more than 25 years of social justice and community mobilization experience. He joined HVTN as a community engagement project manager in 2016 and was affiliated with the network for more than decade through collaborations with the clinical research site at the University of Rochester in New York.
“He is no stranger to the organization,” Wakefield said. “I believe that he and Larry [Corey] will develop the kind of relationship that ensures the work that I’ve done — the sweat equity, the years of investment — will continue to pay dividends."
Wallace called Wakefield, whom he has known for nearly ten years, both a mentor and a friend.
“He has a very strong sense of self,” Wallace said. “He has a very warm personality, and when he walks into a room, everyone just feels better.”
As Wakefield pondered the two decades of work at Fred Hutch, he said he is pleased by the recent emphasis on diversity and inclusion at the organization.
“My first week at the Hutch, I remember writing to a friend that said, ‘I am so glad I have a mirror, otherwise I would not have seen another Black man all week,’” Wakefield said. “And just last week, I got to join those hoisting the Black Lives Matter banner at the Hutch.
“I really think that the organization has made a new commitment to transparency, and a new commitment to change and responsiveness. It just makes it that much harder to leave.”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.
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