‘Disease detective’ is leading expert on HIV/AIDS

By Erin Wood Miller ’09

ROB LYERLA ’79 didn’t enroll at Bradley expecting to become one of the world’s leading experts on the global impact of HIV/AIDS. His career path happened mostly by chance, he admits.

“I thought I would go to medical school,” said Lyerla, now a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service and senior adviser for strategic information at the U.S. Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator.

After earning his degree in biology from Bradley, Lyerla worked for a year at an archeological dig. On a whim, Lyerla enrolled at Southern Illinois University as a graduate student in microbiology, thinking he might use the degree to enhance his medical school application and use the program to “get back to academics.” Along the way, he decided that medical school wasn’t for him, and he instead earned a master’s degree in educational psychology and later a doctorate in educational measurement and statistics at SIU. Last May, Lyerla was named the 2010 outstanding alumnus for SIU’s College of Education and Human Services, and he delivered the college’s commencement address.

“When I finished my Ph.D. at SIU, I admit I didn’t have some big plan,” Lyerla said. While at SIU, he had been researching alcohol use among college students. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) learned about his work. “So I visited CDC, and over lunch I was offered a job.” A few weeks later, the CDC told Lyerla it was under a hiring freeze and suggested he instead apply to the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). “I had never heard of the program, but I sent in an application packet and a few months later, I was on my way to CDC for a type of post-doc in applied epidemiology. I found out later that people had applied for this job four, five years in a row and didn’t get in.”

Globe-trotting for the government

Lyerla became a “disease detective” in the CDC’s EIS. Fluent in Russian after taking classes at SIU, his first assignment was to be part of a team of four that traveled across the globe to discover why nearly 250,000 Russians had diphtheria. He also investigated a dengue fever outbreak in the Virgin Islands and was “loaned” to the Atlanta Olympics, working in disease and outbreak surveillance.Lyerla

After completing EIS, Lyerla became a staff epidemiologist in the viral hepatitis division at CDC and later joined the epidemiology and analysis division of the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS in Geneva, Switzerland. During his five-year posting — three years as a team leader — Lyerla helped health officials around the globe predict the impact HIV/AIDS would have in their countries. “We had two major tasks: one, establish national estimates of the current burden of the disease, and two, estimate how many new infections were expected,” Lyerla said.

Returning to the states, Lyerla joined Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health, where he fostered collaboration among scientists worldwide. Because of his experience in Geneva, he was asked last September to come to the U.S. Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator to work in the strategic information division, where he manages and directs surveillance and epidemiological activities. “On a day-to-day basis, I pinch myself and say, ‘Is this real? How did I get here?’”

Lyerla says that after retirement, he would like to teach at the university level and influence young people the same way Dr. Tom Cummings, professor emeritus of chemistry, influenced him at Bradley. “He was one of those people who really liked teaching. I only had him for one class, but he still stands out to me.”

Lyerla lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.