Dr. Tina Tan’s laugh is easy as she reflects on the frenetic pace that has been her work life the last three years. As a pediatric infectious disease specialist whose research expertise—and advocacy—is in the field of vaccines for preventable diseases, Tan has been extremely engaged on multiple fronts.
“It has been a very interesting three years,” Tan said, referring to the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the current surge of patients suffering respiratory illnesses who are swamping hospitals around the U.S.
"You deal with it one day at a time. Obviously, the most important thing is to provide the best care possible to the patients that are presenting to you."
Tan, like many of her medical colleagues, is not only attempting to fight off the germs that cause preventable diseases; she’s also finding herself having to combat disinformation about the very medicine that can thwart those ailments.
“What happened during the pandemic is that we saw a significant decline in the vaccination rates, not only in pediatrics, but in the adult population and we still have not caught up,” said Tan, who is a pediatric infectious disease physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital and a pediatrics professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “One thing about vaccines today is that they are one of the safest interventions that you could use in order to protect your child against potentially devastating and fatal disease.
“Social media and the internet and the misinformation there has really done a disservice,” Tan said.
Besides her doctoring duties, Tan holds a number of administrative positions outside the hospital. She is the chair of the Global Immunization Advocacy advisory group for the American Academy of Pediatrics, vice president of the board of directors of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a member of the Center for Disease Control board of scientific counselors, among others.
Tan’s clinical research has to do with vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases and her current project is working with the Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern, which is one of the largest cancer treatment centers in the country, to implement a vaccine protocol.
“I’m working with some of the physicians and nurses there in getting newly diagnosed adult cancer patients vaccinated with their routine vaccines so that they have some protection against vaccine-preventable diseases before they start their cancer therapy,” Tan said.
Tan is also the editor-in-chief for Contemporary Pediatrics, a major medical journal used by pediatricians, nurse practitioners and family practitioners who provide primary care to pediatric patients.
Since the pandemic, Tan said she’s had to spend more time trying to explain to parents that ‘what you read on social media is not science.”
“The science behind this really shows that these vaccines are safe and very effective, and they do protect against the diseases from which they are supposed to,” Tan said.
Tan, who earned a biology degree from UNO in 1982 before attending medical school at LSU, said she has always been attracted to a career in medicine and felt drawn to work with younger patients.
“My mom will tell you that ever since I was 4 years of age, I always said that I wanted to be a doctor,” Tan said. “I can remember babysitting when I was like 11 or 12 and just thinking, ‘I really enjoy taking care of kids,’ and people used to always tell me that ‘you have a way of dealing with children.’”
“I always knew that I wanted to work with children. I really felt like this was a population that people needed to advocate for because kids don’t really have a voice of their own,” Tan said.
Tan said her interest in infectious diseases stems from a love of working out puzzles.
“Since I was very little, whether it was a crossword puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle or reading something like a mystery and trying to figure out what was going on, I always liked to solve puzzles,” Tan said. “And infectious diseases is really solving a puzzle every day in order to make someone better.”
Tan grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Ben Franklin High School. She was introduced to UNO via a dual enrollment program while in high school and was impressed by the course offerings in the College of Sciences, Tan said.
“Looking at the bachelor of science program, it really allowed whoever was going to do that the opportunity to develop a very strong base for going into whatever field of science they chose,” Tan said. “Especially for people who wanted to go to medical school, dental school, vet school, etc.”
Tan recalls taking a histology course at UNO as part of her major and hearing that doing well meant she was extremely prepared for a similar class in medical school.
“It was taught by Dr. Holmquist … She was very rigorous and very demanding of the students in her course, but she was this excellent teacher,” Tan said. “I worked really hard in her class. I got an A and had no problems in medical school!”
Tan said her medical career has been enjoyable because she’s taken advantage of the opportunities that have come her way. She encourages students to do the same, even if they are unsure of their skills.
“I don’t think people tell younger individuals that enough,” Tan said. “A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that because I don’t know a lot about it.’ Well, that’s a chance for you to learn.
“You learn every single day,” Tan said. “I would say definitely take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you and follow your dreams.”