Campus News, Research

Dr. David J. Weber keeps it simple

During the pandemic, the infectious diseases expert protected campus by distilling data into prevention strategies.

Carolina’s Dr. David J. Weber, an infectious diseases doctor and epidemiologist, has been teacher, mentor, medical leader and disease prevention evangelist over four decades of epidemics and pandemics.
Carolina’s Dr. David J. Weber, an infectious diseases doctor and epidemiologist, has been teacher, mentor, medical leader and disease prevention evangelist over four decades of epidemics and pandemics.

Rattlesnake wrangler.

It’s not on his résumé, but that was, indeed, Dr. David J. Weber’s first scientific job. As a high school student working in a San Diego lab, he prepared rattlesnakes for research experiments.

Since then, Weber has gone on to wrangle much bigger things during his career as an infectious diseases doctor and epidemiologist, teacher, mentor, medical leader and disease prevention evangelist over four decades of epidemics and pandemics.

Today, he is associate chief medical officer and medical director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center and the Charles Addison and Elizabeth Ann Sanders Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics in the School of Medicine. He is also a professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been a protector of and messenger to the University, North Carolina and colleagues near and far. He is known for reducing the latest data on diseases into useful information that he shares through television and radio interviews, and frequent sessions with health care professionals and researchers. Carolina’s administration has relied on Weber’s expertise to make campus safer.

“Any infectious disease epidemiologist will say it was never a question of if we saw a pandemic, it was only a question of when,” Weber said. That mantra keeps him focused on the science and prevention of new and emerging diseases, especially those that spread from animals to humans, biothreat agents and those that can cause epidemics and pandemics.

Staying on top of things

Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of infection prevention at the UNC Medical Center, has worked with Weber since her undergraduate days in an environmental lab in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. He was her mentor and adviser on her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. “Dr. Weber is brilliant, with an ability to assimilate a lot of information, then distill it to key strategies for prevention,” she said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people would be overwhelmed, but he took it as a personal challenge to stay on top of things.”

You could call him a straight shooter. He calls himself a teacher.

“We need to educate the public, which I enjoy doing, and we need to educate each other,” Weber said. “I certainly enjoy having my colleagues teach me, and I enjoy teaching my colleagues as well.”

One avenue for this sharing and learning is through his longtime involvement with the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. SHEA is a professional society that improves public health by establishing infection prevention measures and supporting antibiotic standards among health care providers. In October, Weber was selected to become the president of the 2,700-member group in 2025.

Path to medicine

Weber’s path to medicine began in 1957, about five years after the death of his father, Barney. His mother, Evelyn, moved with Weber and his sister from New York City to Miami so that she could finish college. She had attended college for a year before having children. Every school except the University of Miami told her that a single mother should not attend college. She graduated from the University of Miami in 1960, and moved the family to New Haven, Connecticut, to earn a master’s of social work from the University of Connecticut.

David Weber holds hands with his mother Evelyn at his high school graudation.

Weber stands with his mother, Evelyn, at his high school graduation.

In New Haven, Weber’s interest in science flourished. Besides school classes, he learned about rocks and seashells at museums and did other scientific activities. During high school, he worked in different laboratories.

“I spent every summer from the time I was 16 working somewhere in the United States, usually in a laboratory and doing something interesting. I had to pay my way through college. I had to earn money, but as long as I was going to earn minimum wage, I may as well do it in some place nice.”

After his sophomore year, he worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, where he learned to scuba dive and was part of research on whether snakes can hear airborne sound. That’s where he learned to handle rattlesnakes.

The high schooler’s willingness to take on challenges, his intellect and his curiosity enabled him to snag summer jobs at Yale Medical School, then Yale’s geochemistry department. As a student at Wesleyan University, he also worked summers in labs. One job at the Baylor College of Medicine, he said, “shows that when you learn new things, they sometimes are useful later.” The Baylor studies isolated polio virus from wastewater, something done during the recent New York polio outbreak.

Weber as a medical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, wearing white coat and stethescope.

Weber during a medical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The lab experiences made him realize that he enjoyed medicine’s human element, not spending all his time in a lab. He decided not to pursue a graduate degree in biology and, instead, attended the University of California at San Diego medical school. He then went to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for a residency in infectious diseases and fellowships in ambulatory care and clinical research from 1977 to 1985. During that time, he earned a master’s degree in epidemiology from Harvard University.

Weber said he wanted to stay in academics and so became an infectious disease epidemiologist.

Work at Carolina

In 1985, Weber joined Carolina’s faculty as an assistant professor of medicine. He conducted cross-disciplinary research, worked on vaccines and treated patients during the HIV pandemic, the 2001 anthrax biothreat, the 2003 smallpox vaccine campaign and SARS-CoV-1 pandemic, the 2009 H1-N1 flu pandemic and 2014 Ebola outbreak. Recently, he’s updated colleagues and the public on the flu, mpox and RSV.

Weber said that he enjoys practicing infectious disease medicine because it is intellectually interesting, “plus, unlike most areas of medicine, you actually cure almost all your patients.”

But teaching became his favorite activity, partly because of the multiplier effect. “If you train 100 people and each of them trains 100 people, you can see the impact you have on the world,” he said.

“He sees how that time pays back,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “In teaching students and mentoring fellows, he is so generous.”

Sickbert-Bennett is a perfect example of Weber’s generosity. With his mentorship through graduate school, she was prepared for a meaningful professional career. She is now Weber’s supervisor at the UNC Medical Center. “It’s hard saying I’m his boss because he taught me everything I know. He invests in students, and they become his colleagues,” she said.

Leadership

Weber’s leadership history ranges from serving as chair of the North Carolina Public Health Department’s tuberculosis advisory committee to advising the World Health Organization on COVID-19 and serving on numerous working groups for vaccines and diseases. He’s published more than 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers and researched vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap), influenza, hepatitis B and pneumococcal infections.

Weber serves as an expert on SHEA’s weekly town hall webinars that address members’ questions about rapidly evolving infection-prevention–related issues. He’s been a primary information source for the town halls every Sunday since they began in 2020, all 82 of them.

Weber also spent 28 years at UNC Medical Center’s occupational health care clinic, caring for thousands of the center’s employees.

“Whatever he does, he does it at 150%,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “He’s at the top of his game.”

Weberisms

Weber often reduces complicated things to short sayings such as “Prevention is superior to treatment” and “Never order a test unless you know what you will do with the results.”

“Weberisms,” his co-workers call them.

Some people would have such sayings framed and hanging in their offices. Instead, Weber created “Rules for Medical Practice,” a list of short pieces of advice that he shares freely. It ends with No. 16 — Do not neglect yourself or your family.

Weberisms are so well-known that, for his most recent birthday, the Infection Prevention staff presented him with a T-shirt listing 10 of Weber’s pearls of wisdom. They all wore T-shirts in the same design to surprise and honor him.