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Alumnus Takes 'Opportunity of A Lifetime' Serving on White House Coronavirus Task Force

Published on July 9, 2020

This story was originally published by Merck and is republished with permission.

Kurtis OakleyKurtis Oakley MB'07, MT'08, associate director, regulatory affairs at Merck, was in the car with his wife when he got a call in March from the military asking if he wanted to take on “the opportunity of a lifetime”: joining the White House coronavirus task force.

“I didn’t even ask how long it was or where it was,” he says. “I got off the phone and my wife said, ‘You’re going to go, huh? I think you have to. Since I’ve known you, since I met you, this is all you’ve talked about – this is what made you go into the sciences and made you sign up.’ So that was it.”

Oakley in gearOakley is a graduate of USciences' microbiology and medical technology (now medical laboratory sciences) programs. It was what made him go into the sciences and become a microbiologist. Oakley found his calling after watching a team of scientists find a cure for a dangerous virus in the film “Outbreak” when he was in high school. “That moved me, and from watching that I said, ‘I’m going to be a microbiologist,’” he says. “And this mission that gave me strength and woke me up every morning to get where I am is literally happening now.”

In the months since that phone call, Oakley’s life has been a whirlwind. He was deployed in April as a COVID-19 microbiological operations officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) White House task force unit. Though he was hesitant to spend months away from his family, Oakley made the tough decision to move from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. His primary task: increasing hospital bed capacity

“There are anxieties – I’m away from my family. How will they get groceries? I have the normal fears that most people have,” he says. “But if we don’t control this, it’s going to spin out of control and keep spreading. There’s pride and honor that comes with knowing that when I sit in that office with my team, I’ll be able to assist.”

Oakley and childOakley says even while on military leave, Merck has been there for him. In April, Oakley’s mother fell ill and was hospitalized. He says the support he received from Merck’s Veterans Employee Business Resource Group helped him stay calm and resilient. Kurtis’ mother has since recovered, and Kurtis has been able to stay fully focused on his mission.

During Oakley’s mission so far, the USACE worked with Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) and local officials in Washington, D.C., to convert the Walter E. Washington Convention Center into a temporary hospital in less than 30 days.

He feels that his work at Merck has prepared him well – and vice versa.

Oakley recounts a task force meeting he attended to review previous projects and recommend best practices on building alternate care facilities.

“Like I would at Merck, I listened, I guided and I asked questions,” he explains. “From that meeting, we were able to find out what our biggest challenge was, and we utilized that lesson learned within days.” Oakley’s work in the USACE is all about agility.


Categories: News, Alumni, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Coronavirus, Department of Biological Sciences, Medical Laboratory Science, Microbiology,