Three historians will discuss past pandemics and public health crises—including smallpox, polio, and the 1918 flu— in WNC and Appalachia. They are joined by two immunologists and professors of biology who will address Covid-19, vaccines, and our current pandemic response. They will answer audience questions in a moderated session afterward. This event is brought to you with special support from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC-Asheville.


Our Speakers:

David Cockrell is an instructor of history at Guilford Technical Community College. His research and publications include “’A Blessing in Disguise’: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and North Carolina’s Medical and Public Health Communities” published in the North Carolina Historical Review. He will discuss the similarities between the 1918 flu and the current Covid-19 pandemic.


Patricia Bernard Ezzell serves as a Senior Program Manager in TVA’s Human Resources & Communications organization. Ms. Ezzell serves as the agency’s expert regarding the history of TVA and is the primary contact person for information pertaining to TVA’s past. She maintains and curates TVA’s Historic Photograph Collection and provides input to questions of historical significance. Her presentation is entitled: “A Shot in the Arm: TVA’s Investment in Disease Prevention.” She is the author of several articles as well as two books on TVA history: TVA Photography: Thirty Years of Life in the Tennessee Valley and TVA Photography, 1963-2008: Challenges and Changes in the Tennessee Valley, both published by the University Press of Mississippi. She served as historical consultant on the documentary film, Built for the People: The Story of TVA and has contributed to other media specials, most recently the WBIR history on the building of Norris Dam, For the Greater Good.


Richard Eller is a historian deeply interested in the events that shaped western North Carolina. As a writer and documentarian, he has covered the subjects of the 1944 Polio Epidemic, as well as one of NC’s most famous homegrown companies, Piedmont Airlines. Currently, he is producing/directing a documentary on an African-American high school football team, known as the Untouchables for their shutout season of 1964, and a comprehensive history of the western North Carolina furniture industry. He was named the 2021 Historian of the Year by the NC Society of Historians and currently serves as director of Redhawk Publications, a unique initiative of Catawba Valley Community College that offers an outlet for artisans in the region. He also oversees CVCC’s “HandsOnHistory” project which leads student learning in history by taking students to pivotal sites which have included Selma, Alabama, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and the American Southwest.


Dr. Maryam Ahmed is a Professor of Biology at Appalachian State University. She received her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in the area of Molecular Virology, and her postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Viral Pathogenesis. She joined the faculty at Appalachian State University in 2010 and has a research program focused on developing oncolytic viruses as anti-cancer agents and investigating the mechanisms by which viruses interact with cancer and immune cells in the tumor microenvironment. Dr. Ahmed’s presentation will concentrate on concepts of viral variant emergence and what scientists expect for the evolution of SARS-CoV-2.


Dr. Michael Opata is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Appalachian State University. He trained as an immunologist at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and did a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. His research program at App state focuses on understanding how moderate malnutrition influence mucosal immunity, and the development of memory CD4 T cells during malaria infection. Together with a team of undergraduates and graduate students, he has established a neonatal mouse model, which is essential in understanding malaria pathogenesis in young children, who are most vulnerable to malarial disease. Dr. Opata’s presentation will focus on how vaccines work to protect people against infectious diseases. He will also include data on how the first batch of COVID-19 vaccination efforts averted high death rates between January to May 2020.