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The first black woman to graduate from Newman is leading the global fight against COVID-19

When a little girl from New Orleans had big dreams for her future, she had to figure out ways around obstacles.

NEW ORLEANS — You may think it's a long leap, with long odds from Lafayette Elementary public school in the Carrollton area to helping stop a global pandemic alongside Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, but it's one Dr. Toni Hoover not only made, but she stuck her landing.

“I wanted to be part of an organization that could dream so big, and be so bold, and take risks where others don't take those risks, and think long term,” said Dr. Toni Hoover, Director, Strategy, Planning & Management, Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Her story is one about how she defied those odds and broke many barriers along the way. It began when an older cousin who went from St. Augustine to Harvard said he thought the Ivy League was for her too.

“That's when I was in sixth grade and my mother overheard the conversation and she started to do some research on where did Harvard recruit out of New Orleans and it was Isidore Newman and St. Augustine,” she remembered.

She took the entrance exam for Newman. In the early 70s, there were no African-American girls in the private, Uptown school.

“I remember her asking my father if she could get the money for the exam and I got in,” Dr. Hoover remembered about her mother. 

The family could not afford tuition, but Dr. Hoover played the clarinet and earned a band scholarship from seventh grade all the way through her senior year. She and a classmate became the first black women to graduate from Newman. After going to Harvard and earning an undergraduate, masters and Ph.D., the pharmaceutical industry began calling.

“I first started working on a treatment for the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease that became the first treatment for the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in the early 90s,” Dr. Hoover said.

Later at Pfizer, she led the development of Lyrica, the first treatment for fibromyalgia. It also treats epilepsy and neuropathic pain from diabetes complications.

“It is truly a remarkable story about the level of efficacy that that product has. I mean, we developed it as if it were three different products being developed at the same time. So, it was quite a historic drug development process,” Dr. Hoover said.

Then in 2012, she got a phone call from a former colleague who had just become President of Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She did not think he was calling to offer her a job.

“And then he just popped this question, ‘Would you like to come work for us?’ I was really shocked. And I said, ‘Well, I might consider it once I retire,’” she laughed. “And he said, ‘Why don't you think about retiring now?’”

Now in Seattle, she is the Director of Strategy, Planning and Management for Global Health at the Gates Foundation. She helps the disease area teams develop and execute strategies on global health, whether it be new drugs, vaccines, affordable test kits, access to medical equipment. There's been Ebola, Zika and of course, the novel coronavirus.

“We are working around the clock now as you can well imagine on COVID-19 solutions,” Dr. Hoover said.

Dr. Hoover says her values were inspired by her father, an assistant principal at Carver High School and a United Methodist minister. He taught her to give back. Because of that, she spends countless hours mentoring young women starting their careers. She believes developing medications in her pharmaceutical industry days are helping millions. And so is her work today.

“This opportunity to work for Bill and Melinda at the Gates Foundation is, is really monumental.  When you think about an organization that can work with its partners around the world and be so bold as to think about eradicating diseases like polio, that's bold. And my father had polio,” Dr. Hoover said.

Along her journey, Dr. Hoover suddenly lost her husband, an anesthesiologist. He was only 42 when he had a massive heart attack. She has since found love again with a former commander in the Detroit police force.

“I met him at Neiman Marcus and I'd like to say you can find anything at Neiman Marcus, even a man,” she laughed.

And you could say Newman School realizes that investment they made in that pre-teen decades ago paid off. The 1977 graduate became a Wall Street Journal ‘Woman to Watch,” as well as the Newman “Alumna of the Year.”

“I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people. I think about Leo Jones, David Sylvester, (the first black men to attend Newman) and I think about all of those young black girls who did something for the first time and I gain strength from them,” she said.

But she is focused on the future needs at hand.

“We have a pandemic that results in, it's a respiratory disease, which results in people dying because they can't breathe. We have a racial justice movement that started with a man who was murdered and he said, ‘I can't breathe,’” Dr. Hoover said.

Now, that young girl who walked into the unfamiliar as a junior high student, does it again. This time on a global scale to find healing medications and protective vaccines for all.

“The speed of which new information is coming out, and new research is just remarkable. I've never seen anything like this before,” she said.

One of Dr. Hoover's many projects is developing a coronavirus at-home test kit that is affordable to all countries around the world.

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