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Larry Farrell, Ph.D.
Pocatello, Idaho

Larry Farrell, Ph.D.
  Larry Farrell is one of few people in the United States who can say he's a professor of HIV -- and actually mean it. The Idaho State University professor has been teaching a unique college course on HIV/AIDS for years.
Idaho's HIV Professor Almost 20 years ago, as the U.S. public was just beginning to grasp the vast scope of the country's HIV epidemic, Larry Farrell, Ph.D., was asked to do a series of regional radio spots educating people about the virus. He has been an HIV prevention educator ever since, a role that has blended nicely with his long-held position as a professor of microbiology at Idaho State University (ISU). Microbiology may be his career, but HIV education is what Larry calls his "labor of love."

Sadly, much of Larry's HIV prevention work hasn't changed much since those early days, particularly when it comes to the rural areas of Idaho where he sometimes spreads his message. He has given more than 700 presentations on HIV over the past two decades, but "I am asked the same questions that were asked 10 or 15 years ago," he says. Larry doesn't allow this frustration to become an obstacle, though; if anything, it seems to strengthen his resolve to educate young people in Idaho about what it means to have HIV, and how HIV infection can be avoided.

Larry's proudest achievement is his creation of a college course on HIV/AIDS at ISU, which is taken by about 70 students each semester. The course has been so successful that his students frequently recommend it be required for everyone at the university. The course has also won him awards from the college and the state; senior university officials have told him that the class is directly responsible for saving students' lives.


How long have you been doing prevention education?

Since January, 1987, so I am in my nineteenth year.

"Anyone who has a good grasp of the scientific/social information that can help people avoid this disease and help people who are suffering from it has an obligation to share that information."

Can you describe how your work has changed since you started?

My prevention work hasn't really changed dramatically since I began. It was somewhat slow to take off, but since I made a commitment to go wherever/whenever I was asked to go to present HIV/AIDS information, it grew relatively rapidly, peaking in the mid-to-late-'90s. Right now, there is a bit of an ebb again, reflecting what I see as a nationwide lack of interest in HIV/AIDS.

Currently, the majority of my effort goes into my AIDS class at the university every semester, doing presentations for high school groups and ongoing efforts with the Idaho Care and Prevention Council, a CDC-funded program that plans and delivers care and prevention interventions throughout the state.

If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?

Since I am not primarily an HIV educator but a university professor, you would see me doing the typical things that all faculty members do: teaching lectures and labs, attending multitudes of meetings, directing both undergraduate and graduate student research projects and reading scientific literature every day. The HIV education fulfills my professional service obligations as a faculty member, something of a labor of love that I have always felt was of essential importance but something into which I rather accidentally fell. It also fills a personal obligation that I feel to repay the community as a whole for some of the perquisites and benefits I have enjoyed in my university position. I believe that anyone who has a good grasp of the scientific/social information that can help people avoid this disease and help people who are suffering from it has an obligation to share that information.

What's the best thing about your job?

Clearly, the best part of my job is being around very bright people, both students and faculty, who both inspire and push me to do the best I can at everything I do.

What's the worst thing about your job?

The worst part of my job is dealing with the financial issues that constrain what can realistically be accomplished in teaching, research and service. Constantly dwindling levels of state support for higher education, putting a rapidly increasing burden on students, is a major concern.

What have been your greatest successes in your work?

I believe that my biggest success in the context of HIV prevention education has been the establishment of my ongoing AIDS class. This one-credit class is offered every semester. It is graded Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory, so it has no impact on a student's grade point average. It is not required for any curriculum or major on campus and is taught from 7 to 9 p.m. every Tuesday night for the first eight weeks of the semester. It still manages to draw 65 to 75 students each semester. Many of those students indicate on class evaluations that the class should be required for all students on campus.

I guess I would also have to count as a success the fact that my efforts have been publicly acknowledged by former department chairs and college deans as having saved lives. Related to that was recognition with the University's Distinguished Public Service award in 1990, primarily for my HIV prevention efforts, and the inaugural Governor's Award for Innovation in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (shared with Dr. Jim Girvan), for "Inservice Training in HIV/AIDS for Public Schools."

What is the biggest challenge you face as a prevention educator?

My biggest challenge is overcoming denial among people who should be aware of and concerned about HIV/AIDS issues. Since Idaho is a sparsely populated state, mostly rural, many people feel that the problem is never going to affect them or their families.

For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?

In my opinion, the biggest risk factor for HIV/AIDS is ignorance and denial (yeah, I know that isn't one factor but they are so closely allied that they have to be listed together). I don't think it really makes sense to single out any particular activity as "the biggest risk factor"; one has to deal with the issues that make people think it is reasonable to be involved in any risk activity. As long as people are unaware of the realities of exposure risk, it is easy for them to think that the activities in which they are involved are safe. And as long as they can believe that this disease only happens to "those people," presumably "over there," it is easy for them to continue to deny that this will ever be a problem for them personally.

"And as long as [people] believe that this disease only happens to 'those people,' presumably 'over there,' it is easy for them to continue to deny that this will ever be a problem for them personally.

Do you think that prevention efforts are sufficient?

No, I don't think that prevention efforts in this country, or around the world, are sufficient. I am asked the same questions that were asked 10 or 15 years ago, reflecting a huge lack of information about some of the most basic issues of HIV/AIDS. In my opinion, that results from deficiencies in prevention education.

A major issue is that there isn't enough financial support provided for prevention education, so most of the people who are involved are volunteers, doing the best they can while maintaining a full-time job and a family/social life.

In some respects, I am surprised that we have done as well as we have in this country. Globally, the same issues exist, but I don't think most countries, particularly in the developing world, have done as well as we have. If the epidemic is to be stopped, that must change.

What is the most important thing you have learned from the people you work with?

First is that most people really want information about HIV/AIDS. (Of course, that perspective may come from the fact that I am "preaching to the choir" -- doing presentations for people who have invited me or have registered for my class.)

Second, and most important, is that ultimately all of this boils back down to the people who are infected with/affected by HIV/AIDS. We have to take care of those who are already in that group, and we must do everything possible to prevent adding others.

How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?

One of the most important things is that I am not a full-time HIV prevention educator. Even so, there have been times when frustrations have built to the point that I have considered reducing or even eliminating my prevention efforts. At times like those, I remember the infected/affected, remember that there is obviously risk activity going on in my community and state, and realize that I am one of those best qualified to provide the information that people need to prevent infection.

What do you think the biggest problem people living with HIV face?

Stigma is probably the biggest problem that PLWAs face. I realize that considerable progress has been made in some larger communities but, in this area, PLWAs live with the fear that others will learn of their infection status. In this strongly religious, and somewhat fundamentalist, area, attitudes about those who live lifestyles that put them at risk for HIV exposure are often strongly moralistic and decidedly negative.


Who would you like to dedicate this award to?

All of those people I have known who were infected/affected by HIV/AIDS, the people who have kept me constantly aware of the importance of doing this work.


Where did you grow up?

I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma, in and around the small town of Mooreland. How small? I was in the largest class in the school, and it had only 32 people.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Once I got past the cowboy/fireman/pilot stage, I always wanted to be a scientist of some sort. I toyed with the idea of medical school for a while in high school, but decided that I wasn't cut out to be directly responsible for patient care.

What kind of work did your parents do?

My father was a farmer and general laborer. My mother was a police officer.

"I am surprised that we have done as well as we have [in preventing HIV transmission] in this country."

When did you decide you wanted to be a prevention educator? What was your major in college?

I was a microbiology/bacteriology major (B.S., 1964; M.S., 1966; University of Oklahoma. Ph.D., 1970, University of California at Los Angeles). Obviously, when I was in college, HIV/AIDS was not even known to exist. After a few years at Idaho State University, I began to read about this new virus (HIV) that was causing a new disease syndrome. Since one of my areas of interest is virology, I began to dig more deeply into the viral system. Learning about the disease state, risk activities, etc., was not necessarily at the front of my mind but all of that was incidentally included in my reading. In late 1986, I was approached by the Office of University Relations about doing a series of radio spots about HIV/AIDS to be run throughout southern Idaho. I agreed to do the spots, and things have simply grown from there. As opportunities arose to do presentations or get involved in prevention activities, I took advantage of them.

What other jobs have you had?

Following completion of my Ph.D., I did a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. I was offered a job at Idaho State University, beginning in August, 1972, and I have been here since then.

Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?

Among the most influential, professionally, have been Dr. Howard W. Larsh, at the University of Oklahoma, and Dr. William B. Romig, at UCLA. Observations of Dr. Larsh's lectures led me to believe that one should invest all presentations with life and excitement, and that showmanship plays a role (I never saw the man use any notes, but his lectures were always cogent, coherent and interesting). Dr. Romig instilled a desire to be sure of one's results and conclusions before publishing, and a desire to assure that publications were meaningful, not simply "least publishable units."

Among the most influential people, personally, have been all those people I have known who are/were infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. People, like Richard Carper, who put themselves in the public eye at the national level, as he did by walking across the U.S. twice to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, and people like Anna, Bob, Chuck, Debbie, Jenna, Michael, Mike, Marsha, Paul, Sandra and others who have stepped forward locally to help put a face on the epidemic in Idaho, have been a constant inspiration.

What do you do in your spare time?

Voracious reading (I average two to three novels per week, in addition to all of the professional reading I do), spending way too much time surfing the Web and building scale-model cars, trucks and motorcycles consume most of my spare time. That is, what spare time I have, given that my three grandchildren (ages five years, 21 months and four months) live here in Pocatello and my wife, Julia, provides childcare for them while their mother works. I also bicycle (not nearly enough, as attested by my "middle age spread") and do occasional bike maintenance for the neighborhood children. Of course, lawn care and home maintenance also take up spare time.

Do you have a partner? Kids?

My wife, Julia, and I will have been married for 40 years on August 8, 2005. We have two daughters, Denise E. Moore and Meghan K. Nichols.

Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?

We have lived in Pocatello since 1972. It is a rather typical university town, with a population of about 50,000. The university has an enrollment of slightly over 13,000. I like it because it is relatively small, although large enough to offer most amenities; having lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, I appreciate living in a smaller community that has a community identity. Dislikes include lack of diversity and a rather narrow worldview in the community at large.

If you were to live somewhere else, where would it be?

The coast of northern California is spectacular, as is the Island Park area of Idaho. Either would be great places to live.

What's the best vacation you ever had?

Probably the best was one taken with my family when I was about 15, visiting friends in Montana. That was the first time I caught a trout while wading a small stream and I was as hooked as the fish. Unfortunately, that interest has dwindled over the years.

What's the biggest adventure you ever had?

Probably moving from smalltown Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Chicago. An inadvertent trip through Watts in 1965 and an intentional trip through the South Side of Chicago certainly opened my eyes to some realities of life that I had not seen before.

What's currently on your bedside table for reading?

Escapist fiction. Right now, I am reading Randy Wayne White's North of Havana. I discovered White's "Doc Ford" series a few years ago and am now trying to read some of the earlier works in the series to learn what Doc and Tomlinson were like when a bit younger. I also greatly enjoy Robert B. Parker's "Spenser" series and Lawrence Sander's "McNally" series.

What book would you say has had the most impact on you?

Paul de Kruif's The Microbe Hunters, read when I was quite young.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I prefer classical music. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms figure prominently, but there is a special place for Aaron Copland's Rodeo.

Interview by Keith Green