President Rebecca Wyke opens the University of Maine at Augusta’s annual convocation Friday in the Susan and Barry Farber Forum in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — “What will a historian 166 years from now write when she tells Maine’s story?” Dr. Nirav Shah asked University of Maine at Augusta students watching the annual convocation event on Facebook Live.

The director of the Maine Center for Disease Control was the keynote speaker for the event, properly themed “outbreak,” that highlighted how the world has shifted many in-person gatherings to virtual versions.

“Did we do all that we could?” Shah said. “If we didn’t, what could we do moving forward?”

Dr. Nirav Shah delivers the UMA Keynote Address. Screen capture

He took a more literal approach to the word “outbreak,” focusing his speech on the book UMA students will read this academic year: “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World,” by Steven Johnson. “The Ghost Map” details the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London. During Shah’s speech, he drew parallels to cholera with the current global coronavirus pandemic.

“Why didn’t any of those earlier outbreaks trigger the same amount of concern that the one in 1854 did?” Shah asked of the cholera outbreaks in London.

Similar to the coronavirus pandemic, he said there were signs all along — and across the globe — that a systemic pandemic was months, if not weeks away. Shah encouraged UMA students to think critically of what signs would be predictable in the future.

He became the director of the Maine CDC in June 2019 and, since then, has become a recognizable figure across the state with 30,000 Facebook fans after he took center stage with Gov. Janet Mills in March when she started having daily coronavirus briefings.

In introducing Shah, UMA President Rebecca Wyke referred to an electronic sign that was put up in Topsham, with the slogan, “In Shah we trust.”

Award winners and University Provost Joseph Szakas are seen on screens in the control room that was broadcasting the University of Maine at Augusta’s annual convocation Friday in the Susan and Barry Farber Forum in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Rebecca White, a UMA professor of history, thought of “outbreak” in a different way.

“We have seen outbreaks of protests in wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s death, and outbreaks against racial injustice,” she said.

White referred to a class on “History of Enslavement and Incarnation” that she taught for the Maine State Prison this summer and admitted that even though she has her doctorate degree in history, there are still parts of Black history that she was never taught and had to learn on her own.

“I think that we need an outbreak of honesty, self-reflection and outbreaks of reflection,” White said. “Are we in a new Civil Rights era? Are Martin Luther King’s words true? It’s not being negative or unpatriotic to ask.”

Keynote speaker for UMA’s convocation in 2019, themed “Dirigo,” was Noel Paul Stookey of the band Peter, Paul and Mary.

Also at Friday’s convocation, psychology professor William Ellis was honored with the UMA Distinguished Educator award and art professor Peter Precourt was given the Distinguished Scholar award. UMA also recognized three rounds of rising scholars.

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