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Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, speaks to biology undergraduate students Friday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Gerson was a speech writer for former President George W. Bush. Friday's speech was part of a weekly seminar series for the students.

An auditorium of students, many planning to enter the medical profession, listened on Friday afternoon as Michael Gerson spoke about what he called the dire need for a stronger, more united global health system.

"It is [medical professionals] who stand between society and disaster," Gerson told the room of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga biology majors.

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Gerson has an extensive resume, and he is a former speech writer for President George W. Bush and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post. On Friday, he represented ONE, an advocacy organization founded by rock singer Bono that is working to end extreme poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa.

Gerson spent a majority of his time with the students recounting stories of his work around the globe as part of a bipartisan effort to reduce the spread of HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

"I was introduced to the global AIDS crisis in the 1990s," Gerson said. "I watched [my college roommate's] life slip painfully away."

He said many people in his generation shared a similar experience. It was an experience many of the younger generations do not share, he said, because of the work that has been done to curb the AIDS epidemic.

"Humanity can fight back with victories counted in millions of lives," Gerson said, as students nodded in agreement.

He used the Ebola viral epidemic as an example of how quickly a fragile health system can break down in the face of a threat.

He said the world learned several lessons from Ebola, and praised the resilience of the West African people and the action taken by countries throughout the region to respond.

Jawaad Sheikh, a senior biology major at UTC, said he plans to enter the medical profession and found Gerson's talk very motivating.

"It helps me look forward to my goals," he said. "I know I'll be one of those people in the medical field he talked about making a difference."

Michael Gerson's column runs weekly on the Free Press page in the Opinion section of the Times Free Press.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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