Thomas A. Cebula, a lauded microbiologist who helped develop ways to speed up the identification of dangerous pathogens and taught as a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University, died Wednesday at Union Memorial Hospital following a heart attack. He was 67.
Dr. Cebula's research work, most recently as chief science officer for Rockville-based CosmosID, helped quicken diagnosis and treatment of disease.
"In his field, he was one of the top people," said Maurice Bessman, a biology professor at Hopkins who was teaching there when Dr. Cebula received his doctorate in 1974 and remained friends with him. "He was involved in developing algorithms which could take a culture of bacteria and quickly determine which one of the bacteria was involved in the infection. Instead of taking days for a diagnosis, they could do a diagnosis right after they did a DNA analysis of it, which they could do in a couple of hours."
A native of Plymouth, Pa., Dr. Cebula graduated from Wilkes University in nearby Wilkes-Barre. He later earned his Ph.D. at Hopkins and completed his post-graduate work there as a National Cancer Institute fellow and a microbiology research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Dr. Cebula took to his career path early, said his wife of 38 years, the former Deborah Roach. "He took a chemistry course in high school and fell in love with it, and never looked back," she said.
Before starting work at CosmosID in 2010, Dr. Cebula was director of the Office of Applied Research and Safety Assessment for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"He did an awful lot of important work at the FDA on determining what caused bacteria to become virulent," Dr. Bessman said. He also studied why some bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and other drugs, focusing on the genetic mutations that lead to such resistance.
"His work was unimpeachable," Dr. Bessman said.
As important as his research was to him, Dr. Cebula felt teaching and helping the public understand science were equally important. This past spring, he taught a section of one of his most popular courses, a freshman seminar on "Microbes in the Media" that looked at scientific issues in the news. "He felt it was really important to prime the pump," his wife said, "to make sure that students were broadly trained."
Among those he influenced through his work at Hopkins was his niece and goddaughter, Rebecca Ress, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in public health. Although she never took a class with him, some of her sorority sisters did, and savored the experience.
Dr. Cebula was also a visiting professor at the University of Maryland's Institute for Genome Sciences. Among his many honors, he was an American Academy of Microbiology fellow, a Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars elected fellow and the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for protecting the health of the American public.
As a true Hopkins alum, Dr. Cebula was also a big-time lacrosse fan — "a really rabid fan," according to his wife. When each of his nieces and nephews reached their first communion, he gave them a lacrosse stick as a present. And his family members speak with a mix of awe and glee about the "Blue Jay Drink" he would serve them before games. The exact recipe is a closely guarded family secret, his niece said — although she allowed that there was tequila in it.
In addition to their home in Roland Park, the family owned a house by Lewis Bay on Cape Cod — a spot that became an important refuge for her husband, Mrs. Cebula said. "That's where he really fell apart and relaxed," she said.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Cebula is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Cebula, of Mount Washington, and two sisters, Ann Harding, of Telford, Pa., and Helen Cebula, of Plymouth, Pa.
A Mass of Christian burial is set for 11 a.m. Monday at the Church of Saints Philip and James, 2801 N. Charles St.