Being next-door neighbors benefits both Rollins and CDC

A two-way street

An outdoor photo of , Patrick Sullivan and K.M. Venkat Narayan
Like many other faculty members, Patrick Sullivan (left) and K.M. Venkat Narayan enjoyed successful careers at the CDC before joining Rollins

From his office atop the Claudia Nance Rollins Building, Dean Jim Curran can look out his window and see the expanse of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campus just across the street. He can’t begin to count the times he’s made the short trek to visit with colleagues or consult with agency leaders.

The ties between the school Curran has led for the second half of his career and the agency at which he worked for the first half extend far beyond the dean. Like Curran, many CDC employees join the Rollins faculty after careers with the agency. On the flip side, many CDC employees have a Rollins degree on their CV. Rollins students routinely work at the CDC, and the school’s researchers often collaborate with colleagues down the street. CDC professionals regularly serve on Rollins‘ councils and boards. 

The alliance goes back to the institutions’ very beginnings. The CDC is in Atlanta because of Emory, and Rollins exists in part because of the CDC. In 1947, philanthropist Robert Woodruff anonymously organized a deal in which Emory “sold” 15 acres of land on Clifton Road to what was then called the Communicable Disease Center for $10. Decades later, the CDC played a crucial role in establishing the community health program within Emory’s School of Medicine, which grew into Rollins. The CDC lent employees to the university to work on curriculum and teach early classes, at least in part at the behest of CDC leadership who wanted a place where CDC personnel could receive more training in public health. 

“Rollins has unique ties with the CDC, in large part because we are literally next door,” says Curran. “Both institutions have benefitted from this proximity. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship.” 

Powerful student lure

Many students are drawn to Rollins by its proximity to the nation’s public health agency, envisioning opportunities to walk the same halls as the professionals shaping the country’s public health policies. They are not disappointed. 

Almost 200 students work at the CDC through the Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) program each year. Members of the Student Outbreak Response Team (SORT) are regularly called to lend a hand in the CDC’s emergency operations center (EOC) during national events, such as the H1N1, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19 epidemics. MPH/MSPH and PhD candidates regularly work with CDC advisers on their practicums, theses, and dissertations. 

Grace Goryoka 17MPH came to Rollins for those very reasons. “I knew I ultimately wanted to work at the CDC,” says Goryoka, a public health adviser within the CDC’s One Health Office. “I was deciding between quite a few schools of public health, but I could not pass up the opportunity to be involved in activities and events at the CDC.”

She took advantage of every opportunity she could find. As a REAL student, she worked in the CDC’s Center for Global Health for a veterinary epidemiologist. That connection led to more. Her REAL supervisor put her in touch with a colleague to oversee Goryoka’s practicum and brought in another to serve on her thesis committee. The latter is her current supervisor in the One Health Office.

Goryoka also served as co-president of SORT, scheduling student volunteers to staff the EOC during the Zika epidemic and an E. coli outbreak on a goat farm. SORT also gave her the opportunity to sit in on the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch’s meetings, making yet more connections.

The experiences gave her what she needed to be selected for an ORISE Fellowship with the One Health Office. She then became a contractor and eventually was hired full time. “The hands-on experience I gained and the connections I was able to make definitely were invaluable for me at the CDC,” says Goryoka. “From Day One at Rollins, you get to experience so many points of contact with the CDC, whether it’s through classes with jointly appointed faculty or through work opportunities. That’s why I came to Rollins.”


Many feet in the door

Goryoka is in good company. More than 1,200 Rollins alumni are currently employed at the CDC, and Emory alumni even have their own association at the agency. “It’s an alumni association for all Emory alumni, but the majority are from Rollins,” says Melia Haile 12C 15MPH, who leads the CDC/Emory alumni group. “A few other schools have employee organizations within the CDC, but the Emory group is by far the largest and most active.”

Like Goryoka, many Rollins alumni not only are able to navigate the often circuitous path to CDC employment, they do so in a way that sets them up to rise in its ranks. Rollins alumni regularly land highly competitive fellowships, including ORISE, Presidential Management, and others, according to reports from graduates. In 2020, Rollins alumni accounted for six of the 28 Presidential Management fellows, and they claimed eight of 51 spots this year. 

“The majority of the leadership in this agency comes in through the Presidential Management fellowship,” says Dr. Dawn Arlotta, who leads the fellowship program. “We train them, we invest in developing their skills, we strive to keep them. They are the future of our agency.”

Kellan Burrell 19MPH has just wrapped up his Presidential Management fellowship and is now serving as a public health analyst in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. He credits the two years he spent working at the CDC as a REAL student with helping him land the Presidential Management slot. 

“Experience working in the federal government can be very difficult to come by,” says Burrell. “Perhaps the main value from my REAL experience was that it allowed me to integrate myself into teams within the CDC and learn how the agency works. I scored very well on the fellowship application assessment because of that familiarity.”

Grace Goryoka and Kellan Burrell in a rooftop environment

Grace Goryoka 17MPH and Kellan Burrell 19MPH leveraged the opportunities they had to work at the CDC while students into full-time positions with the agency.

Two years out of graduate school, Burrell now helps to manage a $24 million cooperative agreement that funds 55 state and local public health labs to detect and respond to antibiotic-resistant hospital-associated infections.

Rollins alumni also are well represented within the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS)—the agency’s globally renowned “disease detectives.” At least six alumni have been accepted into the class that will start in summer 2022, and the program is led by an alum,  Dr. Eric Pevzner 98MPH. 

“It is rare for us to have an EIS class that doesn’t include Rollins alumni,” says Pevzner. “They are highly competitive for the fellowship given the quality of their training, their familiarity with the program because they have been taught by or worked with EIS alumni, and their experience working at CDC or state and local health departments.”

Like the other fellowships, EIS is a pathway to leadership within the agency. More than 40 percent of senior scientific leadership positions at the CDC are held by EIS alumni.

Faculty with CDC cred

Rollins’ ties with the CDC are perhaps nowhere more evident than in its faculty roster. Many adjunct professors hail from the CDC, regularly walking next door to deliver lectures from the field. The directory of full-time faculty—current and emeritus—reads something like a Who’s Who of CDC heavy-hitters, including: Dr. William H. Foege, former CDC director who is credited with the elimination of smallpox; Dr. Godfrey Oakley, former director of the Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities who led the campaign to add folic acid to flour to prevent spina bifida; Dr. Roger Rochat, the CDC’s first director of the Division of Reproductive Health; and Dr. Ruth Berkelman, former deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases. And that is but a small sampling.

Dr. K.M. Venkat Narayan served as chief of the CDC’s Diabetes Epidemiology and Statistics Branch before he joined Rollins in 2006. During his 10-year tenure at the CDC, Narayan reshaped diabetes science at the agency. He expanded his branch’s role from just counting the number of cases in the US to analyzing and intervening to improve quality of care, which resulted in a massive decline in diabetes death rates and complications rates. 

He was lured to Rollins with the offer of an endowed chair—Ruth and O.C. Hubert Professor of Global Health—and the freedom to build a center. “I inherited Bill Foege’s old office, and I was able to sit in there with a white board and let my imagination run,” says Narayan.

The result is the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center with more than 100 affiliated faculty members, a network of national and international collaborators, and local and overseas staff. The center has trained more than 100 doctoral and postdoctoral students, developed partnerships across the globe, including at home in Georgia, and supported vast research into domestic and global diabetes. 

Training CDC professionals

The one-block stretch of Clifton Road between Rollins and the CDC is indeed two-way. As CDC leaders originally envisioned decades ago, agency professionals take advantage of having a top-flight school of public health next door to further their careers.

Just ask Dr. Robin Ikeda 99MPH and Dr. Steve Cochi 93MPH. Ikeda, associate director for Policy and Strategy, came from a clinical background to the CDC in 1991 as an EIS officer. She quickly saw how a grounding in public health could benefit her work, so she began taking courses at Rollins. “It took me five years chipping away at it, but I did earn my MPH in epidemiology,” says Ikeda. “I’ve applied the tools I gained there throughout my career here.” 

Cochi, senior adviser to the director of the Global Immunization Division, was able to take a more direct approach. Ten years after joining the CDC as an EIS officer, he took advantage of a career development program that allowed him to attend Rollins full time. “I was doing well but in a very narrow field,” says Cochi. “I was looking for something to give me a chance to learn more about the broader field of preventive medicine.”

He found it at Rollins. He earned an MPH in epidemiology but took several courses in health policy and management and behavioral, social, and health education sciences as well. 

Upon his return, Cochi became the first head of the CDC’s polio eradication activity, which at the time had a staff of six and a budget of $3 million. During his tenure, the activity became a division with close to 200 employees and a budget of $150 million, and the number of polio-endemic countries fell to 10 in 2001 from 125 in 1990. “I credit part of our success to tools I picked up at Rollins,” he says. “My public health education has served me well throughout my career.”

Steve Cochi and Robin Ikeda standing on a lawn in front of the CDC

Steve Cochi 93MPH and Robin Ikeda 99MPH took advantage of Rollins’ proximity to earn their public health degrees while working at the CDC.

He has returned the favor by guest-lecturing regularly at Rollins. “There is a lot of cross-collaboration, cross-fertilization between Rollins and the CDC,” says Cochi. “I think it serves both institutions very well.”

Putting heads together

It’s not unusual for Rollins researchers to collaborate with CDC counterparts, in part because some still have ties from previous careers at the agency and in part because of the structure of some CDC grants. Dr. Patrick Sullivan 88C exemplifies both types of connections.

The Charles Howard Candler Professor of Epidemiology came to Rollins after working at the CDC for 12 years. Today, about a third of his research funding comes from the CDC. “Scientists who have spent their careers in academia are used to going to the National Insitutes of Health (NIH) for grants, and CDC grants can be quite different,” says Sullivan. “Our research group includes three CDC alumni, and we have a good idea of how CDC programs work.”

With a typical NIH grant, the researcher has no contact with the institute until it’s time to report the findings. Many CDC grants, however, are structured as cooperative agreements, in which the study principal investigator works alongside a CDC project officer. “It’s a really different model and one that gets us closer to how CDC thinks they will take our findings and put them into practice,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan’s team just finished a study evaluating at-home HIV testing. They found the intervention, which involved mailing multiple test kits to participants at three-month intervals, was much more successful than the control, which encouraged recipients to get tested and included a list of testing sites. 

“We found many participants tested themselves every time they got a kit in the mail,” says Sullivan. “Although CDC recommends frequent testing for people at high risk of HIV, it’s very unusual to see people test three to four times a year. We also found recipents gave kits to their friends and family, which led to people within their social networks being tested. This was a success because it increased testing frequency for people at high risk for HIV and diffused HIV testing into their social networks—a win-win for prevention.”

Based on these results, the CDC has already begun a program to distribute at-home HIV test kits. “Our study had 3,000 participants, and now the CDC has made a commitment to distribute 100,000 kits nationally,” says Sullivan. “That’s one of the great pleasures of working with CDC. Not only do you get to build the knowledge of how their programs work into the interventions, but when things are successful, they have the bandwidth to really take it to scale.

“There is a special relationship between Rollins and the CDC. Our shared training, experience, and public health priorities allow Rollins scientists to conduct research with fantastic public health thought leaders and quickly translate research findings to public health impact,” Sullivan continues. “The links have benefitted both institutions, and I’m confident those ties will only continue to strengthen.”