Q&A: Gerberding Urges Women to “Raise Their Hands” and Celebrate Differences

Mar 02 2016
By Lauren R. Mosko
Topics Health

Women’s History Month begins this week and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs had the honor of hosting Dr. Julie Gerberding, a leader in health and a strong woman representing the field of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

At a young age, Gerberding knew she wanted to pursue a career in the health field. Little did she know it would lead to her becoming, among other things, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Merck & Co.’s executive vice president for strategic communications, global public policy and population health. She was named to Forbes Magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women in the World” list each year from 2005 to 2008 and TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004.

Gerberding visited the Wilson School as this year’s Gilbert S. Omenn ’61 Lecturer in Science Policy. Her visit included a public lecture that is available here.

In the following Q&A, Gerberding discusses her career.

Q. What sparked your interest in the health field?

Gerberding: I decided to be a doctor when I was four years old and never wavered. Of course I thought that would involve a small practice in rural South Dakota, like the one my pediatrician had. My dolls got a lot of Band-Aids and sick care!

Q. What advice would you have for young women looking to go into STEM fields?

Gerberding: Go for it and don’t look back! Find mentors and earn a sponsor who will advocate for your visibility and professional development but also “raise your hand” and take on challenging projects and important roles. At the same time, don’t be afraid to explore non-STEM fields as well. The most creative and successful people are those who add breadth to their education and avocations. Read voraciously! 

Q. What advice do you have for women in general regarding the workforce?

Gerberding: Celebrate your differences. Some are “gender-based,” a few may be “gender-biased” and many could be “gender-enabled.” It is hard to be the only woman in a work setting, even if it is at the head of the table. There is power in numbers, and I work hard to be an exemplar of “inclusion.” The biggest frustration for me is when people concentrate on being the smartest person in the room and don’t really listen or respect the input of others.

Q. How did your education and early training help mold your career path?

Gerberding: I cannot do anything without a clear goal, so I always operate from a “five-year plan.” As it turns out, I’ve rarely ended up where I thought I would be at the end of the five years, but that is not the point. I think of the choices and experiences along the way as “tools in the toolkit.” You never know when they will come in handy, but they all add value. I try to stay in constant learning mode and not be afraid to change directions when I see a way to contribute. I usually counsel people who are worried about their next career move to relax. There are really no bad decisions, and each opportunity will add something to your learning and the value you can bring to your next role. 

As a medical resident, I thought I would probably specialize in endocrinology but my training coincided with the devastating HIV/AIDS outbreak in San Francisco. Death was everywhere; my patients died, many friends died and even some of my co-workers died in this era before treatments were invented. It was impossible to not want to do something to help, and that passion steered me toward training in infectious diseases, clinical pharmacology and ultimately public health. We created the Prevention Epicenter at San Francisco General Hospital, a multidisciplinary unit dedicated to clinical care, training and research targeting prevention of infections and antimicrobial resistance in patients and their health care workers. That effort led to my decision to take a leave of absence from University of California, San Francisco to direct the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC, the part of the CDC that focuses on these same areas of health care safety. When the anthrax crisis occurred after 9/11, my infectious diseases and emergency room training were in demand, and I was appointed as the CDC director. I spent a lot of time there in crisis mode, given the SARS, monkey pox, West Nile virus, avian influenza and numerous other public health challenges that emerged. But I remained very focused on prevention, and that commitment ultimately led me to Merck and the vaccines team, where we had the chance to globalize our vaccines and make them accessible to many people in need.

Q. Who are your mentors?

Gerberding: Over time, I have always had many mentors. Some are lifelong and others are terrific people who have popped in as mentors when I’ve taken on a new job or otherwise entered into a new environment where I needed help to be successful. Mentoring is usually situational. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a mentor who is ahead of you, in terms of the career pathway, because you need the perspective of someone who's a little bit wiser, a little bit more objective and can see where you are and where you want to go. And sometimes peers make good mentors because you can share dilemmas and experiences – and hopefully laughter – as you both progress. Right now I am very sad because one of my mentors, whom I have known since I was a freshman in college at Case Western Reserve University, is in hospice care. I saw her last week, and she told me her illness is attributable to her heart enlargement which is making it impossible for her to eat. That gave me a chance to tell her that she has always had the biggest heart of any professor I know, and that her mentoring not only changed my life, but motivates me to try to help others in the same way. 

Q. You have held many prestigious titles and won several awards. Which would you say is your most proud accomplishment?

Gerberding: Pride is not something that I think about. I have earned nothing on my own and am grateful for the privilege of working with so many extraordinary people in all parts of my life. What I do think about is purpose – I try hard to live a life that contributes meaning and value to others in whatever small way that I can.