By Hope Randall
PATH Communications Associate
“Because I never do anything without asking at least one question, let me just confirm: this is how you want the sign to look?” Rick Steketee, Science Director for PATH’s Malaria Control and Elimination Program, pointed to where he wrote “#IAmTropMed” on the whiteboard before writing it on the paper for his photo, immediately demonstrating the detail-oriented perspective of a scientist.
And Kent Campbell, director of PATH’s Malaria Control and Elimination Program (and, in addition, the Director of PATH’s Malaria Center of Excellence), immediately demonstrated tenacity. A scratchy throat plagued by seasonal allergies didn’t deter him from a day full of meetings, nor did it mask the southern drawl he carries with him from his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.
I settled in for an hour to hear these two longtime members of ASTMH discuss their remarkable careers, decades of friendship, and relentless focus on people.
How did malaria become a career path for you?
RS: My first exposure to malaria was at a veteran’s administration hospital in Ohio, when a second-year resident showed me how to test a blood smear and I saw the malaria parasite under a microscope. Eventually, while living in Sudan and then Somalia from 1980 to 1982, I ended up treating many a patient with malaria. Eventually, Kent made the mistake of hiring me at the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] in 1985 and it’s been downhill for him ever since. [Kent shakes his head disapprovingly.]
KC: I was first introduced to malaria at CDC’s Epidemiological Intelligence Service [EIS] while I was pursuing my residency in pediatrics. I volunteered, for some reason, to be part of a team that went to Eastern Sierra Leone during an epidemic of Lassa fever, a pretty exotic and lethal disease. I, uh, I wasn’t totally forthcoming with my wife about it.
RS: [Laughing] You what?!
K: Yeah, in fact, it made front page news at the time and the article said it was 100 percent lethal. Still, I spent six weeks there, and I was primarily struck by the problem of malaria. After that I got to work with some incredible malaria scientists on an EIS assignment in El Salvador, then at CDC in a small malaria lab program with about 20 people, and Rick and I grew the program for about 15 years.
Sounds like you hit it off right from the start. What clicked?
KC: Rick had the right set of values, and he was obviously a very serious scientist. I was impressed by Rick’s experience in working refugee camps and his passionate commitment. He spent almost four years living and working in Malawi as an implementer of one of the studies of the impact of malaria on pregnant women and their newborns. What motivates us is working in resource-poor environments in situations where there is enormous need for the best possible science that you can do.
RS: Kent had a reputation as someone who made things happen. It was less about the disease per se—although malaria is one of the more fascinating, multidimensional diseases out there—it was about knowing that I wanted to make the opportunity count.
But beyond the science, public health is all about people: the people you work with, and the people you’re trying to work for, and the two are pretty seamless. You have to care about getting the right data in a prestigious journal not because of your ego, but because of the health impact it can have.
KC: We both care about leveraging science in service of our guiding principles. One of those guiding principles is about increasing the capacity of the people we work for. And we seek out ways to work with people who share those values.
RS: I’ll give you an example of that: in Malawi, I worked with Jack Wirima [the leader of Malawi’s national malaria program] and Charles Khormana [the director of laboratory services in the Ministry of Health], two very talented individuals in leadership positions. There were only a half dozen physicians in Malawi at the time; a tough situation to return to. Jack is one of the best practicing physicians I’ve ever met, and it struck me that that there were an awful lot of talented people who don’t have a chance of having the kind of profile that Kent and I have. They could, but they choose to serve their people. So I chose to implement a project in Malawi above my other options because those are the kinds of people I wanted to work with.
The same goes for people like Elizabeth Chizema [director of public health and research at the Zambia Ministry of Health]. She didn’t have to stay in public service—she could have made more money in the private sector—and she didn’t have stay in Zambia, but she showed devotion to her people and nation.
After your several decades of work in malaria, what is most exciting to you?
KC: I am continually amazed—and surprised, even, at times—at how rapidly and dramatically we’ve decreased child deaths based solely on malaria interventions. It is a great testimony that given the right tools and financing, national programs with our assistance can make an enormous impact.
Look, I don’t know exactly how long it will take to eliminate malaria. But what gets me jazzed is that over some period of time the health of a lot of people and the potential of those populations will be dramatically altered because of this effort. Building a set of systems change forever the potential of African communities: that’s what’s kept me in this business. When I started, malaria was merely a biological entity people studied in the lab, and I’ve seen a rapid shift during my career. What I find most threatening is that the global health community will lose sight of the focus of malaria investment’s transformative power in communities and get involved in other agendas with much less promise.
RS: Watching countries demonstrate that they can do something that people weren’t fundamentally convinced could happen: that was a door that opened pretty recently. The other exciting door is there’s a malaria-endemic part of Africa that could no longer be endemic. Walking through that door could make people say, “Hmm, there could be an end to this.” It would challenge the notion that people can’t change their situation, and that’s part of the excitement for me.
KS: And then maybe we’d get invited to dinner at Bill and Melinda [Gates]’s house!
What advice would you give for someone who wanted a career in public health?
RS: Go find good people to work with. A lot of public health has to do with mentorship. A huge knowledge base precedes you, and if you can tap into that it will become the basis of your life’s work. I’ve learned to love the history of this work, and if you can add to the history by doing something that eventually becomes lore, what a treat. But expect the first decade of your work to simply be about working hard and learning from the people who can help get you there.
I’m sure all of this keeps you very busy, but what do you like to do in your spare time?
RS: Well, I have a bad reputation with the Campbell family because I’ve been on two different bike rides with Kent and then his brother where each nearly died from biking accidents.
KC: Yeah, but it couldn’t have been his fault. I was too far ahead of him! But in general, I’m not really a person with hobbies.
RS: Wrong. You’re a birder. Big time.
KC: Well, I guess. I should have retired a long time ago, but my wife knows I’ll drive her crazy and working keeps me out of much worse trouble. Both Rick and I have very interesting and wonderful families. I’ve been married for 46 years now and I have two phenomenal children, both pediatricians. And we have a new dog, a miniature poodle named Annie.
RS: My wife works in public health and shares many of my passions for the field. My daughter works in art and design and my son works in engineering and architecture. And my dog, Chevy, is the best—better than Kent’s dog.
KC: For both Rick and me, mentoring starts at home. I think we’re both people who are always looking for new things and people to invest in.