Nineteen Floors, Millions of Stories

From the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory improves lives around the world

Bryan Meltz

The Claudia Nance Rollins Building doubled the size of the Rollins School of Public Health, increasing teaching and research space and creating a new "focal point" on Clifton Road beside the CDC.

Illustration by Tim Zeltner

Walk up Houston Mill Road toward Clifton Road, past the shady, creekside trails of Hahn Woods and the stately Miller-Ward Alumni House, and you can peer into the upper stories of the tallest building on Emory’s campus: the nine-story Claudia Nance Rollins Building.

Through the windows, even this far away, a world map is clearly visible, the familiar outlines of continents against a dark background. You might wonder about the map. Why is it so prominent? What is its purpose, since it is in a hallway and not inside a classroom or lecture hall? If you had a few minutes and were an inquisitive soul, you might walk toward the building.

You wouldn’t be disappointed.

Spending an afternoon in the Rollins School of Public Health’s Claudia Nance Rollins Building, wandering its wide corridors, modern classrooms, lecture hall, wet and dry labs, and light-filled stairways, is an education in viruses and vaccinations, safe water and sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes and nutrition, and dozens of other topics vital to health and survival.

“I enjoy coming here. This feels like a place that’s optimistic,” says Dean James Curran, whose office is on the eighth floor. “A university’s major strength is its people, and you want to provide optimal support for their work, whether that’s teaching or studying or research.”

The Claudia Nance Rollins Building doubled the size of the Rollins School of Public Health when it opened in 2010 alongside the existing ten-story Grace Crum Rollins Building, and together they create a high-power triangle with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

“When I came here seventeen years ago, we were kind of the last outpost of the Emory campus,” says Curran. “But now, really, it’s more of a focal point.”

Enter the ground floor of the Claudia Nance Rollins Building and you’ll see a dome made of renewable Douglas fir that resembles an Epcot pavilion, but is actually the outer wall of the 250-seat Rollins auditorium. A built-in video screen broadcasts faculty profiles and research program updates.

Students walk by discussing microneedle vaccinations, overseas fieldwork, freshwater fish studies, and weekend plans.

The first floor’s walls are decorated with a collection of bold prints illustrating mental illness, such as a painting of a man walking both a lion and a turtle on leashes (“Take control of being bipolar”), and retro posters of public health campaigns for syphilis and VD.

Humphrey Fellow Asia Namusoke from Uganda is giving a seminar about her work to encourage patients with HIV—especially young people born with the virus—to stay on their antiretroviral drug regimens. “My first attempt at taking the medication failed due to poor adherence,” says her guest speaker, Ugandan musician and activist Moses Nsubuga Supercharger, who has had HIV for twenty years and founded “The Stigmaless Band” for adolescents with the virus.

“You know, the saying in public health is, ‘Saving lives millions at a time,’ ” says Curran, who led the nation’s efforts against the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the CDC before coming to Emory in 1995. “The focus is on prevention, which is far preferable to treatment.”

The building’s middle floors contain twenty thousand square feet of lab space for environmental health, epidemiology, and global health. (The medical school rents the fifth-floor lab space for its research.)

The Hubert Department of Global Health is the only department solely endowed by Emory; the three endowed professorships funded by the Hubert Foundation are held by department chair Carlos del Rio, a native of Mexico whose work focuses on infectious disease and HIV; Keith Klugman, a native of South Africa whose focus is antibiotic resistance and pneumonia; and Venkat Narayan, a native of India whose focus is on diabetes prevention.

Professor of Global Health and diabetes researcher Venkat Narayan (standing) holds a brainstorming session in his collaborative office space.

Bryan Meltz

Narayan, who heads the Global Diabetes Research Center, appreciates the side room attached to his office, where he often gathers for working sessions with six to eight fellow researchers or graduate students. “It’s a very charged atmosphere. The world may have shrunk virtually, but not physically,” he says. “There are some problems you just can’t solve without sitting around a table.”

“The big thing for me about the new building was the remarkable improvement in the laboratories,” says physician and microbiologist Klugman, the William H. Foege Chair of Global Health. “Our labs used to be in the basement, with no windows and very small amounts of space. Now the labs are really spacious and beautiful, with the best views in the building.”

Klugman, who recently took a six-month leave of absence to advise the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on its pneumonia strategies, says the illness is still a major cause of death in the developing world—especially among children who also have HIV. “The problem is that the bacteria can evolve, can take on other varieties,” he says. “We study its evolution away from the vaccine and, in more basic research, look at how the bacteria colonize in the throat, creating a ‘biofilm,’ to see if we can interrupt this process.”

William H. Foege Chair of Global Health and infectious disease researcher Keith Klugman (at left, standing) surveys his spacious new lab.

Bryan Meltz

Having his office on the same floor as his lab, Klugman says, has allowed for “a lot more interaction with my PhD students,” which has created more interest in the program and brought in additional research grants. A current example: the lab has a contract to examine how the rollout of pneumonia vaccine in Peru has been achieved in remote parts of the Andes. Klugman is also working on sequencing the DNA of twenty thousand pneumococcal strains before and after the introduction of a vaccine to study resistance and develop next-generation vaccine strategies.

Epidemiologist Paige Tolbert, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, says her favorite aspect of the building is the fact that it’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified silver by the US Green Building Council. “Environmental awareness was part of the genesis of the building, considered in its architecture and design,” she says. “That embodiment of our department’s values is a big help in the recruitment of students and faculty.”

From its inception, the Claudia Nance Rollins Building was meant to be sustainable, functional, and aesthetically pleasing, says Executive Associate Dean for Administration and Finance Dean Surbey, who was heavily involved in its design and construction. “We almost succeeded too well in that regard,” he says. “It’s so popular a destination for groups both inside and outside Emory, it sometimes feels like we’re running a conference center.”

Between visits from international dignitaries and researchers, events like the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps, the annual predictive health conference and Global Health Case Competition, monthly meetings like the Center for AIDS Research (CFAR)’s gatherings, epi grand rounds, and MPH and PhD students and fellows, the building is bustling with activity. “Students have access cards that let them in 24/7, and sometimes I think they never leave,” Surbey says.

The Lawrence P. and Ann Estes Klamon Room on the eighth floor is especially in demand for receptions and special events, as it offers a stunning view of the Atlanta skyline from its outdoor balcony.

The Claudia Nance Rollins Building and the Grace Crum Rollins Building—which gained a new café; more office, study, and computing space; and updated high-tech classrooms in a renovation—function as one integrated school. The glass bridge that seamlessly and symbolically connects the two is so wide and scenic that gatherings are sometimes held there.

A popular new event has been a monthly international celebration with public health flair—such as a Mexican fiesta that featured a piñata filled with condoms and hand sanitizer.

Lots of open office space and glass walls are meant to foster communication and collaboration, and postdoctoral fellow Mary Beth Weber 02MPH 12G, who just returned from fieldwork in Chennai, India, to her space in the Hubert Department of Global Health on the seventh floor, is a big fan. “I cannot count how often I’ve popped over the cubicle walls to ask about SAS code, brainstorm study designs, or just chat,” she says.

Break rooms on each floor can accommodate birthday parties or study sessions; one has glass walls etched with oversized depictions of E. coli, norovirus, and other insidious germs.

“I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the tremendous momentum created by the Claudia Nance Rollins Building,” says Associate Dean for Development and External Relations Kathryn Graves 93MPH.

According to the Association of Schools of Public Health, Rollins is first in MPH applications and first in applications to departments of epidemiology and global health among all US schools of public health. The school now has more than one thousand MPH students and 145 PhD students, and ranks second among Emory schools in research funding. “Our proximity to the CDC, the world’s largest public health agency, draws faculty and students from all corners of the globe,” says Graves. “It’s not just about how far we’ve come, it’s how far we can go.”

And what of that global map, glowing like a beacon from the seventh-floor windows? It was the brainchild of Professor of Global Health Stan Foster, who has taught at Rollins for nearly two decades and is retiring this year.

When you’re standing in front of the map, you can see color-coded, magnetic dots that mark the birthplaces of students, staff, and faculty, as well as Peace Corps assignments, global fieldwork, and faculty research.

The world, it appears, is covered in Rollins dots.

The Rollins Family

The second Rollins School of Public Health teaching and research building, which opened in 2010, is named for Claudia Nance Rollins, the mother of philanthropist and long-time Emory supporter O. Wayne Rollins and his brother, John.

The family’s $50 million lead gift for the building was the catalyst for more than $170 million given to the School of Public Health through Campaign Emory.

About $90 million went toward building the new facility, which includes a 250-seat Rollins Auditorium and three floors of laboratory space, as well as remodeling of the Grace Crum Rollins Building, named for O. Wayne Rollins’s wife, which opened in 1994.

“My grandparents, O. Wayne and Grace Rollins, believed in giving to living institutions that would affect people’s lives,” says Amy Rollins Kreisler, executive director of the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation.

The Gangarosas

Christine Moe and Eugene Gangarosa

When Professor Emeritus Eugene J. Gangarosa and his wife, Rose Salamone Gangarosa, endowed two faculty positions and a scholarship to help the Rollins School of Public Health bring safe water and better sanitation to the world, he called the gift “drops of water in an ocean of need.” Today those drops ripple through the Center for Global Safe Water, where scholars help donors and governments make informed choices so that funding goes further and projects are sustainable.

What works in Ghana may not in Bolivia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies also turn to the center before rushing to embrace the next big idea.

UNICEF, for instance, wanted to better understand the challenges that girls in developing countries face with managing menstrual hygiene in school. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation requested help targeting funds for better water and sanitation in Ghana. These groups “want to be champions for good policy, but they need the evidence,” says Matthew Freeman 05MPH, the Rose Salamone Scholar in Sanitation and Safe Water.

“We are breaking new ground in urban, low-income communities,” says Christine Moe, center director and the Eugene W. Gangarosa Chair of Safe Water. “They are complex, messy environments. Most NGOs have concentrated on bringing water access to rural areas, but demographics show that people are moving into cities.” The Gangarosas also endowed the Rose Salamone Gangarosa Chair in Environmental Health, expected to be filled soon by a sanitation expert. Center partners include Georgia Tech, The Carter Center, CARE, and the CDC.

The Hubert family

Preventing hunger and disease was paramount to the Hubert family. Their cumulative generosity endowed three faculty chairs at the Rollins School of Public Health, created a global experience fund, and led to the naming of the Hubert Department of Global Health during Campaign Emory.

The investment, made through the Hubert Foundation and the support of Richard N. Hubert 60L, has helped create tools such as a drug-resistance index that will make it easier for health professionals to assess the effectiveness of antibiotics.

“It allows us to think outside the box to improve health outcomes and reduce disparities,” says Global Health Chair and Hubert Professor Carlos del Rio, the Emory site leader for the HIV Prevention Trials Network, a collaborative funded by the National Institutes of Health to test non-vaccine interventions to prevent HIV transmission.

In 2012, results of the Women’s HIV Seroincidence Study, which included data collected by del Rio in Atlanta, showed that HIV rates for black women in parts of the US are much higher than estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings will help design better HIV prevention trials.

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