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September 30, 2002

The Koplan files

By Eric Rangus

As director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from October 1998 through last February, Jeffrey Koplan led one of the most high-profile agencies in the country.

For the last six months, he has served as vice president for academic health affairs at Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center. While the job carries a more modest Q-rating than his previous position, the challenge of leading such a versatile health care entity is one of the things that drew him down Clifton Road.

“From the nursing school to the school of public health to the medical school, everything gets covered—from the most basic science to the most broad international, global kinds of issues,” Koplan said. “Increasingly you find a relationship between the two.

“It’s easy to see the most basic work that’s going on here in developing a new vaccine—a new HIV vaccine, for example—has huge public health implications. So it’s fun to be in a place where I can walk across the street to Whitehead and see people doing the work that in a few years time can make a difference to millions of people around the world.”

Although some published reports categorized Koplan’s resignation from the CDC last winter as “abrupt,” Koplan entertained thoughts of stepping down from the CDC more than a year before he actually did. Koplan planned to stay only through the fiscal year ending in September 2001, but a slow budgetary process—as well as the anthrax attacks of last fall—compelled him to remain on as director.

Since he and Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Michael Johns had served on committees for each other (Koplan sat on the School of Medicine’s board of visitors, Johns on a CDC advisory committee), they were well-acquainted and had a solid personal relationship, as well as a cordial business one. Johns, in fact, once told Koplan that if he was ever looking for a job change, Emory might be a good place to look.

So that’s what Koplan did.

He met with Johns, and they discussed ways to refine the newly vacated academic health affairs VP position. In late March, Koplan’s hiring was announced, and he moved in April 22.

Although technically a new Emory employee, Koplan long has had ties to the University. He has served as a clinical professor in the School of Medicine for 12 years and has an appointment in the Rollins School of Public Health.

He joins his wife Carol, who has been affiliated with Emory for 30 years. “She actually has the stronger long-term tie with Emory than I do. My appointments have always been nonpaid positions,” Koplan said.

Carol, in fact, did her child psychiatry fellowship at Emory beginning in 1972, when the Koplans moved to Atlanta. She now is an adjunct assistant professor in the Rollins School of Public Health and has worked for Grady Hospital, the Carter Center and the student health service.

The Koplans’ Emory affiliation with Emory has carried over to the next generation, as well. Daughter Kate is spending this year in the school of public health on the way to her MD/MPH degree. She will return to the School of Medicine for her final year in 2003.

Since starting his job, Koplan has been meeting with people off campus, within Health Sciences and in other areas of the University, both to familiarize himself with what’s going on and to see what contributions he can make.

“I’ve been doing a lot of listening,” he said. “The handshakes are over very quickly, but the listening goes on.”

Koplan’s responsibilities are broad. He helps the rest of the Health Sciences senior leadership team to direct and advance the Health Sciences Center’s research and academic strategies across the schools of medicine, public health and nursing and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

For Koplan, whose primary background is public health, that means a lot of homework to brush up on the wide range of research that falls under the auspice of his office.

“I’ve never used on a daily basis advanced principles of genetics or molecular biology,” he said, plucking two subjects out of the air. “So, it’s a mixture of learning broader issues, as well as learning some of the language people use to describe what they do.”

Speaking others’ language isn’t really all that difficult for Koplan, whose decades-long career has involved work on most every major public health issue. A graduate of Yale (with an English degree), the Tufts University School of Medicine, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Harvard University School of Public Health, he joined CDC in 1972.

He was part of the medical team that eradicated smallpox and has worked on projects dealing with HIV/AIDS, the health toll of tobacco and chronic diseases, and a chemical disaster in Bhopal, India.

“I liked the intellectual inquiry [of public health], but also the sense of doing something for the greater good, and at the end of the day feeling like you’d contributed in some way,” Koplan said.

He has consulted with and sat on the boards of dozens of worldwide health organizations and written or co-written more than 170 papers.

His 30-year career at CDC was interrupted only by a five-year stint with The Prudential Center for Health Care Research (Koplan was president of the center from 1995–98). He returned to the CDC as director in 1998.

“It was exciting to add the academic sector to the portfolio,” said Koplan, who now has completed the circle of leadership positions in the public, private and academic worlds. “It’s neat to be able to come to a first-rate institution at a high level of entry with a lot of support from good people. This is a great opportunity.”

As befits a man who has spent his entire professional life somewhere in the healthcare industry, Koplan leads an active lifestyle outside the office. He is 57 but looks much younger, and he rows frequently, sometimes by moonlight in the morning before coming into the office. Water sports are a major interest, and Koplan has tried practically all of them. Rowing, flatwater kayaking, sailing and swimming are all ticked off as Koplan lists his extracurricular activities.

On dry land, Koplan cycles and hikes, as well. An avid reader, Koplan also enjoys exercising his intellectual muscles. One of the benefits of working at Emory, Koplan said, is the access it offers to a diversity of academic pursuits. So far, Koplan hasn’t been able to explore many of them—sitting in on an art history course was one activity he mentioned wanting to do—but they are high on his to-do list.

“I hope that over time I can find a minute here and an hour there and take advantage of some these opportunities,” he said.