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Incoming Duke Global Health Institute director discusses interest in malaria, plans for position

Christopher Plowe, the founding director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, will take over as director of the Duke Global Health Institute in January. Plowe will succeed Michael Merson, who stepped down in June. The Chronicle spoke with Plowe about his transition to becoming director and his vision for DGHI. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: What was your reaction when you learned that you were selected to be the next DGHI director? 

Christopher Plowe: I was elated when I found out. I’ve been essentially living on tenterhooks for several weeks as the process played out. At that point I was really excited about the possibility of coming to Duke. It was nevertheless a pretty difficult decision, because I’ve been at Maryland for 22 years. I’ve been very happy there. And in particular, I still have a lot of wonderful working relationships and friendships with people there. It’s hard to leave people behind. I have a box of tissues on my table in my office for conversations with various faculty and students and fellows who come by talk about what this departure means for them. 

My job [at the University of Maryland] for the next couple of months is really focused on making sure everybody is squared away and has a good plan where necessary. [Leaving] was not an easy decision at all. I wasn’t looking at other jobs. I really was very happy at my job. And the question was, "Is the position at Duke kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity that is just too good to pass up?" And I think it was. 

TC: You said you knew along the way that the search committee was considering you for the position. What was that like? 

CP: It’s a process. There’s a search committee and there’s also a recruiter from a professional firm. Along the way, I would hear from the recruiter and or the chair of the search committee that I was still in the running. And that goes on for some months. There’s a level of uncertainty that goes on for a significant period of time. 

TC: What has the transition process entailed?

CP: I’m preparing. Dr. Randall Kramer is the interim director of [DGHI], so I talk to him and some of his team on a regular basis. I will be coming up to campus a few times this fall. But my full-time job obviously starts in January. I’m at the very early part of a very steep learning curve. So my job over the next couple of months—and even after I get there for some period of time—is to really learn about the institute, to learn about the Duke campus, the culture there and to understand how I fit in and how I can do my best job as director of the Institute. 

TC: How do your duties as the director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine compare with your future role as DGHI director? 

CP: [Maryland’s institute] is a very different kind of institute. You might imagine that I’m going from an institute for global health to a global health institute. It sounds pretty similar. The institute that we have now at the University of Maryland is first and foremost a research institute and it’s within the School of Medicine. So our primary mission is really to have innovative global health research with a very strong focus on vaccine development and malaria. So for example, we’re trying to eliminate malaria. That can involve everything from genomics to clinical trials, to health economics, to ethics and even to political science—one of our partners is a political think tank in Washington. 

But at the end of the day, what the [University of Maryland’s Institute for Global Health] is about is primarily doing research. We don’t run courses; we don’t offer master’s degrees; we certainly don’t have undergraduate majors like the Global Health Institute does. And the service part of what we do is also relatively small compared to the research part. So in my two and half years of directing the institute at the University of Maryland, we’ve more than doubled the size of our research budget. That’s one thing that I bring with me is a lot of experience helping faculty to build up their research. So my learning curve will obviously be steeper with the education mission and some other aspects of the Global Health Institute, which has a much broader scope and is a university-wide institute as opposed to an institute within a given school. 

TC: What are some of your goals for your tenure at Duke? 

CP: I’ve tried to avoid diving too deep into what my specific mission is because the first thing I want to do is to help have a strategic planning process. I guess one goal is to help nurture and maintain the amazing success the institute has had in the first 11 years since it formed. I think we will want to grow in some new directions and respond to changes in the environment. There’s a new strategic plan for Duke University overall that we need to think about how we best respond to the priorities identified in that. But precisely how we do it and specific goals we want to attain—I’ve been reluctant to spell them out because I really want to respect the integrity of the strategic planning process and have that be a real community planning effort. 

I will say that among the three or four new growth areas we will invest in in the next few years will be something to do with malaria. That’s what I’ve been working on for 30 years. I will continue a much less active role than I’ve had at the University of Maryland. We will build some kind of program or center that remains to be defined in malaria research and training. 

And I personally have done a fair amount of teaching over the years, giving lectures to small groups and so forth typically on malaria, but also other topics in infectious diseases, public health and global health. I would certainly anticipate do that to some degree myself. 

TC: In addition to serving as director, you will be a member of the School of Medicine’s infectious disease faculty. Do you intend to continue your own malaria research in that role? 

CP: Most of the faculty in the Global Health Institute and other institutes that are on the tenured track have a home in an academic department in a school. So given my background, the natural home for me is in the infectious diseases division in the Department of Medicine in the School of Medicine. There are some great faculty in that division who do malaria research. There’s also a few scattered around other departments and other schools even who are involved with aspects of malaria. The research in general will be probably about 20 percent of my time. One project that my wife and colleague and I bringing are with us is a project based in Myanmar in Southeast Asia, focusing on research in support of malaria elimination. 


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