Helping you live your best life

Skip main navigation
Group Created with Sketch.

Need help

What can we help you find?

Related Search Terms

Related Search Results


Former CDC leader Rochelle Walensky highlights the connection of research, public health and trust

In delivering the keynote address for VCU Research Weeks, she emphasizes the leadership of public institutions – and the importance of relationships.

Woman talking with her hands moving Rochelle Walensky, M.D., says she built on her experience and expertise in public health and crisis management when she served as director of the Centers for Disease Control. (Kevin Morley, VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Dina Weinstein

Rochelle Walensky held one of the nation’s most prominent public health roles during a historic time, and she said her commitment to research prepared her for the challenge.

Walensky, M.D., who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, delivered the keynote address for VCU Research Weeks and emphasized the importance of research at a public institution. The annual event spotlights how Virginia Commonwealth University is advancing discovery across multiple disciplines.

“Research was instrumental in what I did,” Walensky said in her address at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. “It was how I got to the policy table. It was things that made me angry, that allowed me to move the needle forward, that allowed for policies to change because I could do science that would move those policies.”

Walensky, who has an M.D. from Johns Hopkins University and an MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health, served as CDC director from January 2021 through June 2023, when peril and progress amid the pandemic were at high levels. Having worked as a clinician and policymaker, she said she built on her experience and expertise in public health and crisis management as she led the CDC during a period when 4,000 people in America were dying of COVID-19 every day.

She drew a parallel to her early days as a clinician, when a junior resident carried a code beeper in the hospital and would respond to emergencies. “My job is to run and to help in any way that I can,” Walensky said.

Two people sitting on chairs on a stage

P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU, directed a Q&A session with Rochelle Walensky, M.D., who encouraged educators to embrace working in all levels of government and learning about, or joining, the policymaking process. (Kevin Morley, VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Before leading the CDC, Walensky was the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In the earliest part of the pandemic, she led her division, delivered direct patient care, and conducted research on vaccine delivery and strategies to reach underserved communities and to safely open college campuses.  

She also had led health policy initiatives and researched clinical trial design and evaluation in a variety of settings. Among her roles, she was chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health from 2014 to 2015, and she served as a medical analyst at CNN during the earliest days of the pandemic.

Walensky acknowledged enduring rejection and difficult choices along her professional journey, and in a moderated Q&A segment after her address, she noted the challenges facing the scientific community. She said it is the personal interactions and relationships that will help practitioners, researchers and public health experts gain the public’s trust and deliver the biggest impact – and she emphasized consistent engagement with the media, foundations, public health, community- and faith-based advisory boards and the public.

“When people are engaged and have been at the table, then it’s an easy next step,” Walensky said. “Whether it’s on a scientific advisory board or whether it’s volunteering at a school and teaching the science that you’re doing in the lab, or whether it is somebody in your faith-based organization that is coming and doing laboratory visits and you’re doing an exchange, these are relationships that are built and established over time, that are longitudinal. So that when you are ready to roll something out, people are excited because you’ve been doing it all along.”

The Q&A segment was directed by P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU vice president for research and innovation. He made a local connection to Walensky’s model for service and leadership: Her father, Edward H. Bersoff, Ph.D., had served on the VCU Board of Visitors.

In recounting how research and policy came together for her, Walensky cited a turning point while caring for HIV patients in Baltimore in the mid-1990s when a pharmaceutical cocktail was approved by federal regulators.

“That was a formative time in my career where almost overnight, we could say, ‘You will certainly die of this disease’ – and then, ‘If you take these 14 pills three times a day, if you can afford them, you might in fact live.’ It was this incredible intersection between caring for really vulnerable patients and incredible fast-moving science,” Walensky said. “And then something happened that made me mad. Those pills were $15,000 a year. And the discussion in the media was, ‘Are the patients who are getting HIV’ – and I apologize – ‘worth it?’”

To her, the answer was a clear yes, which she said propelled her medical and research pursuits to advance both science and public understanding.

Among other insights Walensky shared during the Q&A:

  • Based on her own journey from academia to a high-profile public service job, Walensky encouraged educators to embrace working in all levels of government and learning about, or joining, the policymaking process – from who the key players are to how they and agencies interact.
  • Amid the politicization of science, Walensky emphasized the need for researchers to communicate that science and knowledge can change. She also said health and scientific data should be standardized and communicated clearly and consistently by health agencies.
  • Walensky said key issues facing the health care industry include the need for a more educated workforce, with a deficit of 80,000 public health workers. Other priorities are supporting the public health infrastructure (e.g data, workforce, laboratory) and focusing on equity.
  • Among pressing public health issues, Walensky cited a long list that includes influenza, opioid addiction, mental health, firearms, antimicrobial resistance, human/animal resistance, global health security, climate and health, and access to clean food and water. She also cited concern that public health is under-resourced and funding for science is often tenuous.

Walensky is currently a Hauser Leader at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Menschel Fellow at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Last semester she was a lecturer at Harvard Law School, noting that in her years at the CDC, she spent “a lot of time on Zoom screens with a lot of lawyers.”

“I felt like I could teach them a thing or two about the intersection of public health and the law,” Walensky said. “They were teaching me a lot about the law, but what is really fun; it’s hard to reach out of your comfort zone to have these multidisciplinary conversations. And that to me is what magic is.”

When introducing Walensky’s keynote for Research Weeks, Rao emphasized how VCU’s growing research enterprise has generated record funding, high rankings in many fields and more students than ever engaged in projects. He cited the four key themes of VCU research: optimizing health, enriching the human experience, achieving a just and equitable society, and supporting sustainable energy and environments.

“Research has the ability to catalyze the growth and bring people across disciplines to address these fundamental issues,” Rao said. “Impact is really vital. What we do needs to make a difference. We need to be impactful to our internal stakeholders, our students, our faculty, our researchers, but also the communities we serve and the patients we serve through community-engaged research and the clinical research and trials.”