Robert Breiman Brings New Energy to Emory Global Health Institute

By Dana Sand 14C

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A graduate from the University of Arizona's medical school, Robert Breiman began his career as an infectious diseases fellow at UCLA in the 1980s, working on sophisticated molecular immunology and biology.

He quickly learned, however, that this was not the path he wanted to take. "I enjoyed it, but it was exceedingly narrow. Even at that stage, I was worried about how limited the impact of a discovery would be in that area," Breiman says. "We would have lunch and talk about gels, and my eyes would start to roll back."

But when the conversation turned to his supervisor's experience with the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, Breiman's eyes lit up. "I interviewed with some of the CDC's greats in those days, and I walked away thinking, 'This is really what I want to do,'" he remembers. "I was lucky enough to get in, and my early experiences were fairly global."

After doing some work in Indonesia and Egypt related to pneumonia in children, Breiman spent 13 years at the CDC in the US. He served as chief of the Epidemiology Section of the Respiratory Diseases Branch and director of the National Vaccine Program Office before moving back overseas.

Breiman then ran the Programme on Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Sciences at the Centre for Health and Population Research in Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) before joining CDC-Kenya as the country director and head of the Global Disease Detection Division.

Having recently moved to Atlanta after this 13-year stint abroad with his wife and four children, three of whom graduated from high school in Nairobi, Breiman is excited for a new chapter as director of the Emory Global Health Institute (EGHI).

"What those experiences gave me was a different perspective than I had before as to the complexity of the problems that exist," Breiman says. "Global health is a very dynamic environment. Countries are changing; there is economic growth, which will bring opportunities for improved health, but those are also linked to other things that have to happen to enfranchise people. I'm really interested in some of the nonhealth components of this that could come from Emory that are more legislative or political or even historical."

Moving forward, Breiman wants the integration of these disciplines to be one of the focuses of EGHI, which was established in 2006. "Emory is very deep with skills that are relevant to global health," he says. "We're going to be focusing more on integrating these multifaceted parts around Emory and stimulating them to come up with innovative solutions to some of the big problems that are out there."

EGHI's New Horizons

Some of the broad themes Breiman plans to address include climate change, the movement of people, the reframed Millennium Development Goals, and the "perils of advanced economies," such as the increase in injuries and mortality from traffic and head-on collisions.

The integration of disciplines to solve these pressing issues will involve a mix of both students and faculty, Breiman adds.  "I think faculty enthusiasm about some of these things will certainly impact students, but it also can work in the other direction, which EGHI has shown," he says.

Jeffrey Koplan, the founding director of EGHI and Emory's vice president for global health, will continue to play an active role at the institute and says student programs, such as the internationally recognized Global Health Case Competition, have been among the institute's greatest accomplishments thus far.

Looking forward, he believes Breiman's past experiences have prepared him well for the position at EGHI. "Our background experiences lead us to see this as a wonderful playing field for pursuing global health in ways that leave lasting effects in terms of what faculty members can do and students can do," Koplan says.

One long-term goal of Breiman is to address the development of slums in cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As people continue to move into informal settlements that transform into desperate slums, Breiman hopes to explore how to change the vector of development in such areas.

Breiman also plans to examine animal-human interactions and the potential for new diseases appearing, as well as new technologies and opportunities for vaccine development.

"There is recognition that the low- and middle-income countries are actually a market for vaccines, so companies are getting into producing them more, and there will be new diseases to prevent with vaccines and more eradication efforts," says Breiman, who aims to work with the Emory Vaccine Center on the World Health Assembly's new Decade of Vaccines program.

He adds that EGHI will be looking at new and old avenues for resources to support global health activities and to continue its catalytic role within the university, while also working with its partners to restructure EGHI's original strategic plan.

"Its connections with the CDC, The Carter Center, and the Task Force for Global Health all put Emory in an interesting position to make a difference," Breiman says.

Supporting Innovative Problem Solving

When Breiman is not working, he fills his free time with cycling, hiking, reading, writing, cooking creative vegan dishes, and spending time with family—but Breiman sees opportunities to support some of these hobbies within the local public health sector as well.

"Emory has a dynamic intellectual and academic environment ripe for innovation and problem solving with great synergies available around the Atlanta area," he says. "I'd like to see more bike paths—Atlanta is certainly a better place for clean and healthy transportation options than it was when we left 13 years ago, but there is much room to grow. The restaurant scene, especially for vegetarians, is also moving in the right direction."

In addition to its Emory- and Atlanta-based programs, Koplan says EGHI will continue to work on its two major grants from the Gates Foundation—one to promote and help develop CDC-like institutions around the world, and the other to engage in tobacco control in 17 cities in China—and that the institute is looking for additional large-scale projects of this sort.

"We're alive, well, and thriving, and the arrival of Rob gives us renewed energy and capability to look forward to the next six years of accomplishment and growth of Emory's global health activities," Koplan says.

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