Ep 5: Meet Your November Host

with Julie Gerberding, M.D.

November 2, 2020


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Julie Gerberding, M.D.
Chief Patient Officer and Executive Vice President, Merck and Former Director, CDC

Julie L. Gerberding, M.D. is Chief Patient Officer and Executive Vice President at Merck, where she is responsible for a broad portfolio focused on patient engagement, strategic communications, global public policy, population health, and corporate responsibility. She joined the company in 2010 as president of Merck Vaccines.

Previously, Julie was director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she led the agency through 40+ emergency responses to public health crises. She has received more than 50 awards and honors, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) distinguished service award for her leadership in responses to anthrax bioterrorism and the September 11, 2001 attacks. She was named to the TIME 100 list of most influential people in 2004 and the Healthcare Businesswomen Association’s Woman of the Year in 2018.



Leaders are most successful when they're true to their values. When you are motivated by your core values, you have a different leadership strength.



Dr. Julie Gerberding 0:02  

Fortunately, there were a number of women on the faculty. But at the same time, there were not very many women in the traditional tenure track. Epidemiology is a little bit out of the mainstream of the kinds of professional pathways that were getting tenure at that time; I had to persevere through some pretty muddy waters.


Lan Nguyen 0:21  

That was Dr. Julie Gerberding, Chief Patient Officer of Merck, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control. As a physician and infectious disease specialist, Dr. Gerberding shares her journey from the early days of academia to leading a national public health agency, to a global pharmaceutical company.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 0:41  

I was asked to be the director of the CDC, when Secretary Thompson was the Secretary of Health and Human Services. He also told me, “If you want to be popular, don’t take the job- because it’s going to be a really hard job and you’re not going to please everyone.” When I first started, there were other women leaders, but from the standpoint of the public health agencies, I was the only one–and the first–at CDC. I had to find a different way to express my voice.


Lan Nguyen 1:08  

In this conversation, Ceci Connolly, President and CEO of the Alliance for Community Health Plans, introduces Dr. Gerberding, a champion of women leaders across the global health care industry, as this month’s host for Her Story.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 1:23  

Leadership is a privilege, and I really think that’s probably the metaphor for my life. Whatever little thing I can do these days. I love passing the baton on–how can I help the next person or the person after that.


Lan Nguyen 1:37  

We’re delighted to welcome Dr. Julie Gerberding as our next host of Her Story, a program that explores women, leadership, and healthcare.


Ceci Connolly 1:48  

Dr. Julie Gerberding, it’s great to have this chance to chat before I hand the hosting baton over to you. I think maybe we should let our Her Story listeners and viewers know this project has been kind of a fun reunion for us going back to the days when you were head of the CDC, and I was a reporter.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 2:10  

Thank you, Ceci, and I can assure you, this is the most enjoyable interview we’ll probably ever have recorded.


Ceci Connolly 2:19  

Well, on that note, you’ve had such a terrific and inspiring and really many varied career. Before we get to your time at CDC, which was so important and valuable, let’s just take folks back to childhood. You wanted to be a physician, is that right?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 2:38  

That is really exactly what happened: four years old, I received a doctor’s kit, one of those little plastic things, and I had kind of a hyperactive empathy gene. And if there was an injured rabbit, or a bird with a broken wing, or some little damaged cricket in our yard, I just always felt compelled to try to be the doctor to bring these little animals into better health, and fortunately, my parents indulged me.


Ceci Connolly 3:06  

And I’m so glad it wasn’t a nurse kit.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 3:08  

Well, it may have been hard to tell the difference in those days. But I also, I think, was blessed to have a really patient and kind pediatrician. And so my fantasy was that someday I would have my own little office and when children behaved, they would get a balloon and some chewing gum. And that would kind of be my life–quite different than the way things turned out, but at least I had a vision. 


Ceci Connolly 3:30 

Well, and we’ll have to find out if that balloon strategy ever worked in government. So your early years studying medicine, then heading into the lab–academic medicine–you had to have been one of very few women early in your career, is that right?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 3:48  

Early on, my main place of training was the University of California, San Francisco. And fortunately, there were a number of women on the faculty there, including a really wonderful mentor of mine, Dr. Connie Wofsy, who set the standard of care for HIV at the very beginning of the pandemic. So I was nurtured by one of the most wonderful women in the world. But at the same time, there were not very many women in the traditional tenure track. And it was a rough row to hoe because there weren’t those kinds of role models. And I was in a profession that wasn’t–lab-based epidemiology is a little bit out of the mainstream of the kinds of professional pathways that were getting tenure at that time. So it was difficult, and I had to persevere through some pretty muddy water there for a while. 


Ceci Connolly 4:37

Did you develop any good strategies, little tricks of the trade? 


Dr. Julie Gerberding 4:42

Well, here’s one I’ve probably not mentioned to anyone in a long time. That is when I’m emotional, I tend to get tearful, whether I’m happy or sad or mad. And someone taught me one time that if you don’t want to be tearful, you should stick your jaw out because something about jetting your lower jaw out, I don’t know, it might make it harder for your eyes to tear up, so I often see myself with this very bizarre expression on my face, but it’s because I’m trying to maintain that position of neutrality, when in fact, I’m feeling pretty emotional.


Ceci Connolly 5:15  

I like that you’ve mentioned from age four wanting to take care of and heal. But I also have heard you talk about how much you enjoy my word here, not yours, but dissecting–I mean, the pure lab work.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 5:32  

I actually still have a little lab in my basement. I have a microscope and a few chemicals. And I am interested in the water quality in our septic system. So it is kind of a secret passion, but I think it goes back to just science and loving the discovery of new information, trying things. I love designing the experiments and am curious to ask questions. But what I really didn’t like about bench science was having to do the same thing over and over again; it was the repetitive nature of the experiments. And of course, when you’re the young fellow in the lab, you have to do a lot of the grunt work, and so that wasn’t particularly scientifically exciting. And it turned out it just wasn’t the right way for me to pursue my career. But I’m really glad that I had that time in the lab, because I understand the process of science; I understand the language of science, the rigor, and I have so much respect for the people who make those kinds of contributions. So even though it didn’t create a lane for me permanently, I’m so lucky to have had that experience,


Ceci Connolly 6:37  

What brought you then into government and ultimately leading the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 6:45  

Probably that empathy gene, again. When I was through my training, I loved San Francisco General Hospital; it was the place where anybody in San Francisco could come for care, and really good care. We had some of the finest doctors in the world there, not just the AIDS doctors, but across the board. I loved the patients in that hospital, and I loved being able to interact with them on something more than just their disease because they’re sort of the textbook of the social determinants of health. And yet, most of the problems that these patients came in the door with were things that our public health system is designed to address and hopefully prevent. So when you’re dealing with one patient at the bedside, it was kind of an easy transition to think about public health and a population of patients. So I originally went to CDC just on a leave of absence from the university for a limited timeframe to take on the responsibility for a small division that focused on hospital infections and antimicrobial resistance. So it was never intended to be a permanent career move, but when I got to the CDC, I really learned how you can have an incredible impact through public health interventions, through the science, through the guidance, through the policy interface, and it just really made me feel like you could scale the difference that you want to make in the world.


Ceci Connolly 8:10  

To what extent did you think about and then experience the politics of a job in government?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 8:21  

I was asked to be the director of the CDC when Secretary Thompson was the Secretary of Health and Human Services. And when Tommy told me that he would like me to take this position, I was completely surprised. It was not something I’d ever aspired to and seemed like an overwhelmingly complicated situation because we were just in the middle of the anthrax situation coming out of 9/11. So everyone was involved in the bioterrorism, terrorism environment. But the Secretary said to me, “Look, you’re an infectious disease doctor. You have an emergency room mentality, you understand these needs, you have the knowledge, the experience, and the capability, and I think you have the leadership experience to be able to lead the CDC through these very difficult infectious disease times.” 


And I didn’t know if he was right or not, but he gave me a lot of courage in that sense. But he also told me, “If you want to be popular, don’t take the job, because it’s going to be a really hard job, and you’re not going to please everyone. So you have to decide what are the most important things that need to get done. Some of them will be unpopular, some of them will be in everyone’s best interest, and I will have your back.” So I had a very candid and sustainable interaction with the Secretary, and he kept his word. So when there was a disagreement or there was a political issue that came into play, I could have a conversation with him, and sometimes it involved Dr. Zerhouni, Dr. McClellan, or Dr. Fauci. You would get the scientists in the room, and we would hammer it out. So I didn’t face the same kinds of experience that I think some of my successors have faced.


Ceci Connolly 10:09  

That’s interesting. And I remember, of course, covering Tommy Thompson in that role and as governor, and I have to think that his years as a governor really helped him in that situation with that advice. But you just rattled off the other agency heads–your peers–and you rattled off a list of men. Did you ever feel out of place uncomfortable? Was it an asset ever for you? Was it a disadvantage?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 10:40

It’s kind of been the story of my career. And I would say, on that, there is a disadvantage, but it’s more internal, probably, than external. As I’ve matured professionally, I’ve come to observe how men and women handle gender issues–in particular, positions of leadership. And I realized that because I was a relatively inexperienced junior leader when I first started. And I would be sitting at Health and Human Services with very few other women. There were other women leaders, but from the standpoint of the public health agencies, I was the only one–and the first–at CDC. I had to find a different way to express my voice. And you can’t be sensitive if people talk over you or take credit for your ideas, or some of the kind of stereotypical things that men unconsciously do because they don’t understand what kind of an impact that has on the women around them. And instead of feeling angry or insulted about it, begin to just be interested and curious about what it was about. And now I make friends with my colleagues and my peers, and sometimes I joke with them. And I say, “You know, when you said that earlier, ‘Fred mentioned earlier, yadda yadda, but actually, my name is not Fred.’”


I like to bring a little bit of humor in it. Because fortunately, in government, and in my current role, the men that I work with are extremely well-intentioned men. They have high emotional intelligence, and there’s just this unconscious nature to this that people don’t recognize unless you can find good ways to create a language and talk about it. It’s not easy, but you can’t also make a big deal out of everything.


Ceci Connolly 12:16

I like the humor strategy–that’s a terrific one, and similar vein, reflecting on your many experiences, and particularly in the leadership roles, is there a characteristic that you think maybe gives you an edge? I don’t know if it’s your humor or something else.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 12:36

I don’t know the answer to that entirely. I do know that leaders are most successful when they’re true to their values. And I am a very values-based leader. I care deeply about my patients, and I care deeply about population health. And I think when you really are motivated by your inner value, your core values, and you know what your purpose is, you have a different leadership strength that can really bridge through the mundane and the complicated day-to-day issues that get to everybody from time to time. But that beacon of, “What am I here for?” “What is the big purpose that we’re all trying to achieve?” And often aligning other people, just reminding people that that’s what we’re doing here–that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. That can cut through a lot of nonsense and a lot of complexity in interpersonal relationships and just reorient. I think that’s one of the reasons why I find it, actually, easier sometimes to lead in a crisis. Because when there’s something urgent and important going on, people know what you’re trying to do. There’s alignment around the task at hand, and you’re not spending a lot of time arguing about the tactical issues. You have your eye on the prize, and you really motivate people to do impossible things under those circumstances.


Ceci Connolly 13:57

It’s interesting; I have one woman on my current team, and I’ve said to her that she was built for a pandemic, and I mean that as the highest compliment.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 14:05  

I think I know what you mean, yes. Some people are just the opposite. An urgent situation can really fluster them. But boy, if you want a long game, they can chunk it out in a very process-oriented way that keeps the ball moving down the field in an orderly long-term process. You got to get a balance of both of those on a good team, I think.


Ceci Connolly 14:25  

And you then went to the private sector, still at Merck, important roles in vaccine, and now patient responsibilities. Talk about the shift from the government to the private sector, and, again, as a woman leader, new challenges that you’ve encountered.


Dr. Julie Gerberding 14:45  

If someone said to me, “You’re going to be the CDC director,” I would have said, “What’s the CDC?” And you know, in my early days, if someone had said, “You’re going to join a pharmaceutical company,” I would have been somewhat shocked at the suggestion. And in fact, it was a mentor of mine who previously served as the president of Merck Vaccines, Dr. Adel Mahmoud, who was my champion in terms of taking a look at this opportunity and coming on board at Merck to lead the vaccine business. And he passed away recently, but he was a very values-driven person, passionate about global health. 


And he said, “You’ll never make a bigger difference than by helping to bring some of these really great vaccines to the rest of the people in the world who aren’t currently able to get them.” So that was a pretty big opportunity to have a big health impact and was awfully hard to resist. So I made the transition based on things that I cared about, recognizing I didn’t know the first thing about business and was going to be another big, steep learning curve for me. But I was lucky to have really good help in some of the colleagues that I met at Merck, and have just found so many things to feel excited about. But also, I recognize it’s really a privilege to be able to bring new medicines and vaccines to people who really need them.


Ceci Connolly 16:02  

Many of our listeners of Her Story are perhaps junior or mid-career and hoping to ascend and navigate, and maybe follow in some of your path and trajectory. As you think back, is there one example or one story that you might share that was just a really tough decision or a tough situation, and how you navigated it?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 16:28  

I’ve faced a few of those. But one thing I would say to people who are looking at making career changes is that the mental model that has worked for me–and I’ve tried to pass it on to a lot of people–is a toolbox. If you try to plan out your whole career, forget it. I’m like the poster child of “never turns out the way you think is going to turn out.” But if you think about what you’re doing and what tools you’re putting in your box–I mentioned earlier about laboratory experience. So those tools turned out to be really helpful when I was at CDC, because I studied staph aureus. And while I was serving in my first job at CDC, staph aureus became a really important community infection from a drug-resistant perspective. And if I hadn’t had that tool in my toolbox, I probably would not have been able to understand and perform as well as I think we were able to do at that time. 


But whether it’s getting your master’s degree or taking advanced training and getting a business degree, whatever it is, there’s no bad answer. So when people ask me, “Should I do this? Or this?” I usually say yes. Please do those things. Because they will put tools in your toolbox, and you never know when they’ll be handy. But in today’s world, the people who will have the best opportunities long-term are the people who are the most versatile–who have more than one capability, more than one experience under their belt–because they can flex from one opportunity to another and have not only the inner confidence that they have some capacities and some knowledge, but they will be valued by those who are making those choices, because they have demonstrated ability to flex from one role to another. Leadership is pretty translatable. And that’s a good thing.


Ceci Connolly 18:14  

You know, our friends at Think Medium are asking all of us hosts, if we were to come up with a title for our story, what might it be? Have you come up with one?


Dr. Julie Gerberding 18:29  

I’ve thought a lot about it. Because you know, at one time, I had a fantasy of writing books so that if I could think of a title, it might help me make a table of contents. As you can see, I have no books on my resume. The story of my life is a gift. I have been so lucky, and I think I would borrow an expression that I first heard Billie Jean King use when she was talking about the match that she won against her male competitor. And she said, “Leadership is a privilege.” And I really think that’s probably the metaphor for my life and the story I wish I could write because it’s just been an incredible privilege to serve, to learn to try to do whatever little thing I can. And these days, as I’m more advanced in my career, I love that passing the baton on, like how can I help the next person or the person after that get a start, sponsor somebody. At Merck right now, I sponsor our Merck Women’s Network. We have 10,000 women around the world; we just celebrated the 25th anniversary of our network. So that’s incredibly exciting. It makes me feel like the future will be bright.


Ceci Connolly 19:33  

Wow, what a terrific note to end this conversation for Her Story. And I’m so excited that you’re going to be next in this post chair. I can’t wait for your podcasts. And Julie, thank you for spending the time today. 


Dr. Julie Gerberding 19:50  

I’m telling you that I am secretly taking notes here so that I will know how to be a good interviewer. Thank you so much.


Lan Nguyen 19:58  

Her Story is a weekly podcast produced by Think Medium. Please subscribe to Her Story on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now. You can access the video version of Her Story on YouTube or on our website thinkmedium.com/herstory. Be sure to rate and review Her Story so we can continue bringing you stories from inspiring women healthcare leaders. We’ve found that podcasts are known through word of mouth, and we appreciate your spreading the word to friends, family, colleagues, and mentors. For questions and suggestions about Her Story, contact us at herstory@thinkmedium.com. Thanks for listening.


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