University of Washington School of Public Health

Alumni Profile: Chris Elias, MPH Health Services '90

Chris Elias, MPH Health Services '90

Chris Elias, MPH Health Services '90

For the past decade, Christopher Elias, MPH 1990 in Health Services, held what he calls "arguably the best job in global health." He led PATH, a Seattle-based international nonprofit organization which expanded under his leadership from 300 to 1,000 staffers and to more than 70 countries. Their goal is to improve people's health through sustainable, culturally relevant methods.

In recent years, PATH has helped reduce malaria incidence by more than half in parts of Africa and deployed a meningitis vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa that costs less than 50 cents a dose. Under Chris' leadership, in 2009 PATH won the world's largest humanitarian award—the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. In 2005 the Schwab Foundation presented Chris with its Social Entrepreneur of the Year award for the United States.

Now Chris is on to the great challenge of leading the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Good health is inextricably linked to successful economic and social development. Said Chris recently in an exit interview for PATH, "In 2001, the World Health Organization convened a commission on macroeconomics and health. The commission reviewed all the data and found that, sure enough, what we think of as common sense is actually true. If you have poor health, you're likely to be much less economically productive. And if you're economically productive, you're much more likely to have better health."

"We know from the meningitis studies done in Burkina Faso that one of the most common reasons people are pushed into poverty is they have an episode of meningitis in their household that consumes three to four months of their income. And we also know on the upside, that once people start earning more money, they purchase better health care and education for their kids. There's a loop between economic opportunity and health."

Career Path

Chris went straight from college to medical school and his residency. Then he headed to the Thai-Cambodian border, where he intended to spend a few years working as a doctor in the refugee camps there. He ended up running a pediatric ward in a hospital with dirt floors and no electricity. He saw more patients in one month than he'd seen in a year back in the United States.

After less than a year of working there, "the sheer volume of illness and the monotony of pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, dengue, and malnutrition began to wear on me," Chris said. "I sensed that poverty, poor water and sanitation, the absence of human rights protection, and lack of meaningful livelihoods were much more powerful determinants of health and illness than what I could do in the clinic."

At UW School of Public Health

Those observations abroad motivated Chris to return to the United States and learn more about public health. "Frankly, it was the first time I really knew why I was going to school," he said.

In the UW School of Public Health, Chris focused on health care behaviors of chronically homeless older men in Seattle. He was a fellow in the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, which provides physicians with funding for graduate-level study and research.

SPH prepared Chris to make contributions to the world of public health and inspired him to keep learning, he said. He recalled "spirited debates with faculty and fellow students, the joy of discovering new ideas, and the awakening of a sense of purpose" as highlights of his time on campus.

And he couldn't stay away for long: Today, Chris serves as a clinical professor at SPH, focusing on global health and development. He also received the 2010 School of Public Health Distinguished Alumni Award.

His Advice to Young Alumni

  1. Pace yourself. "Remember that you can't help anyone else unless you take care of yourself. Balance won't come every day in a hectic, hyper-connected world, but you'll need it for the long term."
  2. Expect to be surprised. "Entrepreneurs have always loved surprises, as they create the space for game-changing impact. Look for the weak signals and be ready to seize new initiative."
  3. Follow your passion. "I discovered back on the Thai-Cambodian border that if I could feel good, even when I worked hard and sometimes failed, that was a sure sign of passion. It was what brought me to the University of Washington and it has guided my choices for the past 20 years."