University of Washington School of Public Health

Alumni Profile: 2014 Distinguished Alum Robert Newman: Take Risks, Think Big

2014 Distinguished Alum Robert Newman: Take Risks, Think Big

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2014 Distinguished Alum Robert Newman: Take Risks, Think Big

Robert Newman (MPH, Epidemiology '98) tells students they are going to have moments in their careers when they wonder, "Should I really do that?"

Go ahead, he says, take the plunge. "Part of it is just seeing opportunities that are out there. Taking risks," he said. It helps to choose an important topic, think big and be passionate, according to Newman.

Newman has taken several "risks" in a career that has taken him from New York and Seattle to Brazil and Mozambique and on to Geneva, Switzerland. He's been a leader in global health, first in malaria prevention efforts and now in stepping up vaccinations in the world's poorest countries. For his outstanding achievements, he was honored in April as the School's 2014 Distinguished Alumnus.

Newman's first life-changing moment came when he was 24, as a medical student at Johns Hopkins University. He traveled to Fortaleza, Brazil, with a professor, Cindy Sears, who "Stayed with me for a week and then left me there for a year," Newman said.

Robert Newman with lemur on his head
Robert Newman with lemur in Madagascar

He was in charge of a research project on Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes diarrhea. Newman didn't speak a word of Portuguese but soon learned the language, and got hooked on global health and working with children and communities.

A quarter-century later, Newman is still taking risks. In February, after nearly five years as director of the Global Malaria Programme for the World Health Organization, he left for a new job with GAVI Alliance, where he is a managing director.

It was a big switch for someone at the peak of his field. Newman had spent nearly 15 years focused on the fight against malaria. Nine of those were with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "I think change is good," Newman said in an interview. "There's a great danger in staying in one place or one field for too long. After 15 years, it was time to step aside for others with new ideas."

Robert Newman sampling malaria from placenta
Newman sampling for malaria from a placenta in 115-degree F. heat, an olfactory experience that almost made him faint

Looking back, he feels good about the campaign against malaria. "We've made amazing strides," he said. "From 2000 to 2012, there was a 51 percent drop in estimated malaria mortality among children less than 5 years of age." Among Newman's achievements: developing a process for setting clear WHO policies based on evidence; re-setting relationships with groups such as the Roll Back Malaria Partnership; and emphasizing the importance of diagnostic testing for malaria, especially through the launch of the T3: Test. Treat. Track initiative.

But there's still a lot of work to do, Newman said. According to WHO estimates, there are more than 600,000 deaths annually from malaria, mostly children in Africa. "In an era where we have insecticide-treated bed nets that cost $5, an accurate diagnostic test that costs 50 cents and highly effective treatment for a dollar, it's completely unacceptable that anyone should die from malaria," he said.

Newman describes himself as "action-oriented, a New Yorker." As a high school student, he was required to perform 120 hours of community service. He chose New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital, where he took part in research activities in nuclear cardiology and got to observe bypass surgery. His experiences that summer sparked Newman's interest in a medical career.

He did his residency in pediatrics at the University of Washington. One day he attended a talk by Professor Stephen Gloyd on the work of Health Alliance International (HAI), which Gloyd founded, in Mozambique. In Newman's third year of residency, he spent two months in Mozambique with HAI.

A federally funded National Research Service Award allowed Newman to pursue an MPH at the School while gaining additional clinical experience in general pediatrics. He studied epidemiology in the international health track. "The training here was incredible," said Newman, citing mentors such as Noel Weiss and Tom Koepsell.

After the UW, Newman returned to Mozambique as HAI's country coordinator for two years. His wife, Lori Newman, a UW-trained family physician, worked there as a public health advisor. From there, they joined the CDC's Epidemiological Intelligence Service. Newman spent nearly a decade with the Atlanta-based agency in the Malaria Branch, ultimately leading the CDC President's Malaria Initiative team in 15 countries.

Robert Newman with family
The Newman family on a week-long hiking trip on the Switzerland-Austria border

Now Newman brings his global health savvy to GAVI Alliance, a private-public partnership based in Geneva, where he is managing director of policy and performance. GAVI is devoted to saving children's lives and protecting people's health by increasing equitable use of vaccines in lower-income countries. Since it was founded in 2000, Newman says, GAVI Alliance has worked to vaccinate 440 million children – efforts that have averted 6 million deaths.

Challenges include how to sustain this success and ensure equitable access to the 11 vaccines currently promoted by the Alliance, Newman said. GAVI strives for sustainability through a variety of mechanisms, including country co-financing of GAVI-funded vaccines, working with industry to shape vaccine markets and make vaccines more affordable, and focusing support on countries with the least resources. As countries become wealthier, they "graduate" from GAVI support. However, such countries may still have large numbers of poor people, which poses a major development challenge. Newman said GAVI is currently collaborating with the UW on groundbreaking monitoring and evaluation work involving the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and HAI.

Outside of taking occasional career risks, Newman says, it's also important to maintain a good work-life balance. Geneva is a great place to raise their two sons, Sam, 13, and Lucas, 11, he said, because it's the center of Europe and they are exposed to diverse cultures.

To keep fit, the former high school swimmer hits the pool whenever he can. Last year, Newman swam Turkey's Dardanelles Strait, which separates Europe and Asia. Outside of work, "I cook every night when I'm home," he says. "It's the way I show love to my family."