Reflections of an Epidemiologist: Dr. Tim Uyeki ’81

October 8, 2019
Amanda Nagy
Students and professor in classroom.
Tim Uyeki '81 meets with students in Assistant Professor of Biology Jordan Price's “Immunity and Pathogenesis” seminar. Photo credit: Michael Hartman

Epidemiologist and leading public health official Tim Uyeki ’81 shares his thoughts on global health studies.

Before Dr. Tim Uyeki ’81 became an epidemiologist and chief medical officer for the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), he was an undergraduate studying environmental ecology by day and playing blues harmonica with his friends on cold snowy nights in Old Barrows dining co-op. 

“I was not pre-med, and public health and infectious diseases weren’t on my radar at the time,” Uyeki explained during a visit to campus September 26 and 27. “I’m one of these people who has too many interests. What Oberlin did was introduce me to many different disciplines and ideas and perspectives.”

Tim Uyeki
Tim Uyeki
Credit: World Health Organization

One of the world’s foremost influenza specialists, Uyeki has spent the last 22 years working on the epidemiology and clinical aspects of human and avian flu at the CDC, a career he says is stimulating, stressful, and rewarding. His journey in global health has taken him all over the world, from working with HIV/AIDS patients in Africa to more recent outbreaks of SARS, avian flu, and ebola in different countries.

During his visit to Oberlin, Uyeki reflected on his career during a public lecture and discussed the possibility of integrating a global health concentration into the college curriculum. 

Many pathways

Uyeki’s career trajectory is a prime example of how there isn’t one, singular pathway into public health. 

A biology major at Oberlin, Uyeki had a strong interest in environmental studies. He spent his summers acquiring research experiences at the biology field station for Case Western Reserve University and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Under the mentorship of Emeritus Professor of Biology David Egloff, he sampled local lakes and ponds for zooplankton for a senior project in aquatic ecology.

Uyeki also balanced science with humanities by taking East Asian studies courses and a private reading in Japanese literature with the late professor Ron DiCenzo. 

He earned a master’s in public policy and then a master’s in public health, both at the University of California, Berkeley. A position with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office in Sacramento, California, set him on the course to public health. One of his assignments was to analyze Proposition 64, an initiative on the 1986 ballot. The measure would have required people with AIDS to be reported to public health officials. 

“The intent was not to support patients but to further stigmatize people with HIV and AIDS.”

Uyeki says the greatest influencing factor was the mentorship he received from Dr. Fred Robbins at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Robbins was a pediatrician who shared a Nobel Prize in 1954 for discovering a way to grow the polio virus in a test tube, which paved the way for vaccines and a dramatic reduction of polio worldwide.

“Dr. Robbins was very helpful and supportive of me. As a first-year medical student, I told him I was interested in studying HIV/AIDS in Africa. He sponsored me to do a project in Nairobi, Kenya, in the early days of the disease. That stimulated me to work on other things.”

Like his mentor, Uyeki went on to become a pediatrician. During his pediatric residency, he spent a month working with pediatric AIDS patients in Kampala, Uganda. 

“It’s been very interesting and exciting for me to work with people from all over the world on different problems.”

Uyeki landed at the CDC as a “disease detective” through an applied epidemiology fellowship, in which he happened to be assigned to the influenza section.

“At the CDC you get to work with many different people in these big agency-wide responses. In the world of influenzas, there are always challenges, there are always issues of preventing the next big outbreak.”

Multidisciplinary approach

He says one of the CDC’s greatest strengths is being able to integrate data from specialists in many different areas, adding that you don’t have to be a physician to work in global or public health.

“I think it’s important to introduce Oberlin students to global health problems, but also to understand that public health is a multidisciplinary field,” Uyeki says. “I’ve worked a lot on infectious disease outbreaks, but that’s just a small part of public health. “Vaccines and prevention are a huge aspect. Public health also addresses chronic diseases and problems like the opioid epidemic, obesity, malnutrition, and health disparities in marginalized communities.”

Uyeki has been in good company at the CDC. He likes to point out “far more prominent” colleagues who are Oberlin alumni: Keiji Fukuda ’77 and Tom Frieden ’82. Fukuda was Uyeki’s first supervisor and head of the epidemiology section of the influenza branch at CDC. He went on to become assistant director general at the World Health Organization headquarters, and he is currently head of the school of public health at the University of Hong Kong. Frieden was director of the CDC from 2009 to 2017 and is now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an organization based in New York City that works on initiatives to prevent cardiovascular disease and epidemics.

“I feel lucky to have worked with both of them,” Uyeki says. “I’m just a hard worker. There’s one thing from Oberlin that has persisted with me throughout my career—I learned to study hard to work hard.” 

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