A Visionary Man – And Plan

The founding dean of CUNY's proposed School of Public Health knows how to fix problems born in poverty. He's been there.

By Neill S. Rosenfeld

As a black youth in 1959, Kenneth Olden knew it would be dangerous to integrate the legally all-white University of Tennessee, yet he volunteered. And there he not only made history but also saw his first research laboratory and found his future — as a geneticist, cancer researcher, the first African-American director at the National Institutes of Health and now founding dean of CUNY's proposed graduate School of Public Health.

Why did he risk injury and possibly death to walk onto that segregated campus when the South was a tinderbox of racial intolerance?

"It occurred to me that the only way this is ever going to change is that one of us must make it, not forget from whence we came, and change things," Olden says. "I can communicate about issues now in a way that most of my colleagues just have no connection with."

And communicate he does in rivers of words that are intense, engaging and passionate. As he describes it, the stakes are high not only for the University's proposed School of Public Health, which is set to open in 2010-2011, but also for the city and, indeed, the world.

Olden cites a modern adage: Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger. "Something like 85 to 90 percent of chronic diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson, asthma and cancers are caused by the interaction of genetics, environmental agents and behavior, not by any one factor alone," he says. "Disease occurs when you have a genetic predisposition and are exposed to an environmental trigger." That explains why some smokers — those lacking the genetic predisposition — don't get lung cancer.

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein believes the new school will be an important addition to the University. " Urban health problems, like diabetes and obesity, are on the rise," he says. "As the largest urban public university in America, we hope to be able to work against these scourges."

The school will differ from the nation's approximately 30 others in two major ways: It will be the first dedicated to urban issues, those forged by the collision of genetics, aging, medicine and the environment in the heat of a worldwide migration into cities. And it will tackle those issues by engaging experts from across the spectrum of public health fields, which traditionally keep their distance from one another.

Take the rising tide of pharmaceuticals that's washing into waste water and being recycled into drinking water — a tide that is bound to grow as urbanized, aging populations treat chronic diseases, discard pills and flush away their residues.

"We don't know what the health consequences are of all these pharmaceuticals in drinking water, but we know they're not good," Olden says.

What is known is that human sperm count can plummet and the sex of fish can change in environments laced with estrogens (such as from discarded birth control pills) and products that act like them (like the breakdown products of plastics, pesticides and livestock growth hormones). Interference with organ and gene functioning is why this March, several attorneys general forced six manufacturers to stop selling hard-plastic baby bottles made with bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical that can leach into formula; studies show it can damage reproductive systems and cause heart disease, obesity and diabetes later in life.

"Drugs in the water [not to mention baby formula] could represent a threat to us in a short period of time. That's one consequence of urbanization that I want us to research," Olden says.

Children younger than 6 and adults older than 65 are most vulnerable, particularly in cities, because urban environmental exposures tend to be intense and of long duration due to the sheer concentration of people and the way cities are built and operate. The very young are at risk because of undeveloped immune systems, while the elderly face deteriorating immune systems from a lifetime accumulation of DNA mutations and aging.

Decades can pass between exposure and the onset of disease, which underlines the importance of protecting the environment in which children live. Most critical are the first two years of life, when babies grow and change rapidly. For breast cancer, the most dangerous time is puberty, when ducts, the site of most breast cancers, are developing.

Olden joined the University in September 2008 after having led the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program from 1991 to 2005; he later taught at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Dr. Olden is a distinguished scientific leader and cancer researcher who displayed an unwavering commitment to public health at the National Institutes of Health," says CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. "He brings an impressive combination of internationally recognized experience and service to the country to this vitally important and new initiative."

Hunter President Jennifer Raab notes that Olden is recruiting a dynamic faculty while involving professors from the public health master's programs at Brooklyn, Hunter, Lehman and the Graduate Center, as well as from elsewhere in the University. She added that CUNY has rich programs in allied fields in the natural and social sciences, like Hunter's School of Social Work, which will host the school in a new building in East Harlem. "Under Dr. Olden's leadership, CUNY and Hunter College will be well positioned to establish a world-class School of Public Health," Raab says.

Olden calls the decision to place the school in a lower-income area "a stroke of genius," because schools of public health and social work "ought to be out in the community where the public health problems are. The location speaks volumes for the commitment of this institution."

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The third of six children, Olden grew up in poverty in the 1940s and 1950s in Parrottsville, a small, segregated farm town in Appalachian Tennessee. His parents, Mack and Augusta Olden, were sharecroppers until his father and uncle scraped together money to buy a farm to grow tobacco, raise hogs and plant vegetables; they also sold milk, leaving it at the road for pickup.

"There were no opportunities for any kids, black or white, in Parrottsville. People couldn't get out and they didn't dream big. You were going to become a farmer and, if you were lucky, get some sort of menial job eking out minimum wage," he says.

Grade-school education was poor, a one-room schoolhouse. There was no bus service for black children, so from age 6, each day he and a brother walked 12 miles round-trip. "The winter months were very difficult, yet often we had a perfect attendance record," he says.

The farm lacked electricity through his high school years, "so we did our homework by the light of a kerosene lamp." But at least bus service was available by the time he reached high school.

Olden liked reading and went through "everything in our house that I could put my hands on. Mostly, we didn't have any books," he says, "but the Bible was one of them and I read it cover to cover more times than once."

A pivotal figure was the Rev. Isaac K. Rakestraw, his principal at the all-black Tanner High School in neighboring Newport. Olden says that Rakestraw continually exhorted students: "By golly, you country bumpkins can be anything you want to be!"

The message clicked. Olden regularly walked past Newport's First Baptist Church, a middle-class white congregation, on his way to school. "I knew I wanted to be on that side of the tracks, but I wanted to make sure that I built bridges so other people could also cross over, and I've done that." Not long ago he stepped inside that church to speak about his life.

Rakestraw also told him "that there was something called college and I could go. He helped me get a scholarship and find a job in the summer to earn my keep. I shined shoes on the weekend and saved enough money at 15 cents per pair to put myself through college the first year," he says. Olden enrolled at the historically black Knoxville College and worked summers at Wildwood on the Jersey Shore.

And then came the courageous decision that quite by chance propelled him into a life of science. In the fall of 1959, while a senior biology major, he volunteered to be one of two students to informally integrate the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"Integration in the South always had a girl and a boy, and they needed people who could take the harassment and wouldn't embarrass the black population," says Olden, "So I was the guy. I couldn't officially take classes because it was against the law, but I could participate in research programs, go to seminars and be visible. I couldn't get credit, so I would go back across town and take courses at my college."

His parents worried, for integration attempts often led to reprisals against students and their families. They doubtless feared the kind of violence that would erupt in neighboring Mississippi three years later, when Gov. Ross Barnett physically blocked Air Force veteran James Meredith from enrolling at the state university.

But Knoxville was not Oxford, Mississippi, and Olden says he experienced no problems. The university officially integrated with 150 black students the following fall without protest.

It was during his unofficial year at the University of Tennessee that he experienced "an epiphany" about science.

"I had been in a laboratory as a class, but I'd never seen a person in a lab doing real experiments and trying to solve problems," he says. As part of a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission, "I was able to work in this lab conducting research into genetic mutations in tapeworms; they had treated them with X-rays at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and you could see changes in the chromosomes. That excited me and I recognized that this is brain power. Faculty from other universities would come and give seminars, and I wanted to be one of those people."

Gone were his plans to become a physician, "because I knew black physicians in Knoxville and in my little hometown, but I didn't know any black person who was nationally competitive in biomedical research. Science changed my life."

The satisfying postscript to this story came in 2004, when Olden was asked to apply for the presidency of the multi-campus University of Tennessee, a position like the CUNY chancellorship. He hesitated, for he was 65 and unsure about tackling such a demanding job. "I thought about my parents, who were deceased. If they knew that I had just one iota of a chance to become president of the University of Tennessee and I said no, they would turn over in their graves, so I couldn't say no." He was the only Tennessean and nonwhite among the six finalists, but someone else was selected.

Olden earned a master's in genetics at the University of Michigan and a doctorate in cell biology and biochemistry at Temple University.

While doing postdoctoral work and teaching at Harvard Medical School, he and his wife, Sandra White, ran a dormitory at Radcliffe College for four years. White, who has a doctorate in immunology, and Olden would co-author some 30 cancer-related papers over the years, among their many publications. She now directs a program at historically black North Carolina Central University in Durham that encourages minority high school students to go into math, science and technology. They have two daughters, one a journalist and the other a pre-med college junior, and two sons, one in finance and the other in the music industry.

Olden's research focused on preventing metastasis, which occurs when cancer cells break off from a primary tumor and establish new tumors elsewhere in the body. A 1978 paper he wrote in the prestigious journal Cell about glycoproteins (proteins that contain sugar polymers and serve many functions in the body) is among the 100 most-cited scientific research reports. A 1985 paper in The Journal of Biological Chemistry reversed the 15-year conventional wisdom that secretory proteins are transported via a "conveyor belt." And in the 1980s, he caused a sensation with an article in Science describing how he had prevented metastasis in mice, but that approach later proved too toxic for human use.

His research continued until just before coming to CUNY. He pursued it at Harvard, NIH, Howard University, where he directed the cancer center and chaired the department of Oncology, and then at NIEHS, where besides being director, he also was chief of the metastasis section of its environmental carcinogenesis program.

Olden has never forgotten the lessons of his youth. As NIH's first African-American director, "I had a perspective on issues that others didn't. It never occurred to anybody that certain people weren't at the table — and it wasn't just blacks and Hispanics and Asians, but poor white folks weren't around the table, either." When he arrived, the directors of the 17 institutes and centers then in existence were white; one was female; all were middle-class.

He says that part of the lure of helping to launch the CUNY School of Public Health was that "there is a lot of poverty and pain and suffering, and somebody has got to communicate that."

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From the beginning, CUNY wanted its School of Public Health to target urban issues. Twenty years from now, two-thirds of the anticipated world population of 8.1 billion are expected to live in cities. And cities are where many contemporary health problems — from HIV infection to variants of chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes — have emerged. Cities also are where medical researchers are turning cancers that once spelled certain death into chronic conditions.

CUNY is taking a different approach than traditional schools, which separate the disciplines. "Complex problems cannot be solved by one discipline working in its own silo," Olden says. "You need epidemiologists working with biostatisticians, toxicologists, environmental health scientists, social workers, nurses, behavioral scientists, life scientists and community groups. They don't necessarily speak the same language, or have the same way of thinking, or use the same tools, so collectively they can see a large slice of the problem, rather than just a little sliver of it."

Olden says previous public health efforts were spectacularly successful. "At the turn of the 20th century, average life span was about 50 years. That's increased to about 78. That's huge, and it had to do with sanitation practices as simple as washing your hands, eliminating death from infectious diseases, food and drug safety, environmental regulation, cleaning up the air, cleaning up the water.

"What's going to happen over the next hundred years? We're already seeing people living longer. How much more? I don't know. Now we have improved medical technology. We could increase lifespan another 10 to 15 years, which would have a huge impact on our way of life. We've got to anticipate that," he says.

But how long you live depends in part upon where you live. Olden cites 2006 research by health economist Christopher Murray, who found "eight Americas" divided by race, counties of residence, income, and a few other social factors. Thirty-three years separated Asian women in Bergen County, N.J., from Native American males in some South Dakota counties—91 versus 58 years.

"You can't account for this by differences in access to health care, because across the eight Americas the differences were small," Olden says, "but Murray mentioned disproportionate exposure to risk factors, which tend to be environmental."

Nevertheless, Olden sees the need to ensure that the approximately 50 million Americans who lack health care get it. He advocates an emphasis on wellness and prevention — which in part means cleaning up and safeguarding the environment — because "we don't have enough resources in the U.S. Treasury to handle the health-care problems of chronic diseases" if every elderly person gets sick.

"We've got to promote healthy aging, so you can live to 85 and be active and involved and independent, and that can happen," says Olden. "That's where the excitement is."

Olden stresses the "founding" in his role of being the school's founding dean. He's hiring core faculty at the rate of two or three a year, recruiting the first students and working out logistics with the college master's programs. He intends to shepherd the school through accreditation in 2011, then "hand it off to someone else. Hopefully, I will have some say in helping them identify somebody who can take it the rest of the way," he says. "That's the legacy I want."