Founding Dean Kenneth Olden
“The goal of CUNY’s School of Public Health,” declares Founding Dean Kenneth Olden, “is to train interdisciplinary urban public health researchers and practitioners capable of working across all levels of analysis, disciplines and social sectors — such as health, education, the environment and criminal justice — to address complex urban public health problems.”
Dr. Olden, the first African-American to become a director at the National Institutes of Health, knows first-hand how inspirational college life can be because it was when he was a senior at Knoxville College that he decided to pursue scientific research.
It was then, as part of an inter-university research program at the University of Tennessee, that he visited a laboratory for the first time.
“I was thrilled by research,” he says, “and that was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Throughout his career, Dr. Olden has continued his research while holding top administrative posts. From 1991 to 2005, he headed the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as well as the National Toxicology Program. Most recently, he was Yerby Visiting Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Dr. Olden earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Knoxville College, a master’s in genetics at the University of Michigan and a doctorate in cell biology and biochemistry at Temple University. Before conducting research at the National Cancer Institute, he did postdoctoral work and taught at the Harvard Medical School, all the while running a dormitory at Radcliffe College with his wife.
From 1979 to 1991, Dr. Olden worked for Howard University in several roles, ultimately as director of the Howard University Cancer Center and chairman of the Department of Oncology. In 1991, he became director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as well as of the National Toxicology Program. At the same time, he was chief of the Metastasis Section of the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental Health Sciences’ Environmental Carcinogenesis Program.
As head of National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Olden conducted town meetings with citizens around the country and built relationships with patient advocacy groups, including the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition.
Elizabeth Sword, the coalition’s executive director, says, “Early on, he had made a commitment to raising children’s environmental health on the radar screen and putting some muscle and research dollars behind it.”
Dr. Olden says that his early life was the source of much of his success, noting that in the small southern town of Parrottsville, Tenn., where he grew up, it was poverty as much as race that limited Black and White residents.
“Most of the qualities that have made me a success are the direct consequence of growing up where I grew up,” he says. “The things that really count for leadership I learned as a kid, and I didn’t forget them.”
Among Dr. Olden’s many publications are a 1978 paper on glycoproteins in Cell that has become one of the 100 most-cited scientific research reports and a 1985 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry that reversed the 15-year conventional wisdom that secretory proteins are transported via a “conveyor belt.”
Dr. Olden’s early cancer research led him to study the role of glycoproteins in cancer. Working with Ken Yamada and others at the National Cancer Institute, he became fascinated with fibronectin, a glycoprotein that promotes the attachment of cells to the extracellular matrix. Because fibronectin disappears from cancer cells, which then metastasize, fibronectin might hold the key to metastasis prevention, thus saving patients’ lives. The team got as far as preventing metastasis in mice but was unable to do the same thing in humans.
As far as the School of Public Health, Dr. Olden is looking forward to helping produce graduates “with the skills and knowledge to help eliminate the serious disparities in urban health care facing the poor, minorities and immigrants while also preparing future faculty and addressing staffing shortages in the public health workforce that will accompany the aging of Baby Boomers.”