Dr. Khan offers insights into leadership style, goals

by Elizabeth Kumru, UNMC public relations | July 17, 2014

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The new dean of UNMC's College of Public Health describes himself as an innovation enthusiast and a "creative disruptor" who is passionate about public health.

Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H., has seen it all.

Meet the new dean

A campus welcome reception for College of Public Health Dean Ali Khan, M.D., M.P.H., is planned for Tuesday, July 22, from 3 to 5 p.m., on the third floor atrium in the Maurer College of Public Health. Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., will make remarks at 3:45 p.m.

He spent part of his 23 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a field epidemiologist, or disease detective. His travels took him to remote villages all over the world, to war zones, and to ground zero types of places where treatment does not exist for such deadly viruses as Ebola, SARS and the Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever.

"The best thing about it is once we solve the mystery, we can actually make a difference and make the disease go away," he said. Although he often put his personal safety at risk and knew that he could get infected himself, his job was to help. "You can't stand on the sidelines while people are dying. You have to take risks and help the community institute prevention measures."

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Dean of the living dead?

In his last position as director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Dr. Khan looked for unique ways to "rise above the media din" to reach and inform the public. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, jokes buzzed on social media that radiation might reanimate the dead into zombies, the premise of George Romero's classic 1968 black-and-white horror movie, "Night of the Living Dead."

Dr. Khan posted a tongue-in-cheek blog about disaster-preparation tips to help readers survive a zombie apocalypse (in truth, a proper survival kit and emergency plan). His blog went viral with nearly five million views, up from the few thousand that a CDC posting usually receives, crashing the website. Later, CDC launched a graphic novella, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic to reach an even wider audience. It featured Dr. Khan in his rear admiral uniform as assistant surgeon general.

The experience taught him an important lesson -- to listen, be flexible and respond appropriately -- essential for an effective crisis response.

Dr. Khan brings that lesson with him to UNMC.

Dr. Khan says he's excited about the leadership of Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., and his strategic challenges.

"His vision to make Nebraska the healthiest state in the country is bold and exciting. The state ranks 11th in overall health, so we can do this. The question is how?"

It's somewhat of a rhetorical question as Dr. Khan has the answer -- three actually:

  • Laser-sharp focus on the college's impact on our communities through education, research and service;
  • Teamwork - the college's small size provides a great opportunity and advantage to productively work together;
  • Partnerships - collaboration is part of UNMC's culture and public health problems cannot be solved alone.

"The culture of collaboration is one of the things that attracted me here," he said. "Since I arrived, I've been flooded with requests to collaborate."

Initially, Dr. Khan is meeting college faculty, staff, student leaders and people across campus. Starting Aug. 4, he will begin a six-week series of "listening tours" to all 22 departments of public health throughout Nebraska, including the state health department in Lincoln.

"I've been called a transformative leader, but I'm thoughtful of the process and respectful of the culture. We can accomplish anything through teamwork and partnerships."

At the end of his emails, Dr. Khan signs off -- "Always listening, ask."

His initials say it all.


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