A Conversation with CEO Emeritus Karen A. Goraleski

Posted 27 October 2023

After 13 years of serving as ASTMH CEO, Karen Goraleski has passed the baton. She recently sat down with science writer Matthew Davis to talk about her efforts to broaden the Society’s international connections, the challenges of managing a 2014 Annual Meeting rocked by issues linked to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, why members have a responsibility to work in their local communities to build back trust in science, and the fact that while she may be leaving, the flags stay!    

View Ms. Goraleski's farewell comments during the 2023 Annual Meeting (pictured left)

What made you first decide to take this job? 

I was drawn by a few things. First, it was an opportunity to step into a leadership role of a very well-respected scientific Society. I knew ASTMH from my years working at Research!America, and ASTMH was one of that organization’s first members. I also found the science of tropical medicine fascinating. Even though I don’t have formal training, I consider myself a science groupie. And the third piece is the people. I’ve worked in the research community for almost 30 years, and the scientists who work in tropical medicine are unique. 

They have a real passion and a sense of mission; they want to alleviate pain and suffering for people who often don’t have a voice in this world. They also don’t stand on ceremony. That’s not to say they are not competitive when it comes to seeking out grants. But they don’t need to be addressed as “professor” or “doctor,” and they are very open to listening and learning from non-scientists like me. 

How has the experiences actually compared to what you were expecting? 

The job as advertised was to be an association executive director. But I knew going in that I wanted to be more than that. The members of the Society saw themselves as an organization of science nerds and I saw a group of people and a Society that needed and deserved to be elevated to a much higher level. So, I focused on making changes at all levels, from seemingly superficial details to more substantial areas. 

For starters, I updated our look. I worked with our skilled designer Brian McGowan to get rid of the outdated (and boring) palm fronds and tropical trees, because that conveys a very narrow perspective of who we are. We also updated the fonts and logos on the website to provide a brighter and more modern look. 

More substantively, when I arrived, the Board of Directors was all white and from the U.S. Now we have a board with many international members. We also have two members that are students and trainees. I wanted and the Society needed a board that looked more like our membership.  

I have really focused on promoting the international aspect of our Society. For example, now the selection of keynote speakers and attendees at the Annual Meeting embody that global reach. Next, what better way to demonstrate our international-ness than flags of the various countries where we have members. You see them everywhere now in our materials and at the Annual Meeting. I get teased a lot about the flags; everyone on the team knows I will ask about them.  

What were some of your more challenging moments? I’m thinking specifically about the 2014 Annual Meeting in New Orleans when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa prompted threats from the governor of Louisiana that he would restrict attendees from West Africa. 

We were so fortunate to have (the late) Alan Magill as our president that year. His take-charge demeanor allowed things to play out very smoothly. With the Ebola situation, we had a massive amount of media attention and then we also had Bill Gates as our keynote speaker. I remember we had a media briefing that Burness organized that I moderated. I had never facilitated a media briefing before. There were 20 reporters in the room and another 60 online. Nevertheless, I jumped in, because ASTMH had an important voice that needed to be heard. It was challenging and exciting. 

The pandemic has been our biggest challenge in many, many ways. It prevented our members from traveling. The inability to have a live meeting for two years had financial implications. There were the personal challenges we all had. Then there were the impacts on the areas we care about deeply as a Society. Malaria cases increased, for example There were many places in the world that saw a serious decrease in routine childhood vaccinations. Funding for many research programs was stretched thin, and there remains a lot of concern that we are losing ground in areas where we had worked so hard to make progress. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges going forward? 

In the world of global health, climate change is a huge concern. It’s one that the world is still not dealing with and it’s already having an impact on health. And a close second is the lack of trust in science – this idea that people who have an incredible amount of knowledge and training don’t know what they’re doing and should not be trusted. We have way too many members of Congress who don’t believe what NIH or CDC officials say. And that spreads to the public at large. It’s a worrisome problem that has quickly become deeply entrenched. 

How would you advise members to navigate such a difficult situation, where on one hand you want to speak truth to power, but you also need to find a way to have a dialogue and not alienate those same people in power? 

I think it starts at the community level – your neighbors, your mayor, your local elected officials. They should know what you do and why you do it and why it matters. This is not how the science community generally operates. There has been an assumption that we will tell the public something and they will accept it and go along with it. This is where we all need to reflect and embrace some humility. 

Our members have an exceptional level of scientific education and experience. As a result, they understand that science is cumulative, that new information is constantly coming in. That means they are starting from a very different place than most of the public. What most people in the public see are things like, here is information on masking, and then six months later, here is something different information on masking. 

There have been seeds of doubt in science scattered about over the years. This is not new. For example, people would complain that one study said coffee was good, then a new study saying it was bad or hearing that this medicine is good, no wait, now it’s bad for you. Then the pandemic comes along and doubt and mistrust exploded. 

That’s why I think personal connections can help address these gaps and disconnects. If people are talking to someone they know, who lives in their communities, there is automatically a stronger connection than if they are just reading something on social media. Does that kind of outreach solve the lack of trust issue? No, but it’s where we can start.  

What advice do you have for incoming CEO Jamie Bay Nishi? 

I want her to have trust that she is walking into a well-run organization. There is a lot to learn, and she will be drinking from the firehose for longer than she might expect. But she should give herself some time to adjust. She also has the benefit of already being familiar with a lot of things about ASTMH’s various activities.  

I was on the search committee for the next CEO and aside from having management and advocacy skills and being all around smart, I was looking for someone who can be a good team leader and help the staff team learn and grow. I think Jamie is perfect for that role. She just is not allowed to get rid of the flags! That is my only mandate. 

What are your future plans? Is there life after being the ASTMH CEO? 

Every good CEO knows when it’s time to step down. I want fresh ideas and fresh leadership and yes, fresh energy for ASTMH! The hard part is that I am crazy about this Society and leaving is difficult. This Society has treated me very well, respecting and trusting my leadership. I have a smart, capable team of colleagues and meaningful bonds have been built over time. 

I plan to take a little bit of time to breathe and reflect. The last few years were very challenging. I believe I have skills and perspectives to offer, and I have a fascination with science advocacy and communication, and maybe there will be consulting opportunities. But while I am not ready to retire, right now I am thinking a lot about advice I received from a friend who has retired. He said, “Enjoy the gift of time.” So that is my immediate plan. I am going to enjoy the gift of time.