Julie Gerberding, Merck Vaccines

Julie Gerberding
Broadening vaccine access in the developing world

Company: Merck Vaccines
Title: President

For 7 years, Dr. Julie Gerberding served as director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she led public health initiatives in response to crises such as avian flu, natural disasters and anthrax bioterrorism. While her focus was national, she also advised countries around the world on combating public health problems such as AIDS and other diseases.

But when she learned that Merck ($MRK), a vaccine leader, had been unable to globalize access to some of its "really incredible vaccines" outside of other highly developed countries, she knew it was time to expand her global efforts even further.

"The opportunity to really open access to some life-saving vaccine products was incredibly motivating to me," Gerberding told FierceBiotech

So in late 2009, Gerberding took up the post of president of Merck's vaccines division, where she's worked to expand the reach of the company's products and bring them to those in need. "Being able to take these products, manufacture them and commercialize them in a more cost-effective way so they can reach the girls and boys who need them most is a wonderful opportunity," she said.

That job takes on many different forms, she says. One week she could be flying to India for a meeting of Hilleman Laboratories, a joint venture between Merck and Wellcome Trust that works to repurpose vaccines for developing countries so that they're cheaper or easier to use. The next, she could be attending a global health policy meeting in Morocco or helping bring a vaccine to market. Each day involves facing challenges from both a business perspective and a science and technology perspective.

But no matter where she is or what she's doing, Gerberding makes an effort to share her experiences with other women and support and advocate for them, she says. As the executive sponsor of the Merck Women's Network, an organization that provides business insights and supports talent development for women globally, she's had the opportunity to serve as a visible role model that women can make it to the top and influence their organizations.

"It's important, once you're in a position of influence, that you have proactive outreach to provide support for more junior people in these areas. Mentoring is necessary, but not sufficient. Sponsorship is key--to say, 'I'm placing a bet on this woman and giving her a chance.'"

Gerberding believes getting more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics--and keeping them there--is critical to the U.S.' national success. While there's a dearth of women in those fields now, creating national policies and programs to help women rise to the level of visible achievement will inspire others coming along the pipeline, she says. 

Still, as Gerberding notes, "science for science's sake is not enough," and it's important to recognize that there has to be a result of the scientific journey. For Gerberding, the area where she's chosen to focus her personal time and attention is eliminating cervical cancer on a global basis, which she believes is possible in the not-too-distant future. 

"We really need solutions that make an impact," she said. "Whatever result you're aiming for, you should aim big."

For more:
Merck, Sanofi report on first vaccine in European pilot project
GSK, Merck vaccines keep kids out of hospital
Merck's Gerberding discusses advantages, challenges of vaccines

-- Carly Helfand (email | Twitter)

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Julie Gerberding, Merck Vaccines