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Alumnus Dean Winslow and graduate student Deepit Bhatia

Q&A with Penn State alumnus, public servant, and clinician Dean Winslow

10 April 2024
Dean Winslow

Penn State alumnus Dean Winslow is one of three from the Eberly College of Science to have received the 2023 Alumni Fellow Award, the most prestigious award given by the Alumni Association. Winslow is a professor of medicine with appointments in the Divisions of Hospital Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Winslow graduated from the Eberly College of Science in 1974 with high distinction. His career has largely been shaped by current events in public heath. Early in his career, he started the first multidisciplinary clinic for HIV patients in Delaware and pioneered advancements in HIV treatment research. In 2005, he coordinated military public health in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More recently, in 2021, he took leave from Stanford to lead the US COVID-19 Testing and Diagnostic Working Group. He served as CDC Senior Advisor to Operation ALLIES WELCOME—a program to resettle Afghan refugees—and Chief Medical Officer for the Southwest Border Migrant Health Task Force before returning to Stanford in July 2022.

Winslow served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force for 35 years and deployed twice to Afghanistan and four times to Iraq after 9/11, supporting combat operations. In 2015, Winslow and his wife, Dr. Julie Parsonnet, created The Eagle Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which provides aid to middle eastern and central American refugees. In 2018, he co-founded Scrubs Addressing the Firearms Epidemic (SAFE), which unites health care professionals to address gun violence.

We sat down with Winslow to chat about his time at Penn State and his impactful career in public health.

What do you remember most about your time at Penn State? 

Winslow: First of all, I'm very grateful to Penn State for the great background that I had. I didn't struggle too much when I got to medical school because of the great science education that I had here. I love Penn State. I was a walk-on for the track and cross-country teams and some of those experiences were just absolutely fantastic.

Penn State is a magical place, it’s in the beautiful part of the country, and you have such loyal alumni. When I was a student, we didn’t have cars on campus, and it was several hours to Philly and Pittsburgh. And by bus, it was more like 12 hours to get to my hometown of Dover, Delaware, because of all the stops. So, my parents dropped me off in early June of 1971, and I didn't come home until Thanksgiving.

What advice do you have for current students?

Winslow: I think the biggest bit of advice I have for young people is don't feel that your career has to be perfectly linear. If you’re in college, you don’t need to know what your ultimate career goal is going to be.

The way I think of it is that life is a long series of hallways, and you walk down and you try to open doors. And if one opens really easily, well, that's probably the one you should go through.  And if one is really sticky, bang on it a couple of times, because we have to exert some effort in life, but don’t knock yourself out. It may be that the best approach would be to leave that door shut and go to the next door, because that might be the right one even though you didn't think of it at the time. The door that opens easiest is often the one that you're really supposed to be walking through as you go through your life and your career.

Where did you think your career would take you after graduation?

Winslow: I just wanted to be a doctor. I’d always admired different doctors who had taken care of me. And I liked the fact that as a physician, you can integrate science with the satisfaction of helping people every day. I had no idea what my career path would be. I still joke at age 70, that I still don’t 100 percent know what I want to be when I grow up. I. hope I get another lifetime. I ended up being an internist—an adult doctor—but I trained in pediatric infectious diseases, so I’d like to be a pediatrician in my next life.

What inspired you to work as a public servant in so many different capacities?

Winslow: My parents instilled this idea that us kids should try to make the world a better place and be a positive influence. I feel almost selfish that I've enjoyed it so much. People normally wouldn't think of military service as being joyful, but I always felt that I was making a difference. And I was part of a wonderful team, working toward a goal that’s much greater than yourself. The nice thing about being a doctor in the military is that you're not hurting people. You're helping people whether it's your own coalition forces or host nation nationals—people in Iraq and Afghanistan. So those were very rewarding experiences during the time that I spent downrange in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also really enjoyed the almost a year and a half that I spent working for the CDC helping roll out diagnostic tests for COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic. I got to serve as the chief medical officer for several months for the Southwest Border Migrant Health Task Force and felt like I could really make a difference, particularly in the health of unaccompanied children. And then the last thing, which provided a great degree of emotional closure to me, was being able to serve as the senior CDC adviser to Operation ALLIES WELCOME, which was the resettlement of 124,000 or so Afghan refugees who came over in a period of a few weeks following the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban forces in 2021.

What has inspired you to take on such impactful public health issues through your career?

Winslow: One of my first challenges when I got cut from the baseball team as a freshman in the Dover High School in 1968. It was still early enough in the season that I went out for the track team. I wasn’t a distance runner, but they needed someone to run two-mile races, so I trained and did reasonably well and eventually was a walk-on on the track team at Penn State. I was challenged early on to do something hard that I didn’t think I could do.

I joined the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard in 1980, and I was planning to retire in 2001, but then 9/11 happened. And they needed physically fit flight surgeons who could deploy with combat units, so I volunteered to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m glad I did because I think we made a real difference. Despite what a terrible thing war is, some of the efforts we made in both of those countries are still remembered by the people who are living there.

Additionally, when AIDS came along in 1981, I had just finished my infectious disease fellowship, and it just felt like this is what I should be doing. I never expected another infectious disease pandemic to happen, but when COVID-19 really took over the world in 2020, I stepped forward. I was working at Stanford University Hospital and picked up a number of extra shifts, like everyone else did. When Dr. Anne Schuchat—the Principal Deputy Director of the CDC at the time—asked me to come to DC to help lead the U.S. COVID-19 Testing and Diagnostic Working Group, it just seemed like a wonderful challenge. I had worked in a diagnostic biotech company for several years about 20 years ago, so it was sort of a natural fit. It wasn't a door I deliberately sought out. It was just one that kind of flew open, and I walked through it.

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.