A Q&A with Dennis Clements, DGHI's New Interim Director

A behind-the-scenes peek into the life of DGHI's Clements, whose goal is always "to see the good in everybody and helping them"

Published June 23, 2020 under Education News

Written by Mary Brophy Marcus

This month, Dennis Clements, professor of global health and senior adviser at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), was appointed as DGHI’s interim director.

Clements, who recently retired from his clinical pediatrics practice at Duke Medicine, is well known at DGHI and in the Duke medical community for his passion for global health, his dedication to mentoring others in the field and his warmth, not to mention his homemade chocolate brownies. 

We caught up with him this past week to talk about his life and work.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Alabama, but when I was very young, my dad was in the Korean War and he was stationed in Okinawa. I have very vivid memories of living on Okinawa. 

Did you speak Japanese as a young child?

I learned a little. I remember singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Japanese

What were you like as a young person? When did you experience your first inklings of interest in global health?

My parents were living in Germany in my teens, and I went to high school in Switzerland. It was a small school. I think there were about 35 in my class — kids from all over the world whose parents were mostly working for the government or NGOs. I was 16 and 17 and I’d say I was able to know more of the world than the average American kid because of my experience. 

Did you go to college in Europe, too?

I came back to the United States for college at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. My parents stayed in Germany, so I was here on my own like many international students who come to the U.S. to study. My roommate was the son of an army general. 

Dennis Clements, new interim director of DGHI

What did you study as an undergrad?

When I went to Hopkins, I wanted to be an international relations major. I was quite interested in that, but I found that it wasn’t what I was good at. I was good at math and science and people. So, I changed to be pre-med.  My parents would pay my tuition, but I had to pay my own way for everything else. I worked in the cafeteria at the school, the Baltimore school system and the JHU traffic office to pay for everything else. 

Did you go straight to medical school at that point?

At the end of college, I applied to medical school and ended up going to the University of Rochester, in New York. After three years of medical school, I felt like I wasn’t ready to go on. I didn’t feel I was prepared, so I applied for an honors fellowship in Africa. I had always wanted to go to Africa since I listened to Frank Laubach as a child. Laubach was a missionary whose work focused on addressing poverty, injustice and literacy. His approach was not to teach Africans English. He listened to them and created a written language for them so they could be literate. That principle stuck with me. So I researched opportunities in Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria and I eventually chose Uganda. I remember trying to make the arrangements. It was in the days when you had to book an international flight through a call, and you’d sit by the phone and wait for them to call you back.

What was your experience in Uganda like?

I went to Uganda in 1972. It was Idi Amin’s second year in office [Idi Amin overthrew the Ugandan government in 1971 and became president until 1979. He was known for his brutal regime]. I was one of only two white people working in Mulago Hospital, in Kampala, Uganda — that I knew of at the time. During the day, I took care of a ward of 18 children with cancer. All of my supervisors were British physicians. It was a fabulous uplifting experience. After working in Uganda, I came back and finished medical school and started a pediatric residency at Duke. 

What is it that ultimately drew you to medicine instead of international relations?

I’ve always loved doing medicine as a way to find out about people — how people live and who they are. In Uganda, I lived amongst the Ugandan people and got to know everyone, all the nurses and the patients. I came to appreciate that people were the same all over the world except for the fact that they were born in a different place.

So you settled and practiced at Duke the rest of your career?

After residency I joined the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon. I was a pilot and I actually taught flying commercially. I was a flight surgeon during the day and I was a flight instructor in the evenings and on the weekends. I got to meet a lot of different people. I was offered a job in private practice in Durham after two years in the Air Force. I came back and worked at Durham Pediatrics for eight years.

I started doing vaccine trials in the office – the chicken pox vaccine, for instance — so I decided to apply for a pediatric infectious disease fellowship at Duke and as part of that experience I earned my master’s degree in public health and my PhD in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My PhD work took me and my family to Melbourne, Australia. Great experience for us all.

Did you begin teaching after that?

As a peds ID specialist I began seeing patients — mostly primary care — and started the Duke Vaccine Unit. So, I spent about 10 years doing mostly vaccine research work as well as seeing patients.  I did spend my Decembers at the VA as an ID attending which was very enjoyable. Over the course of my time at Duke, I’ve been fortunate to teach in the medical school, nursing school and the university setting.

When did you get involved with DGHI?

When Richard Brodhead became president of Duke University in 2004, I’d already been going to Honduras. In 2000, I started building a clinic there with partners in the mountains of Intibucá, which now has a nurse every day and a doctor and dentist every two weeks or so. In Brodhead’s original speech at Duke, he talked about Duke becoming more global and he mentioned the work in Honduras. 

He and Victor Dzau had created three task forces to talk about a potential global health institute looking at research, teaching and partnerships. And I worked on one of them and subsequently I was on the committee that picked Mike Merson, DGHI’s first director. Right when he started, I asked Mike for a job and he provided me a position as senior advisor at DGHI. I had an office in the clinic, but the one at DGHI became my main office.

What courses have you taught at DGHI?

I teach about two-thirds of the global health Capstone course every year. I’ve done it all but the very first year when Mike taught it. One each semester. I also teach the Innovation and Entrepreneurship course, which has a focus on problem-solving in global health — where we work with other countries on problem-solving. One example: for a hospital in India, at the partner’s request, my students revamped their entire social media platform and produced a 40-page pamphlet for the hospital, to help them continue to enhance their social media platform in the future. 

Looking back over your career, what do you want to be known for? What’s been most meaningful to you?

Looking back on my life and work, I’d rather be known as a humanist. For trying to see the good in everybody and helping them. In this job, I have no wish of glory. I just want to help people.

You retired recently from pediatrics, but it sounds like you’re still going to be busy.

I am but I am spending lots of time with my family, with my three daughters in San Francisco and seven grandkids. I have to admit that I do work too much, but I enjoy my work. But I love spending time with my wife and grandkids, and doing yardwork and cooking, too.

Speaking of cooking… your chocolate brownies are delicious. Will you share your recipe? Or your quiche recipe — your Instagram photos look delicious.

Every time I put them together it’s different. I don’t write anything down! I love to cook. I cook all the time but it’s different every time. I just made beef stroganoff. We have pizza nights. I’m pretty good with twice baked potatoes. But lately, my favorite dish is bok choy — I just put a little garlic and olive oil in a skillet and throw it all in there and it wilts, add a little salt and pair it with rice.