From Destroying Humanity to Saving It: Task Force CEO’s Career a Study in Contrast

David Ross’s journey to leading the country’s second largest non-profit organization had far from a typical beginning.

The CEO of The Task Force for Global Health began his professional life at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at The Johns Hopkins University. It was just when the cold war was heating up and APL was focused on national defense work.

As an aerospace engineer at the Lab, Ross was tasked with helping evaluate system performance and response readiness of U.S. strategic nuclear missile defenses. His team relayed critical information about these warheads to military and civilian leaders including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I realized then that if these weapons were ever to be used, I would be in the business of optimizing the destruction of people,” Ross recalls.

Acknowledging that truth changed his life. While his APL colleagues continued their mission to support the “mutually assured destruction” strategy, Ross began his foray down a different path, one he had never dreamed he’d pursue as a child.

Childhood on the Ranch

Ross grew up on a Wyoming ranch, one of six children in a Catholic family. His mother was keen on his joining the priesthood but he had other ideas. “I was enamored of missiles and jets,” he says. “It was the era of Sputnik and I wanted to be a rocket scientist.”

While his heart leaned skyward, his lessons were very much of the earth. He went on his first deer hunt when he was seven years old, steeped in a culture that prided itself on its toughness and independence. “Kids my age in cities were playing tennis, I was out doing rodeos,” he says.

He learned early that being tough and being fair could go hand in hand. His father had survived as an orphan – for a while, even turning to professional boxing to earn some money– to become an insurance salesman. “My father would sell insurance to African-Americans because no one else was willing to do it. He always told us that it was the goodness of people that mattered – who they were, not the color of their skin, not social rank.”

Implicit in that message was that he had an obligation to his fellow humans, and that being an honorable person mattered first and foremost. It was a childhood lesson he would never forget.

Turning His Career Towards Epidemiology

At APL, Ross came to the realization that he was seeking something different in a career. He mulled the idea of pursuing medicine and then he met a man who was to change his career trajectory – and life: Dr. Abe Lillienfeld, chair of the epidemiology department at Hopkins.

Lillienfeld introduced Ross to the idea that through public health he could help large swaths of people and it would enable him to widen his professional reach beyond just his patients. Inspired by the possibilities, Ross got his doctoral degree from what is now the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Hopkins.

His initial public health jobs helped illuminate where his interests lay – or didn’t. He remembers being a hospital administrator for a short time. “I was spending half the day with lawyers. I lived every episode of the TV drama, St. Elsewhere.”

In 1979, he visited The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He had a job offer from the agency and hadn’t decided if he was going to take the job. Then-CDC Director Bill Foege, MD, MPH, was holding an All-Hands staff meeting, and Ross was captivated by the “passion, people and the mission driven-ethos.” “It was clear that I was in a room with public health practitioners.”

Ross’s former boss at CDC, Ed Baker, MD, MPH, recalls that Ross came to the agency with glowing recommendations from former colleagues. “One of them told me that the best part about working with Dave is that you always leave a meeting with him feeling good. That is true to this day. His enthusiasm is contagious. It’s a huge attribute in a leader.”

Ross took the CDC job, moved his family to Atlanta, and was to remain at the organization for 21 years, taking on roles with increasing levels of responsibility from epidemiological chief of environmental hazards to guiding operations at the Office of the Director. By then, Foege had gone on to co-found The Task Force, and Ross found himself stepping in to help his former boss periodically. Ross eventually joined The Task Force but it was after Foege had left. “I am always following Bill’s footsteps. He leaves and I come,” Ross jokes.

Ross came to The Task Force as its 25th employee and directed All Kids Count (AKC), a program funded by Robert Wood Johnson to develop immunization registries for timely and accurate information about the health of pre-school children. Under his leadership, AKC would become the genesis for what was to become The Task Force’s largest program: the Public Health Informatics Institute.

Mark Rosenberg, MD, MPP, was Task Force CEO then and had known Ross first as a colleague at CDC. He says to understand Ross, it is important to understand where he was raised. “He grew up on a ranch where it’s all about action. It’s about seeing what’s needed and getting it done.”

At PHII, Rosenberg says Ross distinguished himself by being willing to have the tough discussions. Ross instituted a system during his tenure as director where before every project, a charter would be drawn up that spelt out the end goal and clearly laid out roles and responsibilities for each stakeholder.

“More than anyone, Dave understands that the success of The Task Force’s model of coalition-building rests on stakeholders agreeing on a clear overriding goal,” says Rosenberg. “It’s amazing how many organizations miss that and it is the number one cause for the failure of group projects.”

Ross was undoubtedly good at his job but to Rosenberg, what made his colleague special was his unstinting generosity with his time. “Dave will offer himself and it’s limitless. To me, Dave embodies the most abiding values of The Task Force – collaboration, global health equity, social justice and consequential compassion.”

Ross’s former boss at CDC, Ed Baker, MD, MPH, agrees, calling Ross a social entrepreneur. “Dave is not afraid to take calculated risks. When he makes a pitch for a better way to do things, he never calls attention to himself. He is quite selfless in the way he pursues an agenda.”

Focusing on Informatics

The transformation from AKC to PHII reflected the broad vision that Ross and his teammates had for a more robust and pervasive program — that informatics was a critical weapon in the public health arsenal that could help prevent disease. Ross fuelled PHII’s evolution into an organization that works with partners on projects ranging from child mortality reduction to helping countries retool their public health capabilities.

During Ross’s tenure, PHII partnered with the Emory Global Health Institute on a major initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help understand and ultimately address the causes of death and serious illness for children under five in developing countries. Nearly 6 million children under the age of 5 die each year around the world, mostly from preventable illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria.

At PHII, Ross planted the seed for an ambitious project called Digital Bridge aimed at improving the flow of information between health care providers and public health agencies in the United States. An estimated 70 percent of reportable diseases that clinicians diagnose are not shared with public health agencies because the system and processes haven’t kept up with technological changes.

“Data by itself is useless. When it informs or catalyzes action, we harvest its value,” Ross says pointing to the mandated use of seat belts in automobiles or the removal of lead in gasoline. “The science is necessary to propel the public argument. But to get laws passed, we need to tell an emotionally powerful story backed by facts.”

“If you can't see the facts, you can't paint the picture. If you can't see the picture, then you can't act. To make policy change, you have to put faces with facts. The Task Force is built around that proposition.”

If Digital Bridge is successful in transforming the way health information is exchanged, Ross predicts that public health agencies will have a much better understanding of the health profiles of communities and can take more effective actions.

Leading The Task Force

Since Ross joined The Task Force, it has more than quadrupled in size, tripled its space and close to doubled its scope – from 25 to 150+ people, from 30,000 to 90,000 square feet, from 5 to 13 programs. Now as its head, Ross is focused on how best to align growth with the magnitude of the undertaking – addressing issues that threaten public health around the world.

There are several initiatives in the pipeline: Applying the organization’s expertise to solve the problem of non-communicable diseases; moving into the next set of neglected tropical diseases requiring elimination; creating an innovation fund so programs have the resources and flexibility to try new things; helping build global consensus for access to essential medicines; and using neighborhood-level data to understand the health of communities in the U.S. “Health statistics aggregated at a county or city level often obscures pockets of need within communities, and leads to bad policy,” he explains.

Rosenberg says one of Ross’s most valuable qualities is that he is very clear-headed about what can be done. “Many non-profit leaders have vision, but it’s no point having an aspiration if it can’t be done with the resources available. Dave knows the difference between the possible and impossible. It makes The Task Force a very productive place.”

Indeed, Ross’s motivation manual is far from a global health tome. Instead, the slim book he likes to reference, “Cowboy Ethics,” is reflective of what this former aerospace engineer holds sacred. “It’s the values and ethics that will shape how we talk about ourselves, and the relationships we build that will drive lasting change.”

The new Task Force headquarters aligns with that vision – more room to accommodate new and expanded programs and convening spaces to foster and deepen collaboration.

The organization has remained the second largest non-profit in the Forbes rankings for two years consecutively, largely due to the in-kind value of drug donations it manages to eliminate neglected diseases in the world.

Ross believes that The Task Force — born out of an audacious idea of raising global immunization rates among children from 20 to 80 percent — can only meet the global public health challenges ahead by doing more and doing it better. “The scale is large but we have the capabilities to make a difference.”

In 2004, Ross was in Zambia at a children’s unit in a hospital, watching the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfold in a country that was already grappling with deadly infectious diseases such as cholera and malaria. He watched three babies die in one hour. “It was 40 percent mortality within 24 hours of admission,” he recalls.

To a man who values data, it was more than just a statistic. It was seeing the faces of the infants, the families, and those who cared for them that underlined the need for action. “It would be wrong to just let these circumstances pass,” he says. “The Task Force is built on the premise that we must act on our humanitarian instincts. We cannot walk away.”

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