DTMI Profile: Ashley Dunham - Looking Beyond the Individual

June 12, 2015

Name: Ashley Dunham

Position: Director of Operations, Population Research, Duke Translational Research Institute

Ashley Dunham has always had dreams of working with large populations: as a 4th grade student in Auburn Alabama, she wanted to be president of the U.S.A. But after getting a Master of Science in Public Health from the University of South Carolina-Columbia, and a PhD in Health Policy from UNC-Charlotte, she has settled on a different passion – helping investigators bridge the world of clinical research and population health by providing operational support.

“I like to see things happen, and make things happen, and grow things from the ground up,” she says. “I’ve learned that I serve better as a helper, rather than doing investigation myself.”

Here, in her own words, is an explanation of her passion for population health.


When did you come to Duke?

I was hired in 2008 to work in community outreach for the MURDOCK Study in Kannapolis. But that job quickly grew beyond community engagement. They needed someone to get the data management and clinical operations infrastructure and processes in shape so that investigators could easily use the data and infrastructure for research. Now I work not only with the MURDOCK Study, but also with other population health programs such as the Southeastern Diabetes Initiative and Dr. Boulware’s new Center for Community and Population Health Improvement.

How would you describe your job?

I oversee a suite of research projects at Duke that relate to population health. I have a masters and a PhD in health policy, but I’m not an investigator. I am a helper.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I spend a lot of time writing – helping to develop proposals and contributing to grant applications. I manage lots of budgets. And I spend a lot of time cobbling funding sources together to get the work done that we want to do. It takes a lot of work to bring different projects together to promote the big picture, rather than looking at projects in isolation.

Where is your office located?

I directly oversee eight employees and a team of 40-50 people with some located in Kannapolis and some in Durham, so I split my time between the two locations. We are tight on space in Kannapolis until we move into our new office in July, so right now I share an office with other folks in Kannapolis and have a cubette on the 11th floor of the Durham Center in downtown Durham.

What drew you into a career in population health?

I am driven by wanting to participate in something that will help the community I live in. I’ve lived in Salisbury, NC since 1996, so the MURDOCK Study was a great fit for me. And then I’ve grown along with the job.

Did you imagine when you were young that you would end up in this field?

When I was in 4th grade in Auburn, Alabama, I wanted to be president of the U.S.A. I still am in a job where I get to be bossy, so I guess I’m doing what I wanted to do back then!

What routines do you have to help you stay sane and balanced?

I spend a lot of time with my 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. I belong to a great running group in Salisbury that I have been running with for years. I run five to seven miles three or four days a week, and on the weekends I’ll run up to 13 miles. I also try to find time for hot yoga, and regularly read the New Yorker and the Economist. The New Yorker has long, thoughtful pieces that are almost like short stories, and the Economist has short tidbits of what is going on in the world. It is a good combination. I read before bed almost every night.

What was the last book you read?

The last book I read cover to cover was “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, about a serial killer in Chicago in 1893, the time of the World’s Fair. I also finished his book about the hurricane in Galveston, Texas [Isaac’s Storm].

Often people think of translational medicine as moving ideas from the lab to the clinic. How do you explain your work in population health as part of the translational medicine continuum?

We do implementation science. We are actually delivering what we have learned out into populations – that is one side. The other side is that we study populations of people, rather than just individuals involved in clinical trials. When we look at risk for diabetes, for example, we aren’t just looking at clinical data. We add neighborhood data about income levels, grocery stores, etc. And more and more we are looking at health disparities and what it will take to change the inequities that currently plague health care in the U.S.

Why is population health important to you?

There are so many things that contribute to health and wellbeing beyond what we measure in the clinic. Things like self-care, culture, demographics, environment, and exposure to chemicals or pollution. I like to be in an environment where we are addressing all of these things. There are great things we can do to improve medications, improve access to health care, etc. But that is not going to matter to people if the environment in which they live isn’t supportive of health. I try to always keep that in mind, no matter what smaller piece of the job I am working on.