Director Melds Passion for Field with Science

Headshot of Greg Noland

Growing up, Greg Noland voraciously read National Geographic magazines. From his home near Dallas, Texas, Noland became fascinated with other cultures and seeing the world.

He traveled to Europe in high school and once crossed the Mexican border, but it was a college study abroad trip to Zambia that finally scratched his explorer’s itch. And it laid the foundation for his career to come as an epidemiologist and now director of the Carter Center’s river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, and malaria programs.

A pre-med student, Noland spent two consecutive summers working at a rural hospital in southern Zambia. It was his introduction to malaria and other parasitic diseases.

“I spent most of my time in the lab, learning how to read malaria blood films, but I also saw the effects of malaria and other diseases not only on individual patients but also on their families and the larger community.” he said. “That opened my eyes to public health.”

  • Photo of Greg Noland with assessment team member.

    Noland confers with a member of his assessment team at a school in Plateau state, Nigeria. Blood samples taken from students confirmed the interruption of lymphatic filariasis.

After graduation and with an interest in malaria, he joined the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where one of his duties was tending its mosquito colonies for malaria research. “But as one of the great strokes of luck in my life, my supervisor was a parasitologist who insisted I learn about parasitic diseases broadly, apart from malaria,” Noland said.

After completing his doctorate in molecular microbiology and immunology, Noland was ready to return to the field. He took a three-year assignment in western Kenya, directing a malaria research project. He spent his days driving to remote highland communities where he examined the development and maintenance of immunity in areas close to eliminating the disease.

Noland summed it up the way only someone who loves field work could: “I spent most days pushing Land Rovers out of the mud,” he said. “Working in villages at the end of the road was a fantastic experience.” (Incidentally, since joining The Carter Center in 2011, Noland has helped free stuck vehicles in Haiti, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.)

To Noland, the most fulfilling part of his assignment in Kenya was working with in-country students and scientists. “I loved seeing their ownership of the program,” he said. “That perspective carries over to the work we do at The Carter Center — building relationships with in-country staff and developing local talent so they can lead the programs.”

Noland was hired as an epidemiologist for the Carter Center’s malaria work, but it didn’t take long before he became involved with the Center’s other health programs, particularly lymphatic filariasis, which is heavily integrated with malaria because both diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes.

Noland was promoted to director earlier this year, and he said he feels fortunate to have inherited the programs from Frank Richards, who led them for 15 years. “We’re on the cusp of significant wins in the battle against river blindness in several places,” he said, referring to Uganda, Nigeria, and the Americas.

Continued progress, however, will not be achieved easily. Noland said that since the programs rely on people voluntarily taking medication, community engagement is the key to success. Now COVID-19 is a threat, forcing the Center and others to look at the ways drug distribution can change and possibly improve.

Looking back at his nine years at the Center, one of Noland’s favorite projects was overseeing blood testing in schoolchildren in Nigeria’s Plateau and Nasarawa states to determine whether the parasite that causes lymphatic filariasis had been eliminated. The disease can result in severe swelling and disfigurement in limbs and genitals.

Community volun-teers, under the direction of the Nigerian Ministry of Health, and local Carter Center staff had distributed preventive drug treatments for many years, and the testing proved the impact of this long-term effort — the parasite had indeed been eliminated and some 7 million people were no longer at risk for the disease.

“It is satisfying to know these children will not have to face a life of physical pain or mental anguish,” Noland said. “To me, that is a victory.”

Related Programs

River Blindness Elimination Program »

Lymphatic Filariasis Elimination Program »

Schistosomiasis (Bilharziasis) Control Program »

The Hispaniola Initiative »