Five Questions with Alumnus Delton Atkinson

Delton Atkinson

Delton Atkinson

Delton Atkinson (BA 1974 Recreation Administration, MPH 1976 Health Policy and Administration, MPH 1979 Biostatistics) was recently named the 2019 recipient of the Halbert L. Dunn Award.

Awarded by the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), the Dunn Award recognizes accomplished professionals who have demonstrated outstanding contributions to the field of vital and health statistics during their career.

Atkinson, who is recently retired, held leadership positions in state and national vital and health statistics agencies. He was most recently director of the Division of Vital Statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prior to that, he served as director of the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and executive director of NAPHSIS.

We talked recently with Delton about his Carolina experiences, a lifelong career in statistics and how he gives back to the Gillings School.

What was the pivotal moment that led you to public health?
There were two chance encounters that led me to public health. While I was an undergraduate student at UNC, I attended an information session on academic programs. During that meeting, I met William “Bill” Small [then associate dean for students at the School of Public Health], who convinced me that public health is the gateway in which I could pursue my professional interest in therapeutic recreation. After several conversations with Bill about public health, I decided to apply to the health policy and administration program.

I entered the master’s program, and after graduation, took a position as a health planning associate at a health system agency in Cleveland, Ohio, where I worked primarily to collect and analyze data. I became really interested in data, not so much from the research standpoint, but in how data is presented for public consumption and how it can be used to facilitate program improvements and health outcomes.

In my second year in this role, I attended the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), where I met Dr. James Grizzle [then chair of the department of biostatistics]. We both discovered our mutual connection to UNC, and I shared with him my interests in working with data. He encouraged me to apply to the master’s program in biostatistics, which I did so. Out of the thousands of people attending this conference, what were the odds that I would meet someone who would be influential in guiding the direction of my career!

Tell us about your public health journey since graduating from UNC.
While I was in the biostatistics program, I completed an internship with the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics (SCHS), and upon graduation, I was offered a position as a statistician. I thought I’d be there two or three years, but ended up staying for 18! Five years after joining SCHS, I was bold enough to apply for the director’s position – figuring I had nothing to lose. To my delight I got the job! What followed was a long and successful leadership career in vital and health statistics.

For more than 10 years as the SCHS Director, I worked closely through a partnership with biostatistics faculty members, Dr. Grizzle, Dr. Craig Turnbull, Dr. Mike Symons and several others. It was a tremendous period of continual growth and learning – and one I was most appreciative of – that allowed my staff and I to learn from these industry leaders and work side-by-side with them to strengthen SCHS.

In 1997, I was recruited to join the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where I was catalyst for national improvements in the timeliness, quality, and accessibility of vital and health statistics data. I fully attribute my career success to the education I received from UNC and the mentorship and connections I had with faculty members guided me through my academic program and several years after graduation.

What are some of your favorite memories of UNC or the Gillings School?
I have very fond memories of working on the Minority Health Conference during my student days. At the time, the conference wasn’t as big as it is now – we held it in a small venue at the School and I remember having to convince people to attend. The conference has come a long way since then! These days, every time I attend the conference, I’m always reminded of those early years as a student. The joy of working on the conference with other students was a tremendous experience, and it’s something I’ll always remember.

I also enjoyed serving on the Gillings School’s Public Health Foundation Board. The opportunity to work with other alumni in developing and implementing strategies to strengthen the School was important to me in giving back.

Tell us about the scholarship you created at the Gillings School. What does it mean to you?
I never forgot what UNC has done for me and how all those faculty members helped me along the way. All three times I studied at UNC, I was fortunate to have received scholarships which paid for my education. So when I was thinking about how to give back to the School that did so much for me and my career, my wife, Sherry, and I decided to create the Atkinson Scholarship to support public health students. As a scholarship recipient myself, I know how important and meaningful it was to receive financial support and to have someone care enough to support you and your studies. Sherry and I have enjoyed meeting the recipients of our scholarship over the years at the World of Difference Celebration, and we’ve kept in touch with some of them.

What are you up to nowadays?
I’m enjoying retirement so far! A friend once warned me not to commit to anything the first six months of my retirement, so I have been enjoying traveling and spending a lot of time with my wife. Sherry and I have been on a 15-day cruise to the West Indies and have visited Cuba. We have upcoming travels to Paris and London, Las Vegas, and Miami over the next 4 months.

I’ve started to do some consulting work for a private company on vital and health statistics. I’ve also committed to taking on work with the Durham County Election Board, which will begin to ramp up starting this fall. I’m also very active with my church, serving as a church steward. Working with students in some capacity is something that I will be looking to initiate in the near future.