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Conversations with the Director: Kate Curtis

June 6, 2012

Sticking to Science

Kate Curtis PhD

Kate Curtis, PhD, is the latest CDC staffer to sit down and chat with CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, in his monthly initiative, Conversations with the Director. Photo by Kathy Nellis Chastney

Kate Curtis, PhD, is the latest CDC staffer to sit down and chat with CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, in his monthly initiative, Conversations with the Director.

For Curtis, an epidemiologist with the Division of Reproductive Health, it was “a fun experience, but also a huge honor to be able to spend an hour in interesting conversation with our director.”

Curtis began her career at CDC as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer in 1996 in the Division of Reproductive Health, after receiving her PhD in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina. Her work focuses on contraceptive safety and effectiveness, the development of evidence-based contraceptive guidance, and the prevention of unintended pregnancy.

She has provided technical assistance to the World Health Organization for over 15 years and leads the activity that is responsible for providing the evidence base for WHO’s global family planning guidance. More recently, Curtis has led the CDC effort to adapt the WHO guidance for use in the United States, including the US Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use, 2010, and the forthcoming US Selected Practice Recommendations for Contraceptive Use.

Her main areas of research are contraceptive safety, effectiveness, and provision.

Curtis and Frieden discussed a broad range of reproductive health concerns, from the safety and use of IUDs right after pregnancy to their cost around the world. They covered issues such as tubal ligation and cultural expectations. For example, in some countries a woman does not want to tell her husband if she is using contraception. In other places, access to contraception can be challenging. Another consideration is access to healthcare providers, to put contraception into place. For a woman to receive an IUD or diaphragm, she must have a pelvic exam first. If she’s getting combined hormonal contraception (that is, a contraceptive method that contains the hormones estrogen and a progestin), she needs a blood pressure screening. Those conditions can present challenges for women who don’t have easy access to health care services.

Kate Curtis

Curtis’ work focuses on contraceptive safety and effectiveness, the development of evidence-based contraceptive guidance, and the prevention of unintended pregnancy. Photo by Kathy Nellis Chastney

Curtis, who started her career studying endocrinology, is passionate about these kinds of issues. They are part of the reason she chose a career in public health. “I’ve always been interested in social justice and human rights. Family planning work, both domestically and globally, can be very challenging but also hugely gratifying.”

Frieden expressed the hope that the world can make more progress in preventing teen pregnancy—and the two were off again, diving into a discussion of a shift to long-acting contraception that are highly effective and do not require any ongoing action by the women, such as IUDs and contraceptive implants. They also talked about cultural differences in discussing sex and reproduction. “The dialogue in Europe is very different,” said Frieden. “There, it is bizarre to have sex without talking about contraception first.”

Curtis and Frieden talked about how, in today’s political climate, controversy over contraception has been striking over the last few months. They say it is important for people in the United States and around the world to know there are many methods of contraception and that providing counseling and access to the full range of available contraceptive methods is urgently needed.

“What we need to tell people is what works and what is safe,” says Curtis. “And we always need to stick to the science.”


Curtis grew up in Montana but left the west to attend Middlebury College in Vermont as a pre-med student. By the time she reached grad school she knew public health and CDC were where she wanted to be. EIS was a perfect fit, she says, where she was able to combine her interests in reproductive health, research, and translation of research into practical guidance that can be used by healthcare providers.

She is married and has an 8-year old daughter. Curtis enjoys spending time with family and friends.

Reproductive Health

Kate Curtis

Curtis (left) during a visit to a family planning clinic in Fiji, as part of a workshop to adapt the WHO contraceptive guidance in South Pacific countries.

CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health is the focal point for issues related to women’s and men’s reproductive concerns. The Division’s activities and programs provide support to organizations and institutions, as well as providers and consumers, across the US and around the world.

DRH is a part of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. DRH has about 140 employees, including several maternal and child health epidemiologists and research professionals in the field.

Safe motherhood begins before conception with proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle and continues with appropriate prenatal care and the prevention and treatment of complications when possible. The ideal result is a full-term pregnancy without unnecessary interventions, the delivery of a healthy infant, and a healthy postpartum period in a positive environment that supports the physical and emotional needs of the woman, infant, and family. To enhance the ability of others to identify and address male and female reproductive issues and infant health issues, DRH provides technical assistance, consultation, and training worldwide. To better understand the burden of maternal complications and mortality and to decrease disparities among populations at risk of death and complications from pregnancy, DRH supports national and state-based surveillance systems to monitor trends and investigate health issues; conducts epidemiologic, behavioral, demographic, and health services
research; and works with partners to translate research findings into health care practice, public health policy, and health promotion strategies.

Core Functions

  • Surveillance: Monitor the burden of disease, risk factors, preventive services, and other associated factors.
  • Research: Support health research that contributes to effective, evidence-based and informed public health practices, programs, and policies.
  • Science to Practice: Develop and implement strategies that ensure scientific research is applied through effective public health programs, practices, and policies.
  • Strategic Partnerships: Develop and leverage partnerships to move science to practice.
  • Capacity Building, Preparedness, and Response: Assist agencies and organizations to develop their capacity to implement surveillance, research, best practices, and respond during disasters and outbreaks.
  • Technical and Operational Support: Develop efficient internal processes, operations, communications, and systems to better serve the public.

Learn more here: Reproductive Health.

This Inside Story by Kathy Nellis Chastney.