Chemistry alum to receive 2023 LAS Alumni Humanitarian Award

Dr. Lance Rodewald

Nine alumni from the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences will receive the college’s 2023 annual alumni awards at a celebration in April. They are researchers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and public servants who have had impressive impact on their fields and communities.

Chemistry alumnus Dr. Lance E. Rodewald (BS, '76, chemistry; MS, '84, computer science) will receive the LAS Alumni Humanitarian Award.

Rodewald’s long-time research interest has been improving children’s access to life-saving vaccines. He is a senior advisor to the national immunization program of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and he previously led immunization programs for the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Read the 2023 LAS alumni awards announcement.

In 2018, Dr. Rodewald was retiring from a long, impactful career with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. At the time, he was working as an immunization advisor to the World Health Organization in China. A few months after retiring, he returned to Beijing to continue his work, but this time, within China CDC as a senior advisor to the National Immunization Program.

“I loved the mission, I loved the work, and I loved the people I worked with,” he said. “Coming back to China CDC let me continue in the same mission, protecting people from vaccine preventable diseases and very similar work as WHO, and with a lot of the same people, so it’s just perfect. I’m very fortunate to get to do this. I know I’m fortunate, and I’m very, very lucky.”

Nearly five years and a global pandemic later, Rodewald is nearing his 70th birthday and still going strong in China, bicycling the 20-mile roundtrip daily commute to the office in Beijing to do work he has always had a passion to do.

“Being on the inside of the program you see all the challenges and figure out what can be done,” said Rodewald, who explained that the immunization program in China is very effective at managing vaccinations once a child is enrolled, but there are vaccines that WHO recommends that still aren’t in the program. “So, it’s trying to figure out how to use scientific evidence to get vaccines into the program, so they are a benefit to all children.”

A 1976 Illinois graduate in chemistry, he went on to medical school at SIU in Carbondale, then trained in pediatrics before returning to Illinois, where he completed a Master’s in computer science in 1985 and met his wife, Patricia (Cain) Rodewald (MA, ’84), who was studying art history.

Rodewald moved on to an assistant professorship in medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where he began a deeper dive into the research of preventive medicine. His research led to a visiting scientist role at the U.S. CDC that evolved into a 17-year career in the Immunization Division of CDC, including director of the division from 2000 to 2012.

Dr. Walter Orenstein, former Director of the U.S. National Immunization Program at CDC who worked with Dr. Rodewald, describes him as “a pioneer” in the development of Implementation Science, which encompasses all aspects of the understanding and acceptance of vaccines as well as the logistics and systems for disseminating them.

He said Dr. Rodewald was instrumental in the success of a Childhood Immunization Initiative to more effectively vaccinate children, policy changes that enhanced performance of immunizations, development of a more efficient nationwide vaccine supply system, and implementation of the Vaccines for Children Program that provides free vaccines to children with no health insurance, are on Medicaid, or are Alaska Native/American Indian.

“Quite simply, the world is a better place because of Dr. Rodewald’s work – at many levels – in minimizing the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases,” Dr. Orenstein said.

Dr. R.J. Simonds, director of China Office at the Center for Global Health, worked closely with Dr. Rodewald in China. Together “at ground zero” during the unfolding of COVID-19, Dr. Simonds saw his colleague in action as a public health leader during that crisis and described him as an “exceptional human being” who exhibits kindness, enthusiasm, dedication, collaboration, mentorship, equity, and humility in his day-to-day approach to work and to life.

“I am convinced that a big factor in Lance's many public health achievements can be attributed to his raw and contagious enthusiasm,” Dr. Simonds said. “His tenacious optimism motivates others to overcome seemingly dauntless tasks – from individual challenges such as writing a paper to global challenges such as polio eradication.”

Anna Heng Du with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in China works closely with Dr. Rodewald and the China CDC on the China National Immunization Program. She said Dr. Rodewald’s most notable contribution was initiating a National Immunization Advisory Committee and corresponding Technical Working Groups in the China CDC to carry out evidence-based decision making for immunization expansion.

He has worked extremely hard, she said, to bring his experience and knowledge to the TWGs, contributing important recommendations for technical guidelines that have been officially issued, including guidelines for vaccine schedules for children, new Immunization Operation standards, new guidelines for vaccine safety surveillance and vaccine injury identification, and recommendations regarding off-label use of vaccines.

Du said these actions have strengthened and standardized the vaccine immunization system, so now, every child receives high-quality and standardized immunization services throughout China.

“Dr. Rodewald serves as a tireless and resolute champion of humanitarianism; he has high respect and an enduring belief that science and expertise on vaccines can bring more equitable, healthy, and productive lives to everyone, and he takes seriously the promise of ensuring the well-being of human beings, no matter who and where they are,” Du said.

Totally surprised by this alumni honor, Dr. Rodewald said it is very special coming from Illinois.

“Illinois has meant so much to so many people and opened so many doors and meant so much to me personally. It’s just an amazing place, so I feel really grateful to get an award from Illinois for this work. But it’s work that I just love to do. In a certain sense we are all humanitarians,” he said.