Distinguished Professors Spotlight: Drs. Kimberly Johnson and Chris Beyrer

Duke University has awarded Distinguished Professorships to six faculty members from the Department of Medicine. Over the next few weeks, join us in recognizing the new Department of Medicine Distinguished Professors as we spotlight two faculty members each week. This week’s Spotlight is on Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH, internationally recognized epidemiologist and director of the Duke Global Health Institute, and Dr. Kimberly Johnson, a nationally recognized leader and researcher on health equity and how best to address it.


Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH
Infectious Diseases
Gary Hock Distinguished Professor in Global Health 

Q: Tell us about your clinical, academic, or research interest and why you are passionate about this topic or area of focus. 

Dr. Beyrer:  In the 1980s, I was a medical student in Brooklyn, New York, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to ravage the city and its people.  It would take another decade, till 1996, before we had effective antiviral therapy.  By then, I’d finished my training at Johns Hopkins, joined the faculty, and was serving as the field director for the NIH funded PAVE (Preparation for AIDS Vaccine Evaluations) program in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. 

In the US and in Europe, people were living through the “Lazarus effect,” when patients started on ARVs literally rose off their deathbeds and returned to life, to work, to health.  But in Southeast Asia and in Africa, where I also worked from 1997 on, there was virtually no access. 

Addressing the HIV epidemic as an epidemiologist, prevention scientist and as a member of both the HIV Vaccine Trial Network and the HIV Prevention Trial Networks never felt like a choice—it was an imperative.

Decades later, when the COVID-19 epidemic was underway, the HVTN quickly pivoted to conducting COVID-19 vaccine trials—another imperative, and it was an honor to have served as Senior Scientific Liaison for the Co-VPN and to have worked on the multiple trials the network conducted to deliver safe and effective vaccines.

Q: Who has influenced you the most in life and why? 

Dr. Beyrer: I had the great good fortune to have worked closely with a true visionary leader for social justice, human rights, and equality:  His Grace, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Tutu lived and breathed a radical inclusivity which excluded no one from the circle of care, concern, or compassion.

I worked for him on health and human rights conflicts in Zimbabwe, in Burma/Myanmar, and across Africa on LGBTQ+ rights, and on the rights of prisoners and detainees to health care—what later became the Mandela Rules. It was the signature honor of my career when the Arch (as he preferred to be called) accepted to have the first Chair in Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins named in his honor. 

The Arch taught me many precious lessons but perhaps the most fundamental is that the struggle for human dignity never ends, but there is no more important work to do.


Kimberly S. Johnson, MD, MHS
Brenda E. Armstrong, MD Distinguished Professor 

Q:Tell us about your clinical, academic, or research interest and why you are passionate about this topic or area of focus.

Dr. Johnson: I am passionate about reducing disparities and improving equitable health care delivery for historically marginalized populations, particularly those from minoritized racial and ethnic backgrounds. My research has always been informed by my observations of the health care experienc of patients and families. Early on, I became interested in ways to improve end-of-life care for African Americans. That work led to a series of studies to understand why African American patients used hospice care, which has been shown to improve end-of-life care quality, at lower rates than White patients. I was not only interested in patient-level factors (beliefs, preferences) but also provider (referral patterns) and organizational factors (outreach to communities, social supports).

I believe that our health care system has an obligation to develop policies and programs that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population, with a focus on those who are at greatest risk of poor outcomes. My focus on disparities in end-of-life care was foundational to more recent work leading REACH Equity, a research, education and training program which focuses on developing and testing interventions to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in patient-centered care in the clinical encounter across diseases, settings of care, and throughout the life course. Although I am a geriatrician and palliative care physician, the work of REACH Equity recognizes that many factors influencing equitable care delivery are broadly applicable.

Q: Who has influenced you the most in life and why? 

Dr. Johnson: I think that the person who has had the greatest influence in my life is my father.  My father was killed when I was a freshman in college. He always wanted me to become a physician although I was not always convinced that medicine was the path for me. My mother is convinced that my choice of career was based on a desire to honor his memory. She may be right.

Some of the things that I remember most about him were his advocacy for fairness, belief that we are all called to leave the world better than we found it, and willingness to go the extra mile to help others. He loved the song, If I Can Help Somebody [If I can help somebody, as I travel along, If I can help somebody with a word or song…No, my living shall not be in vain]. I view my research, clinical care, and mentorship as an opportunity to improve equity, help others, and positively change a little piece of the world.

Q: What do you feel is your most significant professional contribution(s) to the field of medicine?

Dr. Johnson: My  research has served to call attention to inequities in end-of-life care for African Americans. The most valuable contribution of the work has been to increase interest among other investigators. I am excited to see the growing number of studies in an area where there was little research when I started.

REACH Equity has provided a similar opportunity. The Center has created a home for health equity investigators across the institution and provided funding, research education, training, and mentorship to support health disparities research. We have supported over 60 investigators, including students, trainees, junior faculty, and senior investigators.

As I think of my most significant professional contribution, I don’t think of a single research project or finding but rather the extent to which I have been able to help support and mentor a village of others who are also passionate about equity and working to reduce disparities. Given the pervasiveness of health inequities, it will take a village to make significant progress.