Jeff ko '95
Distinguished Alumni



Dr. Jeff Ko '95: Protecting Public Health

by Elaine Barnes

Coordinator, Alumni and Donor Communications


"It goes back to the reason why I joined Merck in the beginning – the opportunity to make a positive impact in society. In this case, it’s really through the health care and the medicine and vaccines that we provide, and them improving and protecting lives."

Possessing only an elementary education, the parents of Dr. Jeff Ko ’95 understood and instilled the importance of education in their beloved son from the very beginning. At only 10 years old, they brought him to America, hopeful of the opportunities it would allow him. Unable to speak a word of English, Dr. Ko approached his future like a sponge, generously soaking up every piece of knowledge he could. But he also knew the deciding factor of what career he would pursue rested on one thing alone: the ability to positively impact others.


Fast forward through a dedicated, fulfilling, over 20-year career with Merck – one of the world’s leading global biopharmaceutical companies – Dr. Ko now finds himself doing just that. And it’s all happening in the midst of the most significant attack on global public health in the past century: the COVID-19 pandemic.




After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Dr. Ko passionately continued this field of study, earning his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University. “I obtained my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering,” he explained, “and at the time, I was very fortunate to have several [career] opportunities to choose from, and I chose Merck because of its mission of improving and saving lives.”


Becoming the Vice President of Global Vaccines Operations at Merck was not a position achieved easily, however. Dr. Ko worked diligently over many years, uprooting his life multiple times to serve with Merck in several countries across multiple continents – an experience that he is extremely appreciative of. The ability to grow his career within the company and transform from a more technical role to an operational one is something Dr. Ko is extremely grateful for. But he has learned from the experience that working in vaccines is not for the faint of heart.


“Vaccines have been one of the greatest impacts on public health,” Dr. Ko highlighted, “and if you look at statistics according to WHO, their impact on reducing human mortality is second only to safe drinking water.” Vaccines differ from medication because their focus zeroes in on disease prevention instead of symptom treatment. “You think about the outbreaks of the past before the COVID event, right? You have Smallpox, Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Yellow Fever, Whooping Cough and Measles.  These are all just some of the examples of how vaccines play a role in either eradicating or near elimination of those infectious diseases. That’s the hope [with COVID-19],” he detailed.


Dr. Ko’s passion for public health is undeniable, and you can sense genuine enthusiasm when he explains the pivotal role that Merck is taking in the world’s health. He celebrated the collaborative behavior of everyone involved in the effort against COVID-19, stating, “The breadth and depth of collaboration across the scientific community is truly inspiring, all focusing on the singular goal. There’s multiple academic, government agencies, as well as private and public companies all working together. In the past, people were so keen on protecting the IP on discovery of the compound as well as the publication rights. But this whole event brought everyone together in a very different way, all working towards solving the current public health crisis.”


The challenge presented with vaccine manufacturing, however, rests in the complexity and natural variability of biological systems. Dr. Ko explained that it’s a complex and lengthy process based on those biologic systems instead of being chemically derived or through chemical reactions. “A perfect example is if you have kids … I have three kids, and they all have the same gestation period of approximately 9 months. But one could be born two feet long, one is born weighing eight pounds or one is seven pounds. The point is, even though the process is well controlled, the outcome is variable and at times unpredictable” Dr. Ko explained.


Meeting the necessary global demands of vaccinations is another challenge Dr. Ko plays a key role in overcoming. Specifically, he is responsible for building Merck’s supply chain capability for providing the vaccine Gardasil/Gardasil 9, which prevents HPV-related cancers and diseases. “Globally, one out of approximately 20 cancers are HPV-related, and we have a vaccine that’s able to prevent a cancer. But yet, we cannot make enough of it to meet the global demand. So that’s the challenge I’m working on, improving assets and capabilities to be able to meet a global demand,” he stated.


Seeing firsthand the personal impact that vaccines have played in protecting his own family, Dr. Ko remains steadfast in his mission. “What gets me out of bed every morning is the fact that my kids and so many others around the world are taking the vaccines and medicines that we manufacture,” he insisted. “It goes back to the reason why I joined Merck in the beginning – the opportunity to make a positive impact in society. In this case, it’s really through the health care and the medicine and vaccines that we provide, and them improving and protecting lives.”


It’s a rewarding and admirable career that is needed now more than ever. Dr. Ko insists that its heroic mission doesn’t make it an unattainable career, so long as you stand firm in the foundational belief of serving others. Reflecting back on his time as a young boy, first-generation American, unsure of the path he would take in life, he encouraged current Javelina students to believe in their ability to leave a legacy on this world. “It’s never one-size-fits-all. Follow your own personal true north, and don’t forget to invest and reinvent yourself. Life is full of learning opportunities, and I am grateful for the solid foundation that TAMUK enabled me.” He concluded, “Where you start is not going to define where you end.”