Alumna Colleen Kraft ’81, a pediatrician and immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is a courageous and compassionate children’s health advocate.
Colleen Kraft—a leading authority in the world of pediatrics and 1981 Virginia Tech chemistry alumna—practices medicine with a healthy dose of Ut Prosim.
Kind and charismatic with patients and families, she’s also a forceful advocate when fighting for their welfare. Kraft made headlines last year as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for bringing public attention to the toxic stress experienced by migrant children separated from their families in U.S.-Mexico border detention facilities—a policy reversed by the administration a week later. She also emerged as a powerful voice against the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes to youths—taking the FDA to task for falling short in its efforts.
As president of the Virginia Chapter of the AAP from 2006-08, she was best known for lobbying the legislature to improve Medicaid payment rates for pediatric services.
“The greatest reward is seeing progress made in the general public recognizing the inherent value of children,” Kraft said. “Virginia Tech was my foundation for science, problem-solving, innovation, and service. My career has been remarkable because I have had the privilege to work in a profession that uses science to promote innovation through service and solutions.”
Kraft was a child herself when she zeroed in on her future career. While attending Head Start as a preschooler, a teacher observed that Kraft was “smart enough to be a doctor”—and her fate was sealed. Her interest in chemistry can be traced to afternoons in the lab and elementary school science programs at the University of Akron while her father, James McGrath, completed his Ph.D.
“These early experiences set the foundation for my love of science, experimentation, patterns, and inquiry,” she said.
The McGrath family moved to Blacksburg in 1975 for her father’s job at Virginia Tech, where he founded the polymer chemistry program and later became University Distinguished Professor and Ethyl Corp. Professor of Chemistry. Kraft applied early decision to Virginia Tech, earned her degree in chemistry in 1981, and went on to the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine) in 1982.
“My Virginia Tech chemistry education taught me to critically think through problems and work collaboratively—and not competitively—with others to find solutions,” Kraft said. “This solutions-focused work value was so apparent with my fellow medical school classmates from Virginia Tech. There was a practical approach to applying anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology to patient symptoms and diagnoses that could be directly traced to my experiences with (chemistry professors) Tom Ward, Richard Turner, Jim Wolfe, and Mike Ogliaruso.”
After medical school and a pediatric residency at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kraft practiced primary care pediatrics in Richmond for 20 years. She returned to her alma mater in 2009 as founding director of the pediatric residency training program for the new Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM).
“My Virginia Tech chemistry education taught me to critically think through problems and work collaboratively—and not competitively—with others to find solutions.”
“Starting this program is one of my proudest accomplishments,” Kraft said. “The residency will soon be graduating its fifth class, and many of our graduates are caring for children in the Roanoke and New River Valley area.” Kraft left VTCSOM in 2014 to join the faculty at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, serving as medical director of a pediatric population health initiative while also earning her MBA at the University of Cincinnati. She was elected president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018.
“During the period of the most intense advocacy for the refugee children, Colleen was tenacious and tireless,” said Mark DelMonte, interim CEO of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “She remained focused on the welfare of the children, and her vision never wavered. She is a gifted, disciplined media spokesperson because of her authenticity as a pediatrician and clarity of her voice. As a leader, she is a keen listener and coalition builder."
Those characteristics were on display May 18 when Kraft returned to Virginia Tech as the Department of Chemistry’s commencement speaker. She earned a standing ovation as she described her work as AAP president highlighting the dangerous developmental effects of separating children from their families at the border.
“Science provides that North Star of truth in an age where scientific information is challenged by oceans of misinformation,” she told the graduates. “You will have the privilege to work in a profession that uses science to promote innovation through service and solutions.”
Kraft’s interactions with the audience continued long after the ceremony, as people approached her seeking advice and giving thanks.
“Dr. Kraft has enjoyed an outstanding career with an emphasis on community service and health,” said Jim Tanko, professor and past chair of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Science. “She is an outstanding role model for our students, clearly showing how someone with a degree in science can positively and profoundly impact the world in which we live.”
Written by Marya Barlow.