What do you do as a Programme Officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?
I work on the malaria team, which has the ambitious goal of eradicating malaria. We do this by making investments in new programme strategies and new technologies to accelerate the progress towards eradication of the disease. This involves not only grant making, but also strategy development. On the grant making side, my role as a programme officer involves managing the relationship between our grantees and the Gates Foundation: making investments, managing those investments, and ensuring the outcomes are aligned with strategies that will help countries eliminate malaria. Another important part of my job is ensuring we are learning as we go and making decisions based on evidence. Strategy work involves guiding how we invest in surveillance systems that ensure malaria elimination programmes have timely access to the different types of information that can help them make decisions about what to do and where.
How did you get into it?
It's a bit of a long and winding story! Ever since I was a kid I've always wanted to travel and work in different countries. In high school I took a trip with my biology department to the Peruvian Amazon, and it was an eye-opening experience that completely changed how I looked at the world and how I wanted to live my life. I chose to study Comparative Literature and International Studies because I love languages (I speak Spanish, French and some German, but have also studied a bit of Portuguese and Arabic), and it allowed me to study abroad twice. When it came time to look for jobs, I was particularly interested in working on human rights issues, but applied to everything under the sun in Washington, D.C. just to see what I could find. I was fortunate to find a job with Population Services International (PSI), which is a social marketing organisation, and I completely fell in love with public health. At the core, I see working in public health as a way of addressing inequity worldwide; everyone should be able to access the information and services they need to be healthy. Since then, I've worked at the PSI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and in South Sudan for a number of years, and in academia. I've always been drawn to helping programmes can work more effectively and in connecting research findings with their relevance for actual programme operations. I believe having a background in both the technical areas of epidemiology and applied modelling as well as operational, on-the-ground experience made me a competitive applicant for work at the Gates Foundation.
You started by doing an undergrad in Comparative Literature and International Studies at Washington University in St Louis. How do you go from there to a PhD in Epidemiology?
After finishing my undergrad I worked for PSI for four years where I discovered the field of public health. I was lucky to have great guidance from mentors and colleagues early on, and that allowed me to make the most of opportunities to take on roles and challenges with a wide remit and responsibility at a fairly young age. This gave me the chance to really figure out what I do best, and to develop and follow my passions. After working in South Sudan I went back to get a master’s degree in Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine because I wanted to learn some more biology as well as the quantitative skills needed for data analysis. For this particular course, they allowed work experience to be part of the application process (thank goodness). I loved epidemiology, so it was very clear to me once I started down that path that it was what I wanted to do. It also became clear at that point that I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of work in research that I wanted without an advanced degree, so continuing on in academia made sense from that perspective too. During my PhD studies at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute I focused on applied mathematical modelling of malaria. This means understanding the dynamics of how malaria is transmitted, and using simulation modelling to understand the implication of different parts of malaria epidemiology on how well a certain combination of control programmes work in settings like Kenya and Zambia.
What's the situation report on the eradication of malaria?
Over half the world’s population is at risk for malaria infection, and it's found in over 90 countries worldwide. The good news, however, is that there has been a huge increase in funding and major progress in controlling the disease in recent years – the number of malaria cases fell by 18% and the number of deaths fell by 48% between 2000 and 2015. This is due to the increased availability of lifesaving interventions like bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticide to protect people from mosquito bites, diagnostic tests and treatment that works. Now the focus is on the next step, on how we can get down to zero cases. In 2007, Bill and Melinda Gates declared the goal of malaria eradication, and so here at the foundation our malaria strategy is focused on achieving that goal. This includes developing the new tools that will be necessary for countries to reach elimination, because drug-resistance and insecticide-resistance will continue to be a challenge, and many people who are infected do not have symptoms so they are more difficult to find and treat. We also need to figure out new strategies using the tools we do have, to figure out how to accelerate the process towards elimination at a country level and demonstrate that it can work. Essentially, we would like to go where polio is right now – close to eradication, searching the last few cases - and we are currently learning how to get there.
How can people not working in the science field help out with the eradication process?
If you are interested in this topic and starting out your studies now, there are so many different possibilities. You don't only have to study biology to work towards malaria eradication. You can go into economics and work on financing for malaria programmes. You can study communications and help the media better tell the story. You can study statistics and work on data analysis to show the impact of research. I would encourage people to focus on what they like doing, so they can then apply those skills to a topic that they are really passionate about. There is no one "right way" of doing things, no one path that is right or wrong.
What would your advice be to someone who wants to join the Gates Foundation?
I joined the foundation as part of the Global Health Fellows Programme, which is designed to accelerate the careers of high-potential, mid-career global health professionals. It aims to provide leadership and career development to Fellows, but it also brings in new ideas to the foundation. There are currently twelve of us in my cohort and besides malaria we work on health areas like pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases, and discovery and translational sciences. There are many options for working at the foundation in our different offices. There are programmes focusing on US education, global health and other development sectors like agriculture, but a big part of ensuring these programmes work are the positions in finance, contracts, IT, administration, and operations just to name a few, so you can work here with a background in many different fields.
You are halfway through your fellowship. Are you starting to think about what you want to do next?
This is something I have to think about quite a lot, as it is built into my fellowship programme structure! In terms of next steps, I absolutely want to continue in the field of global health, and this programme has provided me with the opportunity to further develop leadership skills and think through what the next steps could be in terms of a global health career. Bill Foege, an epidemiologist who devised the smallpox eradication strategy, gives the advice "don’t have a life plan, have a life philosophy," and I absolutely agree. As long as I am clear about how I want to live my life, and have a clear picture of what I do best, then when I am presented with an opportunity or a choice the decision will hopefully come clear.
If we take a step back, before your PhD, you worked for PSI in South Sudan. What did that entail exactly?
For the majority of the two years I lived in Juba, I was Technical Advisor for HIV/AIDS programmes, later moving to monitoring and evaluation of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and safe water programmes. This involved managing a department and a portfolio of programmes for HIV prevention, care and support across the country. We had a condom social marketing programme focused on making condoms more widely available as well as behaviour change communication campaigns to increase condom use. There was also a peer education programme where we worked with women's groups, youth groups, and the military to train their members to be a resource of information for their peers. As a head of a department I was responsible for the day to day programme operations, developing communications materials, managing our team, and making sure we were on budget, but I also was involved in writing reports and proposals for funding, and supporting the government on technical working groups.
Before that you worked for the head office...
Yes, I was an Associate Programme Manager for the Southern Africa region where I backstopped country platforms in Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa. I was essentially the link between the people who were implementing programmes in the field and the different technical and support departments at headquarters.
There's been a lot of press recently about how we need more women in scientific careers. Do you think there's been advantages or issues to being a woman in your field?
I think that there can be advantages to being a woman in public health. In South Sudan it was easier to have a dialogue with women's groups being a woman myself, for example. However we still have a long way to go overall as a society in terms of getting rid of the wage gap and ensuring equal opportunities for management positions, both of which are still a problem. And in many countries where we work, the gap between men and women in the workplace is even greater. For women in STEM, I see it as part of my responsibility to make sure that the younger generation is exposed to what is out there. When I was younger I didn’t even know what computer science really was or what it could do, and just assumed it was not for me. It was only once I started studying epidemiology that I really saw how computer science, coding, and sciences in general can be powerful but also creative. In elementary and high school I had no idea that that was the case! I volunteer for an organisation called CDI Apps For Good, which works to incorporate technology into school curricula and makes sure that the girls (and boys!) in the groups know that technology and engineering can be an extremely creative field.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I am proud that I have been able to create a career based on something I'm both passionate about and does good in the world, but I’m also proud that I have been able to focus on having a balanced life while still pursuing a career that is global in nature. Family, friends, and the other parts of life that make me complete as a person (I love running, camping and hiking for example) are just as important as work. Not to say that this is easy or that I always get it right. Living in a different place as my family and close friends has been challenging because as humans we all crave connection and we want people to see and understand what we are going through. Balance is even harder when I’m travelling frequently or living far away from the people I care about, but I really make it a point to try to nurture the relationships and to be there as much as I can.
What's the most important lesson you've learned?
When somebody asks you if you're interested in a project, or interested in doing something, it's important to show up and not automatically say no because you doubt yourself or you haven’t done something before. This has allowed me to try a lot of different things in my career that have been extremely rewarding. Having the curiosity, confidence and drive to try new things, to figure things out, and understand that failure is just a part of learning, I think that that's the most important lesson I’ve learned and continue to work on.
Do you think this is a lesson that particularly applies to women?
Absolutely. In fact, there was a research study conducted by researchers at Yale on gender bias against women in science that shows that women are less likely to be recommended for a job or mentoring and are more likely to receive a lower salary than men with the same science qualifications and background. There is also evidence showing that when applying for positions, men tend to be more likely to go for something if they have a few of the qualifications where women think it’s not worth applying unless they have everything listed on the advert. There is a responsibility on everyone’s part to acknowledge and work towards addressing the gender and power imbalances that are still very much present in society. But in this context, having confidence as a woman in your profession is also extremely important. The reality is I've never had all the official qualifications for any of the jobs I've had, and I’m not alone. And in the past when I’ve needed to hire someone for a position, I looked for drive and willingness to learn - you can train someone for any technical skills they may be lacking but these other qualities are more important for success.
What would be your advice to women who would like a career like yours?
Make sure you get as much experience as you can in different settings working with different people, and try to become comfortable with public speaking as soon as you can. Academic degrees are important, as are learning languages but so is life experience. It helps to have this type of broad experience to draw on when you are making decisions at work, and to apply your particular set of skills. For me, I've had experience in admin functions, managing programme operations in developing countries, being an intern at a publishing company, teaching English and Spanish, and with applied mathematical modelling in an academic setting, but in the past few years my main focus area has been malaria. So it's important to have that sort of broad base of experience that you can draw on, as it will help you when your focus narrows farther down the line.
Erin Stuckey | Global Health Fellow | Programme Officer | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Over 10 years' experience
CV in brief
Studied: PhD in Epidemiology from Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute | MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London | BA in Comparative Literature, International Studies, Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis
Previously worked as Technical Advisor; Associate Programme Manager / Senior Programme Assistant, Southern Africa, at Population Services International (PSI)
Languages spoken English, Spanish, French, German
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet on 4 February 2016
Global Health Fellows, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
"I joined the foundation as part of the Global Health Fellows Program, which is designed to accelerate the careers of high-potential, mid-career global health professionals. It aims to provide leadership and career development to Fellows, but it also brings in new ideas to the foundation. There are currently twelve of us in my cohort and besides malaria we work on health areas like pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases, discovery and translational sciences."
En route to Nimule, South Sudan
"This involved managing a department and a portfolio of programmes for HIV prevention, care and support across the country. We had a condom social marketing programme focused on making condoms more widely available as well as behaviour change communication campaigns to increase condom use. There was also a peer education program where we worked with women's groups, youth groups, and the military to train their members to be a resource of information for their peers."
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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