Five Questions with Karar Zunaid Ahsan

Karar Zunaid Ahsan is hungry for more than low-hanging fruit.

Name: Karar Zunaid Ahsan
Position: Doctoral student, Department of Maternal and Child Health (with a public policy minor)
Time at UNC: I have worked with the Carolina Population Center since 2012, but I became a UNC Gillings student in 2016.

 

Zunaid takes in the view with his wife, Rashida, during a recent road trip to Great Falls, Virginia. (The couple met in college; they've been married for 15 years.)

Zunaid takes in the view with his wife, Rashida, during a recent road trip to Great Falls, Virginia. (The couple met in college; they’ve been married for 15 years.)

What I do at the Gillings School (and why I love it): I was trained in econometrics and statistics before transitioning to public health. Now, I do monitoring and evaluation (M&E) work with MEASURE Evaluation. In a previous role, I was tasked with monitoring the health sector in Bangladesh, which required me to create an M&E system from the ground up and report to the government on which initiatives were and were not helping. I learned that, in resource-constrained countries, there tend to be lots of data but no triangulation between data points such as patient registries, survey results and organizational budgets. What I do is connect those data points, use them to create stories and share those stories to inform government policy.

I always wanted to be a scientist, but I hated the thought of being confined to a lab. What I love about my work now is that I can be out and about in the effort to help governments transition from always putting their public health resources into policies that focus only on “low-hanging fruits,” or the problems that seem easiest to address. Health inequities are widening because these policies tend to focus on big cities. I look at tiny, rural villages, instead. Some policymakers say they are unreachable, but I notice that their stores are stocked with Coke and Pepsi products. If those companies can reach these places, why can’t we ensure the availability of vaccines and essential medicines?

 

Before coming to UNC Gillings: I traveled all around the world. I’ve been to every continent except South America; I think I love Australia most because it is so serene. I mean, it’s an entire continent with only two million people! You can sit and be alone for a while. I have two sons who are nine and eleven years old, so a bit of peace is very valuable to me!

 

My biggest interest in public health: is finding gaps and bridging them. In one instance in Bangladesh, this was as simple as getting funding for community health workers to use motorboats instead of motorbikes to reach certain villages. I believe that meaningful progress centers on changing the umbrella approach to public health that is so common in the mindset of many policymakers. One centralized intervention just won’t work as well as a culturally informed, multi-pronged approach to address regional variations.

 

If I could choose one superpower: I’d pick echolocation, like the bats (or Daredevil!). I always lose my things, and finding stuff remotely with this gift would be really useful.

 

Something my colleagues might not guess: is that photography is a passion of mine. I’m teaching both my sons about it – about the sheer magic of light and shadow – and we sometimes take road trips just to find good spots to photograph. I’m a bit more whimsical than my colleagues might believe, since they always see me doing such structured work. But, when one decides at 38 years old to get a doctoral degree, well, it says something. I just needed to do something for myself, something that excited me in new ways. I suppose I’ve been following that drive ever since I terrified my parents back home in Bangladesh by dropping my business administration studies to become a research assistant.

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