Meet Allysha Choudhury, PhD student in Maternal and Child Health

Morghen Philippi, graduate research assistant for Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Allysha Choudhury about her previous global health work, her interests in implementation science, and her hopes for the field of global health.

Allysha Choudhury

What was your background before enrolling in the PhD program at Gillings?

During my undergraduate studies, I majored in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan. My initial exposure to public health began during an undergraduate internship in Bangladesh with an organization called BRAC, where I supported data collection and analysis on a novel health insurance program in rural Rangpur, Bangladesh. After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a Program Associate in Blantyre, Malawi with the Rice 360 Global Health Institute on program implementation and M&E of a low-cost CPAP technology used to treat neonates with respiratory conditions in government hospitals.

Then I began my master’s in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. During my master’s program, I was interested in studying quantitative methodologies in epidemiology, but also its relevant application to programmatic research. After completing my master’s, I worked at UNICEF as a Statistics Officer on the Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health (MNCAH) team. I managed and visualized MNCAH data and statistics, particularly in the context of global health progress monitoring and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), before deciding to pursue a doctoral degree at the UNC Gillings SPH.

Why did you choose to pursue your degree at Gillings?

I decided to come to Gillings for a couple of reasons. Through ongoing research projects, publications, and school initiatives, it was apparent that the school had a strong portfolio in implementation science and research globally. Additionally, UNC is known for its robust quantitative and qualitative methods training, which is also something that drew me to the school given my interest in implementation science methodology. I also have loved the Triangle Area and always felt at home here when I would visit my sister during her graduate studies (and according to her, I “copied” her life in typical little sister fashion by choosing the doctoral program here)!

What or who first sparked your interest in Global Health?

My first interest in what we call global health started from a young age. Being Bangali-American, frequent trips to my motherland of Bangladesh showed me stark class inequities in health outcomes. Growing up, my connection to Bangladesh continued to strengthen – witnessing the progress the country made despite all odds motivated me to contribute to my motherland with what little skills I could offer. Later on, working with Bangladeshi-led organizations was inspirational and demonstrated the importance of local representation in leadership, cultural humility, and engaging with the populations that we are serving in public health, thus solidifying my interest in the field.

You have chosen to minor in Implementation Science. Can you tell us more about Implementation Science and how you see it informing your future global health work?

Implementation Science is often defined as the scientific study of methods and strategies that promote uptake of research and evidence-based practice into regular use by practitioners and policymakers. It aims to address the all-too-familiar gap of research and systematic practice – with the millions of dollars that are invested in public health programs globally, it is imperative to understand how to implement programs effectively and what factors and strategies can be used to improve implementation. I witnessed the importance of implementation science firsthand when I worked as a program associate for a CPAP program in Malawi – for example, we would test the impact of implementation strategies such as mentorship for hospital staff on implementation outcomes, and observed the major effect that structural factors such as power outages and staff rotations would have on program outcomes. This piqued my interest in the area of implementation science in global health.

Implementation science and research is necessary for global health because we often see programs deteriorate after researchers pack their bags and leave. Though it is complicated and not always straightforward, we must do our due diligence as public health professionals in understanding the context, multi-level and dynamic factors, and systems that influence the programs that we are studying or implementing. Implementation science done well will inherently and continuously engage key stakeholders like the implementers and recipients of programs themselves, and discourage parachute research or implementation. I believe that increasingly, the global health “community” is realizing the importance of implementation science and the necessity of addressing the reality of the complex systems that health programs operate in.

What are your hopes for the future of Global Health?

Some days I’m incredibly optimistic about the field, and other days I can’t help but think that existing power structures will continue to dominate the direction and priorities of global health. As we saw last summer in the wake of the George Floyd murder, conversations around racism have sparked global movements that are forcing a reckoning with inequitable representation and power dynamics in many fields, including global health.

Across most organizations and universities, we don’t see leadership that reflects the diverse populations that they are serving (or researching). We are also witnessing the vast inequities in global vaccine distribution and access during the COVID pandemic that are reflecting the priorities and philosophies of a select few that have a disproportionate influence on global health organizations and leadership.

However at the same time, people in the Global North are becoming increasingly aware of how the field of global health cannot be decoupled from histories of colonization and imperialism, and linking this to the power structures that drive much of global health work and priorities today. Though it is long overdue, I think that these discussions are finally happening now in a somewhat meaningful way, including in universities and organizations that work in global health. So, that gives me hope that the field is moving in a positive and more just direction.

If you could have one superpower, what would you pick and why?

This will sound so basic, but as a child I always wanted the power to turn into different animals (inspired by the Animorphs book series). But now I question that superpower, because what if I turned into a lizard for fun but then had a lizard brain that was only concerned with basking in the sun and eating bugs? Then I wouldn’t be able to turn back into a human. But then again maybe life would be better as a lizard? Ugh, this question is too deep for me.