Q&A with Deshira Wallace, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
Morghen Philippi, MPH global health concentration student and graduate research assistant for Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Dr. Deshira Wallace about her work, her career trajectory, and the most pressing issues in Global Health.
Will you tell us a bit about your current role(s)?
I am a 2nd-year postdoctoral fellow under the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. My academic home is the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. I am also affiliated postdoc at the Carolina Population Center’s Population Training Program.
How have you navigated your career so far in global health?
I had never heard of global health until I went to undergrad. At the time, I thought of it as an interesting way to think of the interconnectedness of health across the globe, including the United States. After a few years working in environmental policy, I enrolled in graduate school at the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Health Behavior. During my PhD training I had the ability to work with great faculty, like Dr. Clare Barrington, and amazing student-colleagues in the department who, like me, were from Latin America. However, as I gained expertise and attended conferences or was invited to conduct global health-related work, I noticed how white the space was and felt. I was and continue to be confused about how a field that is often focused on non-white spaces, and can certainly attract people from all over the world, remains not just white, but heavily from the U.S., western Europe, and Australia. I remember going to a federally-sponsored conference on Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean in Washington D.C., and of the 100 participants only 4 of us were from Latin America and I was the only non-White person. It felt odd that we were talking about issues that affected an entire region, and yet people from these areas were not participating in the conversation. This was also the case in nonprofit and academic spaces, where their experts were often White people. The issue is not about developing pipelines so that the global health workforce (especially those in leadership) reflects the global majority. I truly believe there are more than enough of us for that not to be a barrier. I think the issue boils down to the culture of global health. Global health as a field needs to contend with its colonial past and actively rectify those colonial tendencies to ensure the space is one that is equitable for everyone. When I am in the room that claims to focus on global health, I scan it, and ask who’s missing? Whose perspectives are missing and how can we do better? This change requires collective change from those currently in leadership and all of us in the field.
What do you see as the most pressing issues in global health?
As a researcher interested in chronic disease prevention and management, I am inclined to mentioned chronic disease. However, I believe the most pressing issue is governance. Local, subnational, national and international governance influences health policy, access, and ultimately outcomes. I had the privilege to work on a project examining impact of the Zika outbreak on health systems and families in Latin America and the Caribbean. What I learned then, and what I am seeing now with the COVID-19 pandemic, is that strong, organized governments are essential. Access to care, health communication, stockpiling supplies for emergencies, and maintaining quality care procedures all require coordination across levels of the government. Improving governance will improve population health.
What advice do you have for students just entering the field of global health?
Really interrogate your own interests and positionality in the field. Specifically, why do you want to work in specific countries or communities? What led you to make that decision and what do you need to learn or unlearn to be a thoughtful global health practitioner or researcher? Also keep in mind that each county, region, city, town and community is multi-layered. Therefore, do not hinge your understanding of a place or its people based on numbers or even peer-reviewed studies. I encourage students to read novels, poems, watch movies and documentary, and engage in the creative works from those communities to get a better sense of the people behind epidemiological trends. I also love history, so I suggest reading pieces (or watching movies) from different historical periods so that you can gain some understanding of how certain situations happened – because health disparities do not just appear by accident, they were engineered over time. Essentially do a lot self-reflection and think broadly about a variety of information you can engage with to prepare you for this field.
If you could eat dinner with any fictional character, whom would you choose and why?
Storm from X-Men. She is one of my favorite characters of all time. Her story is super complex, and as a seriously powerful person, who happens to be a mutant, had to learn to navigate both friendly and un-friendly environments. I think we would have a lot to talk about over dinner!