Q&A with Ilene Speizer, PhD
Morghen Philippi, MPH global health concentration student and graduate research assistant for Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Ilene Speizer, PhD, about her global health work and the best advice she's received throughout her career.
What is your role at Gillings?
I am a professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health. I am also a co-lead for the Global Health concentration in the MPH program.
Will you tell us how you got interested in public health and global health?
Realistically, I have been a public health geek all my life. I remember in high school always being the one telling my friends to not smoke or drink too much because it was not good for them. On camping trips, my nickname became “Madame Feu” because I was always wanting to make sure that the fire was completely out before we went to sleep (i.e., preventing the forest fire…).
I got interested in global sexual and reproductive health when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa many, many years ago. I was a high school math teacher as my day job but spent many an hour under the baobab tree talking to my friends and hearing about their sexual and reproductive health concerns. This included worrying about getting a sexually transmitted infection from their husband who had a girlfriend (or two) or their experience with an unintended pregnancy. These conversations motivated me to want to help women, men, and couples to have safe and satisfying sex lives including having children when and if they wanted to. When I finished my Peace Corps experience, I came back to the States and sought out public health programs where I could learn more about sexual and reproductive health programs and research.
Will you tell use more about your Global Health work?
Throughout my career, I have predominately stayed true to working on global sexual and reproductive health issues. I have been fortunate to be able to work on a variety of projects in different contexts which has meant that I have been able to learn from my colleagues with whom I collaborate in each setting. This has included undertaking a study of adolescent and youth sexual behaviors in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and leading evaluations of adolescent and youth programs in Togo and South Africa. As an evaluator, I am often seeking to understand which programs (e.g., family planning or HIV prevention) are the most effective for different populations. This included a large evaluation of urban family planning programming in four countries: Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, and the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Currently, I am leading a project titled Full Access, Full Choice funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on understanding how to support expanded contraceptive method choice for adolescents and youth. The project has a global focus and also focuses on Kenya and Niger. In Kenya we have undertaken primary qualitative data collection to understand young people’s pathways to method choice. In Niger, we have undertaken an assessment of a segmentation counseling strategy using both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods.
What changes do you see happening in the field of global health?
The biggest changes are to move the leadership of the work to our partner organizations that are based in the global south. Strengthening capacity of my counterparts (and of course having them strengthen my capacity as well) is the most rewarding part of my job and if I am successful, I will put myself out of work!
What is some of the best advice you have received throughout your career?
Listen and learn.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I like to read, walk my dog, spend time with my family, and hang out at Cat Cafes (wink, wink).*
*Ilene is a co-owner of the Cat Tales Cat Café in Chapel Hill.