Navigating Non-traditional Global Health Careers

Do you remember your dream grown-up job when you were young? Likely very few of us imagined ourselves growing up to be a “Global Communications Specialist” or a “Health Informatics Analyst.” The path to our dream job is, more often than not, non-linear. It’s two steps back, three steps forward, a zig and a zig and few good curveballs to keep us on our toes.

Discovering our role in changing the world is not easy. The good news is we don’t have to go it alone. As a diverse and multigenerational global network of leaders, the Global Health Corps (GHC) community promotes collaboration and mentorship. We rely on, learn from, and support each other as we grow and use our unique strengths to collectively promote a common vision of health equity.

A visual depiction of the GHC network.

GHC is committed to facilitating opportunities for members of our community to come together to reflect on and practice leadership. The GHC Advisor Program makes it simple for fellows and alumni to engage with senior professionals. More than 130 experts on the program roster represent a wide range of areas of expertise, academic and professional experiences, and geographic distribution. Fellows and alumni can connect with GHC Advisors to ask for professional guidance, such as input on a technical issue, advice on advanced degree programs, or help with career planning. The short-term and flexible nature of these interactions make it easy for advisors and advisees to connect about real-time challenges and to explore professional interests and career paths.

Like our fellows and alumni, GHC advisors play both traditional and non-traditional roles in the global health equity movement. Our own Jess Wahlstrom recently had a chance to check in with GHC advisors Dianne Sherman and Michael Niyitegeka about their respective global health contributions in the fields of communications and technology.

Left: Michael Niyitegeta / Right: Dianne Sherman

Dianne, you founded and currently run your own communications firm. What is that like and how did you land there?

Dianne: I am all about achieving positive, lasting results. I have helped shape and lead successful campaigns that raised awareness among key constituencies, changed public opinion and policy, and generated financial support for life-saving programs. My work has focused on maternal and newborn health, gender equity, protection of women and children in humanitarian settings, climate change, and ocean conservation. I also enjoy the dynamic process of campaign planning — working with a wide range of people, partner organizations and missions to develop clear and unified goals, core messages and key activities.

Michael, you work in the somewhat elusive field of ICT. What is your job and why did you decide to take it?

Michael Niyitegeka: I am the Consultant Program Director for the Applied ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Program at the International Health Sciences University in Uganda. My primary function in my current role is to provide overall leadership on the program. I am involved in the program development and delivery to an extent. Over time I have found myself more in partnership engagements because it is in working with partners that we better understand the requirements and opportunities as well as the challenges being addressed.

Taking on this current role to me was more of an opportunity to respond to the challenges that I had encountered in my previous role as a university lecturer where I thought that our approach to education was out of touch with the challenges society is currently facing. Specifically, on the innovation scene, I noted that a number of the ideas that our students were developing seemed to lack the response to challenges of the day. This role was a white slate for me to write my own story and build it. I am glad that it is beginning to bear fruit.

What do you love most about the work that you are doing?

Michael: Working with young innovators who are passionate about building solutions and using technology to solve health challenges is exciting. What I love most about my current role is the ability to interact and work with young innovators in a manner that enables to respond to the challenges of society irrespective of position. Seeing the students on the program grow, being able to lead themselves to greater opportunities brings a lot of joy. Over the last 18 months I have seen three of the (student) teams access funding for their ideas, that to me is simply amazing. Most importantly is that these ideas are addressing challenges of the day facing the health sector in Uganda. All these ideas have all be prototyped and now in deployment stage.

Dianne: I am all about achieving positive, lasting results. I have helped shape and lead successful campaigns that raised awareness among key constituencies, changed public opinion and improved policy, and generated financial support for life-saving programs. My work has focused on maternal and newborn health, gender equity, protection of women and children in conflict and humanitarian settings, climate change, and ocean conservation. I also enjoy the dynamic process of campaign planning — working with a wide range of people, partner organizations and missions to develop clear and unified goals, core messages and key activities.

At the beginning of your career, did you plan to work in global health?

Dianne: Not precisely, but I knew I was interested in making positive social change, and I always gravitated toward communications, advocacy and global issues. I came to Washington, DC for college and majored in Political Science, I switched to Mass Communications after two years, and eventually went to graduate school in Foreign Service. I began my career working on a range of domestic issues, honing my skills in management, research and communications. About a decade later I found myself leading a large and diverse coalition of NGOs as part of the UN International Conference on Population and Development. All my professional experience since then has been working on global issues.

Michael: My career path has been evolutionary, I do not think that global health had even crossed my mind as a student. I studied B.A. Organizational Studies and Philosophy and went to do an MBA. I later got an opportunity to teach in the IT (Information Technology) Faculty at Makerere University. That is where my love for technology came to light. My passion was more to the application of technology in solving the challenges in our society. As I worked with more students, I noticed that a number of them were working on issues related to health. As a mentor I had only one choice and that was to inform myself, make myself of better value to those that I mentor. I have since then been involved in a number of global health issues largely from a technology application side.

Why are nontraditional fields — like communications and technology — critical to the health equity movement?

Michael: Working with young innovators to build ICT-enabled health solutions is enabling communities to access health services. I have seen some of the solutions that we have developed deployed in communities and these are enabling better decisions. They enable leap frogging of communities in enabling access to better health services and hence outcomes. In countries like Uganda where access to medical services and professionals remains a challenge, it is important that alternative approaches are developed. Technology has presented that opportunity and is enabling innovators to address these challenges. Take the example of the capability of mobile applications that enable early diagnosis. I am currently working with a team developing critical care platform that was born out of the realization that there are no more than five ICU specialists for the whole country. The platform will enable the doctors to have visibility of the patients in critical conditions. If this is implemented we will be able to have other specialists to deliver services. This will enable us to leapfrog (i.e. jump the stages of progress in the medical space). Technology as such enables us the ability to provide services to wider communities than what was previously possible.

Technology is an equalizer. I have seen communities’ access health services enabled by technology. We are witnessing non-conventional tools that are enabling early diagnostics and access to medicines, among others.

Dianne: Unfortunately, surveys show that global health and development have very limited support among the public in the US and other major donor nations such as the UK, France and Germany. In order to maintain and build US global leadership and funding in both the public and private sectors, it’s imperative to tell our story in ways that will strengthen awareness and support for the work we do, especially now when nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric is so prevalent. Policymakers, the media, donors, the educated public need to hear from us in ways that are useful, relevant and inspire action.

As a communicator, a constant challenge is to make our work seem less “foreign” or “wonky” to Americans or to the public in countries where we operate. Terms like “health equity” mean little to most people even though the belief that every child — whether in the US, in Africa or Asia — deserves a chance to have a better life is a value held by most people across the world. We need to do a much better job at communicating in clear, consistent and compelling ways what health equity is and why it’s important.

What is challenging about working in a nontraditional role/sector to promote health equity?

Dianne: The problem is mainly an internal one. Organizations, brands and advocacy campaigns can rise or fall on the quality of communications. But too often, senior leaders at global health and development organizations don’t fully understand or appreciate the critical role of communications, and as a result don’t adequately staff, resource or participate in this work. This is one reason I developed a hands-on course to teach students how to become effective global health communicators and advocates. I hope this expands the pipeline of emerging global leaders that understand the importance of communications.

Michael: Limited knowledge about the possibilities of the technology enabled- solutions. There are a number of gatekeepers that prevent the implementation the innovations within the sector. There are a number of challenges especially in this part of the world. These challenges include access to technology; most the developments require “minimums” (e.g. mobile apps require smartphones). If the costs of technology were lower, it would mean that more people would be able to access the technology, enabling more people access some of the solutions. Leadership in the health sector must also be fully supportive of the innovations. The challenge has been that technology is developing rather fast and within the health sector we need champions. There is definitely a gap in this area. So there is an acceptance challenge.

What professional tips would you give to a GHC fellow or alum promoting health equity and social justice through work in your field?

Michael: 1)To build solutions that work spend 70% of your time with potential users. It is in understanding the users that real solutions emerge. 2) Co-creation is the ideal way to build sustainable solution. Collaborate more, seek to understand before you’re understood.

Dianne: I have three tips: 1) Learn how to effectively develop and deliver coherent and relevant messages via media training; 2) Stop using development and technical jargon in all communications — use terms that an eighth-grader would understand; and 3) Tell stories. This is the best way to engage with your audience, create a personal connection, and make our work seem less abstract. We are all part of one of the world’s greatest success stories — global health. Look for opportunities to share that story and practice. Good luck!

Why is mentorship important?

Dianne: A 2014 Gallup study found two things that for young people, more than anything else, translated into “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track: Mentorship and internships. A mentor can make a powerful difference in professional opportunities and personal growth. They challenge your thinking, help you avoid mistakes, and provide career guidance and personal experience that can help you achieve your goals and aspirations faster. There are also many benefits of being a mentor — including strengthening our own coaching and leadership skills, providing a fresh perspective on the work we do, and creating a legacy that will have a lasting impact on the global health field.

Michael: Mentorship is important because it does provide an opportunity for into perspective and context experiences. Ideally mentors mirror their lives and experiences to the mentees and through that kind of exchange there is impact and real value. Institutional mentorship provides continuous and tailored learning based on the needs or gaps that an individual might possess. The process enables life long learning for it creates a relationship in most cases between the two individuals. I have people that I mentored on aspect of work-life but we kept in contact for about seven years. Personally I have been mentored by different people and through various means and I do cherish each of these moments. There is significant value in a structured mentorship process that every young person making entry into the world of work ought to experience. I would recommend this experience.

Dianne Sherman has more than 25 years of leadership experience working with a number of organizations — including Save the Children, InterAction, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PBS, the United Nations and UN Foundation, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Ocean Conservancy, and PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) — to develop and implement communications and advocacy campaigns. She is the Founder and Principal of Dianne Sherman Communications.

Michael Niyitegeka has nearly 20 years of experience working in both the private and public sectors. Michael worked with Makerere University for 12 years in varied capacities as a researcher, trainer and head of Corporate Relations. He has consulted for several organizations including Barclays Bank Uganda, Private Sector Federation of Rwanda, The World Bank-Uganda Office, United Nations Development Programme, Communication Development Foundation of Uganda, and the State University of Zanzibar. Michael is currently the Consultant Program Director for the Applied ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Program at the International Health Services University in Uganda. He is also an Adjunct Lecturer with the ESAMI Business School and a Board member of the ICT Association of Uganda, Uganda Youth Forum, and AIESEC Uganda. He is a member of several technology innovation review panels both locally and internationally.

Visit the Fellow Portal or the alumni site to access amazing advisors like Dianne and Michael through the GHC Advisor Program!