Q&A with Steffanie Strathdee
After losing a college professor to AIDS, and later close friends to the disease, Steffanie Strathdee has dedicated herself to HIV-prevention and research. Now the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences and Director of the Global Health Initiative at UC San Diego, she is focused on enhancing collaboration and communication among global health researchers on campus. She remains engaged in a number of HIV prevention research projects and training programs in international settings including Mexico, India, Canada and Afghanistan, and she leads three NIH-funded studies about HIV risk behavior. In addition, she is a Harold Simon Professor and Chief of the Division of Global Public Health in the Department of Medicine. In this interview, she talks about her research, the importance of collaboration in addressing global health issues, and how she and others at UC San Diego are taking action.
Why is global health a growing concern?
Strathdee: Just look at the recent triple tragedy in Japan — an earthquake triggers a tsunami, followed by a nuclear crisis. Global warming and deforestation are having major impacts on the health of the planet. Globalization and armed conflicts have sparked new and re-emerging epidemics of infectious diseases. We are all global citizens, so we should all take some responsibility to improve global health. It's about taking action in our daily lives, not just sitting in an ivory tower.
What is the role of the Global Health Initiative at UC San Diego?
Strathdee: The mission of the UC San Diego Global Health Initiative (GHI) is to facilitate research, education and public-private partnerships across diverse disciplines to address global health challenges in the 21st century, and to serve as a coordinating body for training programs, service and global health-related curricula. Check it out at www.globalhealth.ucsd.edu.
Why did you want to be the Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences?
Strathdee: I could see that UC San Diego has so much potential with so many faculty engaged in global health, yet many hadn't met and didn't know each other. That is changing. Political scientists are working with epidemiologists. Anthropologists are working with psychiatrists. Economists are working with clinicians. With some vision, coordination, energy and committed minds, we can make UC San Diego one of the leading universities for global health research, training and service in the world.
How is the enhanced collaboration improving the work of researchers and helping more people?
Strathdee: With limited resources, GHI faculty have launched a Global Medicine program in Mozambique, developed the first undergraduate minor in Global Health the UC system, and a new Center on Global Justice. Over 150 faculty, fellows, students and staff are part of the GHI, and it is the only campus-wide global health program in the UC system. UC San Diego just hosted the Clinton Global Initiative University, and over 200 UC San Diego students attended. Our university will also join UC Riverside and UC Davis in launching a new master's in Global Health in 2013.
The university is opening a student-run health clinic in Tijuana, similar to the one in San Diego. Why is it important for medical students to work with underserved populations and people from different cultures?
Strathdee: I love "two-fers." My division's latest two-fer is the development of a new bi-national course for medical students at UC San Diego and the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Tijuana. It is mentored by faculty from both schools and provides free healthcare to Tijuana's homeless and underserved. Students will learn about the challenges of providing care in Tijuana as they work alongside their Mexican counterparts. It excites me that UC San Diego medical students helped come up with this idea, and it resonated with me because so many of Tijuana's poor were coming to our research studies looking for primary health care. It's important for students to get outside of their own communities and to experience another culture, and this gives them the opportunity to do both. Students get a great cultural experience for credit and Tijuana's poor get the care they desperately need.
Tell me about your research. What sparked your interest in research and global health?
Strathdee: As an undergraduate and Microbiology major, I remember when Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and captured the world's attention. Soon afterwards, one of my professors handed out our exams and, by the next week, he had died of AIDS complications. Another professor came to teach my class about a new study that was following gay men over time to see why some acquired AIDS and some didn't. It was an epiphany — I was horrible in the lab, contaminating all of my petri plates, and here was a way I could become a scientist working in the community. I signed up for a master's in Epidemiology and then went on to a Ph.D. During this time, when my Ph.D. advisor and my best friend died of AIDS within a year, I pledged my career to ending this disease that has infected over 40 million people.
What is your most memorable accomplishment?
Strathdee: Accolades are nice, but I want to feel like I have made a difference. Once, after a really hard day, I was in a taxicab late at night and the cabbie said, "Hey, you're that woman in the newspaper who won an award for AIDS research. That story saved my life. I should shake your hand!"
Favorite place at UC San Diego:
The forest with the Talking Tree.
Favorite place on Earth:
My childhood tree house, deep in a ravine.
Favorite time of day:
When I can put myself out of a job.
Growing goodies to make my own jams and pickles
My "crackberry." I'm an addict!
Sustainable seafood, although it's getting harder to find.
Favorite way to spend $10:
It's a tie. Kiva and Ebay.
Favorite words to live by:
Carpe Diem (Seize the day)