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Dr. Nida Ali: Boston Congress of Public Health 40 Under 40 Winner

The inaugural 40 Under 40 Public Health Catalyst Awards aim to highlight the rising leaders and innovators of the public health field. The Boston Congress of Public Health (BCPH) and the HPHR Journal selected a group of “leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, activists”, and doctors that will inspire the next generations of public health workers to change the world. The individuals featured for this award have not only shown excellent work performance and an extensive academic history but have also brought innovative solutions to public health issues around the world.

The NYC Daily Post interviewed 40 under 40 award winners to learn about their career journeys leading up to their nominations.

Q1. What’s a piece of advice you’ve received that has impacted your career journey?

It’s funny because it is so simple. 

It was from Dr. Naghmana Hameed who saw me trying to balance work and home in my earlier days. I was nothing short of a perfectionist. She said: “If the house is a bit messy, let it be and stop caring about it while you are at work”

I still remind myself of that when I fret about petty things. And now I care more about things that have actual real value.

Q2. Do you have a mentor you’d like to recognize? If so, what would you like to say to them?

There are actually quite a number of people who lifted me up along the way, gave me challenges and chances to build myself, and led me in a way where I was able to recognize my potential and operationalize it. It was over time that I got the confidence to boldly present what I thought was right.
I’d just say: “Thank you for seeing and bringing out the best in me”.

Q3. What advice would you give a young professional beginning their career in your field?

Identify the key players and introduce yourself. Never hesitate from asking, be it guidance, a learning opportunity, a project, or a job. You never know who’d say yes.

Q4. If you could do one thing, leave one mark, on your profession, what would it be?

I am so humbled to have lived in the times of Bill Foege and hear him speak at various occasions this past year. Largely inspired by him, I want to look back at my life one day and know that I have saved a number of lives I cannot even count, that I have eradicated deadly and debilitating diseases from the planet. 

In the field, I have seen children paralyzed by polio in this day and age. One day in the future, in my own lifetime, I want to be able to say that “no child will ever be paralyzed by this virus ever again”

Q5. Name a challenge you’ve faced and how it turned out.

Working for the Polio outbreak response mission in Northern Pakistan back in 2019, it was a big challenge to convince a chunk of hesitant parents of young children to trust in government vaccination programs and have their children immunized.

The local norms did not allow local women to go out and work as vaccinators, so most doorstep vaccinators were local (but well acquainted) men. Women were also expected to follow a certain dress code. Also, the language they spoke was very different. 

I learned a few basic sentences that could be used to interact with the parents regarding vaccinating the children. It was also crucial to respect the culture by dressing according to the local norms and being a part of them to communicate my message.

During the mass vaccination campaign, I visited several houses where parents had refused to door-step vaccination teams. I went with a notion of non-responsiveness and hostility in my mind. To my surprise, all the families I visited were very warm and welcoming. Being a woman, I had a free pass to access the inside of the households and meet with mothers and children. The few basic terms of the language I learned were enough to communicate about the children. As I did it from mother to mother (mothers can communicate non-verbally). I had a picture of my then 4-year-old son on my phone that I showed the mothers and told them that I vaccinate him whenever vaccinations teams visit my house. This strategy worked very successfully.

It didn’t take much time and I was able to convince women in 46 households that I visited to have their children vaccinated.

I learned the most precious lessons from the field during that mission. First, woman between the woman interaction in discussing a child’s health is very powerful. Second, showing respect for the culture, language and norms bring us closer to the communities. Third, we cannot transform communities from the outside, we literally have to be in the households to actively listen to why they believe what they believe in.

Q6. What is your ultimate career goal as you see it today?

My very obvious goal is derived from my passion for disease elimination and eradication, to have an impact from research and policy down to implementation at the household level. I also wish to bridge the gap between clinical medicine and public health. I have been on both sides of the court, and I understand how immensely important it is for the future of health. 

Q7. What alternate role(s) would you be interested in pursuing?

We all have alternate roles in our lives. 
Being a woman, I already have multiple hats that I wear simultaneously. Working full time, getting further education, being a wife, raising a child, managing my own household, and finding time for stillness does not leave me any more room for pursuing any alternate roles.

Q8. What core values are important to succeeding in your professional field?

A public health worker is nothing without honesty, empathy, and compassion. We have to bring these values to the field with us or it is meaningless.

We also have to be proficient at our jobs to be Public Health workers or leaders. This brings us to the biggest core value of being secure in ourselves so that we don’t need to put others down. The second step is to pass the knowledge on and prepare the team for the future of the public health force, bring in the team spirit, and create an environment where everyone feels safe to speak their minds and share ideas. 

Q9. Ten years ago, I thought I would be…

A pulmonologist.

Q10. Ten years from now, I want to be …

A brand in the realm of Global Public Health for Vaccine Preventable Diseases.

Q11. Would you want to acknowledge any family/friends/partners (beyond mentors)? If so, who?

My mother, who insisted I should be the hardest working individual of all.
My husband, for his patience and having my back.
My son, for letting me experience childhood once again.

Q12. Please indicate your hometown, place of study, degree field(s), and an interesting fact about yourself.

Hometown: Rawalpindi, Pakistan
Place of Study: Medical Degree – Hamdard University Karachi, Pakistan
Specialization in Global Public Health – Emory University Atlanta GA, USA

Interesting Fact: My son and I sometimes communicate in a language that he created and named “Pikag”.

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