I often wondered how my past, my passion, and my career came to intersect. As an African immigrant raised in both Europe and the U.S., it took me a long time to find my identity as a Kenyan-American.
In high school, I excelled in biology and chemistry. I became fascinated with science, health, and the human body. In college, I majored in chemistry and was fortunate enough to participate in undergraduate programs that encouraged minorities to go on to pursue biomedical research graduate degrees. But halfway through college, I realized that biomedical sciences wasn’t a path I wanted to follow. I decided that working in a lab wasn’t for me. That said, I was still dedicated to science and health. I searched for a way I could have a direct impact on society, which led me to pursue a master’s in public health (MPH), specializing in epidemiology.
I searched for a way I could have a direct impact on society, which led me to pursue a master’s in public health (MPH), specializing in epidemiology.
Within epidemiology, I developed a strong interest in HIV/AIDS, primarily because I come from a place highly impacted by the disease. Kenya is among the 15 countries with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world, all of which are within Sub-Saharan Africa. I had learned about the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) while studying for my MPH, and I knew I wanted to work with this program in some capacity because of the strong impact it has had towards achieving global HIV/AIDS epidemic control.
I was hesitant and intimidated, yet drawn, to enter this field that was already saturated with experts — many of who began their careers in the ‘90s when the disease became a global epidemic. As saturated as the HIV/AIDS field was, I came to learn that even in epidemiology, racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in public health sciences. My undergraduate HBCU professors had educated and warned us about minority underrepresentation in STEM. What I wasn’t prepared for were the microaggressions I would experience once I stepped into the workforce.
For example, when I worked for a prominent research institution, my qualifications were frequently questioned in the office and in meetings. On the contrary, my Caucasian counterparts were welcomed, supported, and encouraged to feel at home. They were treated like they deserved to be there. When it came to me, people had a hard time believing I had earned my seat at the table.
When it came to me, people had a hard time believing I had earned my seat at the table.
Having grown up in Finland as one of the few black families in my town, I was unfortunately already familiar with dealing with racism. Still, the experience was demoralizing, and I found myself lonely at a time when I was trying to find my fit within STEM. Moreover, it felt like those who were being pushed out of this space were the ones needed the most.
Through perseverance, persistence, and mentorship, I received a fellowship to work at the PEPFAR program headquarters, which led to my current role at a PEPFAR-funded NGO in Africa. As a technical advisor, the monitoring and evaluation I conduct informs the Ministry of Health in the country where I work, HIV/AIDS programming, and policy development. I have earned my seat at the table.
Though racial and gender diversity in international development leadership remains low, I learned that it’s up to us to push through the obstacles systemically placed in front of us to make sure we are heard. The policies we make primarily affect black and African women, therefore we need more black and African voices in the decision-making processes.
It’s up to us to push through the obstacles systemically placed in front of us to make sure we are heard.
Aside from my interest in science and health, it became clear to me why I was meant for a career in public health, particularly global health. As someone with my background — with family that doesn’t have money, or access to resources or connections — I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunities I had to get to where I am today. My identity as a Kenyan-American is tied with my duty to serve the general society as an epidemiologist, to work in public service, and to advance global health.
I chose public service because I believe that decisions must be made for the collective good of the people. Because vulnerable, underserved populations who, due to no fault of their own, received the short end of the stick, deserve to be supported with dignity and respect. It’s not just about increasing representation of minorities in STEM, but about serving communities that are most severely experiencing health disparities — and the two go hand in hand.
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