Aneeka Ratnayake

Aneeka Ratnayake, PhD

Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

What is public health to you?
Pubic health to me means optimizing the full spectrum of society’s wellbeing in an evolving global context.

What inspired you to study public health?
I was inspired to study public health when I had to take a medical leave of absence during my first semester of undergrad. This caused me to reflect on how one could impact meaningful change at different levels, beyond just individual health. Additionally I became very interested in the lived experience of health, and how much more there was to health than simply being free from disease.

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career/studies so far?
Thus far, the most rewarding experience of my studies has probably hearing feedback about a non-profit I previously worked with and now volunteer for, from the students we served. An independent organization conducted a qualitative program evaluation of the project, and it was so rewarding to hear from the young students about how positively they viewed the program. I found this meaningful, as often when implementing data-driven solutions, it takes time to see an impact; however, in this case, we were able to hear and see the direct impacts we were making.

Explore. When I first started out in public health, I wasn’t sure what area I wanted to be involved in, and which methodologies I wanted to use. Rather than boxing myself in, I decided to explore different areas and different methodologies. I ended up doing a Master’s that was qualitatively focused, and a PhD that is quantitatively focused. Additionally, I have worked in different topical areas, like nutrition, HIV, COVID-19, and substance abuse, and have also been able to work domestically and internationally. Overall, I think there’s no harm in trying different areas of such a vast field.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?
Misinformation and distrust. At many levels, I have seen misinformation and distrust of individuals working in healthcare from different vantage points. When I worked with people who inject drugs, many funders and individuals in policy did not believe in hard reduction strategies, despite mountains of evidence in its favor. Additionally, this current pandemic has created vocal mistrust of doctors and researchers around both COVID-19 itself and vaccines. However, this is not simply an American phenomenon; in many nations where public health interventions have not been implemented with regard to local norms and leadership, there is often mistrust of those conducting healthcare interventions, given previous negative experiences. As a result, I think public health will face immense barriers, if we are unable to have public trust as a foundation.