MedicalPhysician Q&A

20 Questions: Mellissa Withers, MHS, PhD, Global Health

Mellissa Withers, MHS, PhD, is an assistant clinical professor at University of Southern California (USC) in the Institute for Global Health and leads the Global Health Program of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a network of 45 universities in the region, where she teaches global health-related courses. Withers also works as an independent health research consultant, with research focusing on global reproductive health and women’s empowerment, including human trafficking, preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS prevention among sex workers in Asia, and engaging male partners in family planning in sub-Saharan Africa. She received a bachelor’s degree in global development with a minor in ethnic studies from University of California, Berkeley (2001), a Master of Health Science (MHS) in international health systems management from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2003), and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in community health sciences with a minor in cultural anthropology from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health (2010).
Prior to working at USC, Dr. Withers taught at UCLA in the department of anthropology, as well as California State University, Los Angeles, Occidental College and University of California San Francisco, focusing on undergraduate and graduate-level courses in global health, medical anthropology, community organizing and qualitative research methodology. She has been published in numerous periodicals, including Culture Health & SexualityArthritis Care & ResearchReproductive Health MattersSocial Science & MedicineJournal of Community HealthJournal of Interpersonal ViolenceHealth Care for Women InternationalWomen’s Health IssuesJournal of Biosocial Science, and AIDS Care.
When did you first decide to specialize in public health? Why?
After high school, I went to Guatemala on a Spanish immersion program and I volunteered at an orphanage in the afternoons. My job was to spend time holding the babies, giving them human contact. Many of them were orphans from the conflict going on in the highlands in which indigenous Mayans were regularly being killed. Almost all of them suffered from malnutrition. Almost every day when I arrived, I was told that a baby had died during the night. After I returned home, I became more interested in the politics in Central America, human rights issues and public health in general. In my undergraduate program at UC Berkeley, I learned that there was an interdisciplinary major called “global development,”which I had never heard of but knew would be perfect for me. It was in that program that I took my first public health course on international nutrition. Immediately, I knew I had found my calling. I knew I wanted to do work that could help poor communities in developing countries. I still remember the topic of my final paper–breastfeeding and why the Nestle Company had been boycotted for their unethical marketing practices of infant formula in low-income countries. I applied to six graduate programs in public health and was fortunate to get into Johns Hopkins. Once I received that acceptance letter, my mind was made up.
Why did you decide to continue beyond a MHS degree?
I was getting ready to complete my MHS degree at Johns Hopkins and started looking for a job. The job market was pretty tough at that time (2002-2003). Plus, after spending a year and a half at Hopkins, learning from some of the most world renowned public health experts, I was really excited about the possibility of creating my own studies like they had done. But in my job search, I realized that I was not going to be able to do that without a PhD. I didn’t want to just analyze someone else’s data or assist on someone else’s project. And I had always enjoyed teaching, so I decided to go for my doctorate.
How did you choose your doctorate program?
I really wanted to come back to California, which is where I am from and where my family was. I hated the cold weather on the East Coast. But I also wanted to go to a top-rated school, which meant either UC Berkeley or UCLA. Since I had already graduated from Berkeley, I decided on UCLA.
What surprised you the most about your doctorate program?
I had this idea that after five years in a doctoral program, you would come out knowing everything there was to know about public health. So, when I was a few months away from graduating, I felt like I wasn’t prepared and shouldn’t be graduating because there was so much I still needed to know. But I have realized that a position in academia makes you a lifetime student. You are always reading new articles about new research or new policy. There are plenty of skills that I would still love to learn for my field, but I realize that is all right not to know everything.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still have pursued a doctorate in community health sciences? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
Honestly, I’m not sure.
What was it like finding a job in your field? What were your options?
I tell all my students that a job in global health sounds very glamorous and exciting when you are young. And it definitely is rewarding, but you have to carefully consider your long-term goals. Most of the time, you have to pay your dues by living abroad under some not-so-nice conditions in developing countries. Without that experience, you will lack credibility in the field. And when you are 20 or 25, living and working in foreign countries and traveling around the world for extended periods sounds like a dream come true. But it might not have the same appeal when you are 30 or 35 and wanting to settle down, get married and raise a family. So you really have to consider your goals. Also, you really have to live in a city that offers global health opportunities. Most of the global health jobs with non-governmental organizations are on the East Coast. The Bay Area has some. When I graduated a few years ago, there were basically no positions in global health. I had to take a position doing domestic cancer research, which was not at all what I was interested in. After six months, I quit and started teaching part-time and consulting on the side. I did that for a few years before I found my current position at the Institute for Global Health. But positions specific to global health can be difficult to find. So that should be another consideration for people considering this field.
Has your career met your expectations? Why?
Absolutely. Now that I have a full-time job at a university and I specialize in global health, I feel like I have found the job I always dreamed of. You don’t go into global health for money. But if you have a passion for global health, it is the most amazing field. I had always wanted to be a published author. Even now, after 16 published research papers, it is really fun to see my name on a published paper. Even more exciting is when I am reading a journal article and I see that they have cited my work.
What do you like most about your work? Explain.
I feel so fortunate to have a career that I love. I have had jobs that I hated and it makes your life miserable. I wake up and look forward to going to work every day.
I can see myself in this career for decades, and I think I will continue to enjoy it as much as now. The beauty of my job is that it is pretty flexible. If I get bored with one topic, I could switch to doing research on something else. And if I get tired of teaching the same classes every year, I could develop new ones that I am interested in.
I love teaching. I especially love introducing students to the social injustices around the world, such as marriage of girls at age 12 or child deaths because the family couldn’t afford a $5 bed net. I love inspiring students to get involved in these causes. And I enjoy working independently, doing my own research. I create projects on topics that I am most interested in, like women’s empowerment. I get to feel like I am making a difference in the world. I recently got a grant for $30,000 to develop a garden and nutrition program for a local domestic violence shelter. Another thing that I love is that I am often asked to consult on other people’s grants. They often hire me for short periods to do data collection or analysis. I get to work on a lot of really interesting projects and meet a lot of people. I recently came back from a one-week trip to Mexico on a consultancy project looking at beliefs about genetic testing among rural Mexicans.
What do you like least about your work? Explain.
My work requires a lot of grant writing. I enjoy this the least. It can be so frustrating when you have spent weeks developing a project and writing the grant and then it doesn’t get funded. I think less than 10% of grants are getting funded these days. So you have to be prepared for a lot of rejection.
Describe a typical day at work—walk me through a day in your shoes.
I typically start my day before 9 a.m. Most people think that professors teach the whole day. In fact, in most big research universities, teaching is only a very small percentage of what I do. I only teach one class per semester, which means one day a week for three hours in the classroom and a few hours a week grading and prepping for the next week. I spend at least an hour a day mentoring students or serving on some committee. But the majority of my day is spent either writing up results of a research study or writing a grant. I also manage a Global Health Program for the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a consortium of 45 universities all over the world. I do a lot of work for that—planning conferences, organizing teleconferences, compiling a quarterly newsletter, updating our website, etc.
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
A healthy, balanced life is really important to me. That is why I decided to become a professor instead of taking another position (like a consultant) which would pay a lot more money but not allow me much freedom and would require a lot of hours. I sleep eight hours every night. I practice yoga. I work about 50 hours per week. I get three weeks paid vacation per year. And I get to travel internationally a few times a year with my job. For example, this year I am going to Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Panama and China for work. Because I work with a lot of international partners, I often have two to three nights a week where I have to stay late for conference calls. But I never go into the office on Fridays, which makes up for it. I have a flexible schedule and can pretty much set my own hours. I often grade papers or write publishable papers at home.
Tell me about your most recent work travel—where did you go, and why?
Every year in the fall I have two international conferences for the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. This year the meetings are in Japan and New Zealand. I go for about five days on each trip. Sometimes I am asked to conduct a training or make a research presentation at a foreign university. Last year I went to Mongolia to do a presentation and then I took 10 days of vacation to travel around afterwards.
How do you ensure you have time for your family?
I am single and have no kids. So this allows me to take over a lot of the tasks that other people in the office who have families might not be able to do, like take students abroad.

How do you balance work and life outside of work (time for yoga, travel for leisure, time with friends, etc.)?
I am also lucky to work with a close-knit group of really great people, so I often socialize with them after work.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?Explain.
I had about $80,000 in loans when I graduated. And I had a scholarship for undergrad and my doctoral program. So the loans were primarily from my Master’s at Johns Hopkins. I had to pay about $600 a month in loans. [However], I was involved in a lawsuit and was able to pay them off the first year with the money I received.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself back when you started your career?
Don’t compromise by taking a position that is not your passion. Be patient—it can take time to find the ideal job.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today? Explain.
Gender inequality, poverty and rising chronic diseases are what I consider major priorities for improving the health of populations around the world.
Where do you see your career in five years?
Hopefully right where I am!
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do?
I volunteer for a local domestic violence shelter. I also have a project in East Bali in the very poor, isolated village where I did my dissertation fieldwork. I wanted to continue to give back to the community that so graciously welcomed me and allowed me to probe into lives through all my interviews. I find sponsors to contribute funds so that the poor kids there can go to high school. We currently have 35 kids in high school and three kids at the university. They never would have been able to go without this support.
Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing your specialty as a career?
People often associate global health with outbreaks of infectious diseases, like Ebola. And that is part of the field, but the field incorporates so much more. Topics range from infectious diseases, nutrition, environmental issues (like air pollution or lack of safe water), global governance and trade, humanitarian relief, sexual and reproductive rights and much more. Global health is an interdisciplinary field that needs experts from public health, international relations, business and anthropology. For those who are considering the field, it is important to have foreign language training and experience traveling and living in developing countries.