Globally, women represented approximately 33% of researchers between 2015 and 2018 (UNESCO Science Report 2021, Fig. 3.4) and while there have been strides toward advancing gender equality in STEM, research from UNESCO shows women scientists continue to face gender bias in their careers. For example, women researchers are often represented less in academic journals.  

This gender gap becomes even more prevalent when taking into account race and ethnicity, as students who identify as women of color are less likely to complete STEM degrees. This is primarily because of a lack of belonging in their major due to peer interactions and the absence of interpersonal relationships. 

Given the obstacles that women, especially women of color, face in STEM careers and education, we must invest in women to achieve sustainable development. We all benefit from the talented pool of women who bring their expertise and skills in STEM disciplines across the globe.  

The WomenLift Health Leadership Journey gathers mid-career women in the public health industry, provides training to develop their authentic leadership capabilities, and supports these emerging leaders into senior leadership positions. At the Population Council, several women across our global offices participated in the Leadership Journey. In this interview, we’ve asked current and former WomenLift Health participants within the Council to share their experiences with this professional development opportunity. To learn more about our researchers and their WomenLift Journey, read our press release.  

(These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.) 

Beth Kangwana
2023 East Africa Cohort 

Beth Kangwana is the Executive Director of Population Council Kenya. Kangwana is a public health epidemiologist with over 15 years of experience in health-related research, management, and development. 

Can you speak about your academic and research background and how those experiences led you to pursue a career in the public health industry?  

I come from the western part of Kenya which previously suffered from extremely high rates of malaria mortality and morbidity, especially in children under five years, due to poor access to effective antimalaria treatment. Exposure to these facts partly triggered my interest in pursuing a career in public health because I believed that regardless of where you are born, every human should have the opportunity to lead a healthy life.  

After graduating with a degree in pharmacy, I went on to obtain a master’s in Global Health Science from the University of Oxford and a PhD in public health epidemiology. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work as a public health researcher in a variety of contexts including the Kenya Medical Research Institute’s (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Imperial College London where I supported a referral hospital in Rwanda to set up a cesarean section, surgical site infection surveillance program, and at Population Council-Kenya where I am the Executive Director. 

The WomenLift Health Leadership Journey includes a self-directed leadership project. Can you describe your Leadership Journey project? Why did you select this topic area?  

Adolescent girls residing in impoverished settings are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing negative health outcomes, including unprotected and early sexual debut, and related consequences such as unintended pregnancies. 

In Kenya, one in every five girls between 15 and 19 years is either pregnant or already has a child. Socioeconomically, adolescent childbearing is likely to result in reduced schooling and human capital investment which in turn is likely to lead to reduced job tenure, fewer earnings, and economic disempowerment. From a health perspective, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for females aged 15–24 years. In Kenya, we have several youth activists who advocate for changes in policy and programming  to reduce teenage pregnancies. However, they do not always have access to the evidence they need to inform their messaging to advocate for effective change.  

The aim of my leadership project is therefore to provide activists with synthesized evidence that addresses their research questions and that can be utilized to inform their messaging. 

You are a current participant in the WomenLift Health Leadership Journey. How has the Leadership Journey strengthened your leadership skills?  

Participating in the leadership journey strengthened my leadership skills by providing me with the awareness and tools of what it means to be an authentic, inclusive, impactful, and strategic leader. Some of the skills that I have been able to enhance as a result of the program include: 

  • Building the capacity of my colleagues by stepping back and allowing them to take the lead while providing guidance and support.  
  • Understanding the different ways to manage conflict between colleagues in such a way that ensures that all aggrieved parties feel heard and treated fairly.  
  • Being present as a leader through open and transparent communication with colleagues while soliciting regular feedback to understand the impact of my actions. 

What advice would you give to future participants in the WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey? 

Each step of the journey has been thought out in great detail and has a purpose, therefore immerse yourself in every activity to get the most out of the transformational process. The program has helped me to identify my strengths and weaknesses and is developing me into becoming a better leader for my organization.  

Sanyukta Mathur
2023 North America Cohort

Sanyukta Mathur is a senior associate at the Population Council. Mathur is a social and behavioral scientist. Her research focuses on structural determinants of health behaviors and outcomes with a focus on applied research.  

Can you speak about your academic and research background and how those experiences led you to pursue a career in the public health industry?  

I was born and lived in India until I was in middle school and always keen to do something in the health field, being aware of the major disparities in health services and outcomes in my home country.  

I started my academic career with a degree in psychology and women’s studies but came into public health wanting to focus on the health of populations. I attained a master’s degree focusing on international health and disease control and prevention from Johns Hopkins University.  

I benefitted from early career opportunities, working alongside brilliant researchers at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which framed my interest in research and evidence-based programming. It also helped me understand health and development through a gender lens. While at ICRW, I participated in insightful, early research on gender and HIV, HIV-related stigma and discrimination, child marriage, adolescent livelihoods, and integrated programming.  

After ICRW, I pursued a doctoral degree in public health at Columbia University, which gave me a strong orientation in considering the social determinants of health. At Columbia, first as a student, and then as a faculty member, I worked on projects exploring risk and protective factors associated with HIV acquisition and the intersection with fertility desires.  

I joined the Council to lead a large project that examined the program effects and strategies of DREAMS (a large, innovative United States government program focused on HIV prevention among adolescent girls and young women). In this project, the focus was not just on evidence generation, but the rapid translation of evidence to program- and policymakers to strengthen the DREAMS programming. More recently, I have become engaged with the Population Council’s biomedical research team on work that highlights the voices, needs, and desires of potential end-users of some of the products we are developing. I have also been working on initiatives to support evidence synthesis and translation, and to develop tools to support HIV prevention. For the duration of my career, I have been interested and involved in applied research to improve programs and policies. 

How did participating in the WomenLift Health Leadership Journey grow your leadership skills?  

It has been a really remarkable experience and an introspective one. I have been learning about what it means to lead, to mentor, and to be an ally. I have been able to better understand my own leadership strengths and areas of improvement. I have been supported on this journey by an incredible cohort of women leaders who are committed to advancing global health and gender equity. 

What advice would you give to future participants in the WomenLift Health’s Leadership Journey? 

I am glad you are embarking on this journey. Be open to learning about yourself, the leadership process, and building connections with the peers in your cohort. Use this program as a boost to strengthen your already incredible skills and capacity. 

Waimar Tun
2024 North America Cohort

Can you speak about your academic and research background and how those experiences led you to pursue a career in the public health industry?  

After college, I spent a year volunteering with Tibetan refugees in northern India. For the longest time, I wanted to work with any refugee and migrant population, as I, myself, was a victim of political strife in Myanmar, which led to us fleeing the country at an early age. It was in India that I knew I wanted to focus on public health after seeing how a large portion of the community didn’t even have the most basic resources to live a healthy life and thrive. 

Upon my return, I worked for the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR, B). From there, I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in Epidemiology. This led me to pursue my PhD at Johns HopkinsI was particularly excited to see how human behaviors and our environments together influence health and disease. After my degree, I was so excited to be part of CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), where I had the chance to be part of outbreak investigationsreal boots-on-the-ground kind of epidemiology. After two years with the CDC, I really wanted to turn my attention to addressing or highlighting health disparities and their impact on the wellbeing of underserved populations.  

Since then, my research has focused on the vulnerabilities of various marginalized populations such as sexual and gender minorities, female sex workers, people with disabilities, victims and survivors of sex trafficking, adolescent girls, and more recently historically marginalized populations in the US. 

What are you excited about achieving during this next year as a WomenLift Health Leadership Journey participant?   

I’m looking forward to the journey so I may self-reflect and learn from other women leaders on how I can be impactful in an area I am truly passionate about…bridging gaps in health equity in populations that are often underserved. I am particularly interested in seeing how we can leverage digital technology to enhance the work we’ve been doing around improving access to HIV and sexual health services for marginalized populations, in reducing the digital gender divide, and reducing the harms from digital technologies. 

The WomenLift Health Leadership Journey aims to help mid-career women in the global health industry advance to leadership roles. How have you promoted authentic and impactful leadership so far in your work?    

I truly enjoy working with junior colleagues and trying to give them the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways. For example, I worked with staff from civil society organizations to build their capacity in data use for programmatic decision-making and the development of scientific abstracts from conferences in Ghana. It was exciting working with them to see how they can showcase their amazing work with their data. Many of their abstracts were accepted at scientific conferences, which was the first time for many of them. More recently, I have a number of undergraduate and graduate students from George Washington University School of Public Health working with me on our study on a community-based intervention to improve access to HIV prevention services (specifically HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis) among Black residents in DC. I truly enjoy working with young and enthusiastic students who are eager to learn from my real-world public health experiences. I would like to continue providing mentorship to those who are interested in pursuing public health as their career. 

Esther Lwanga Walgwe
2022 East Africa Cohort

Esther Lwanga Walgwe is the business development and research utilization manager at the Population Council in Kenya.  She works on business development initiatives to sustain a robust donor base of multi- and bilateral donors and foundations.  

In addition, Lwanga Walgwe provides technical, strategic, and operational support to the FGM Data Hub and “Baobab”: Filling Gaps in Evidence to Enhance SRHR among Vulnerable Populations in Refugee Settings in the East and Horn of Africa Research Programme Consortium, two of the Council’s multicountry and multiyear research programs.  

Although Lwanga Walgwe was unable to participate in this write-up at the time of publication, we hope to include her responses in a future edition.  

Chelsea Polis
2024 North America Cohort

Chelsea Polis is a senior scientist of epidemiology at the Center for Biomedical Research (CBR) at the Population Council. Polis serves on CBR’s leadership team where she advises on reproductive health product development.   

Polis was unable to participate in this write-up at the time of publication. We hope to include her responses in a future edition.