Alison Surdo

Major: Biology    
Minor: Asian Studies
Year of Graduation: 2000
Graduate School/Program: The George Washington University, Master's of Public Health
Current Job Title: Senior HIV Counseling and Testing Advisor

Please give a brief description of your current position:
I am currently working at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington DC, in the Office of HIV/AIDS. I work as a technical advisor on HIV counseling and testing, one of our key intervention areas. Learning one's HIV status is the gateway to other HIV prevention, care and treatment services, and my job is to provide technical support for US government programs working in this area.  My job entails a wide variety of responsibilities. I primarily work on a US government initiative called the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR (www.pepfar.gov). I work with other partner organizations, like the US State Department, the World Health Organization, and Ministries of Health in various countries on HIV policy issues. I work within USAID on linking HIV to other health issues such as family planning and maternal and child health. I spend a lot of time in the field visiting our programs, providing technical assistance, and identifying ways we can improve services.  I help manage projects funded out of my office, identify research priorities, and help decide our budgetary priorities. Finally, I play a role in determining which HIV testing products are of high enough quality to be purchased by USAID. Since coming to USAID, I've worked in 14 African countries and several Asian countries as well.

What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
I knew I was interested in public health even when I was at CSB.  I was thinking of medical school but in the end decided it wasn't the right career path for me (though I work with many clinicians that do both clinical work and public health). I went to graduate school and got a degree in Public Health, during which I went to Martinique for a few months and worked on dengue fever surveillance and worked on my French language skills. After graduating with my MPH, I got a job with a health policy organization in DC called Partnership for Prevention, where I worked on health policy issues. My organization did a lot of work advocating on health issues with the Congress and State health departments.

Then I joined a specialized training program called the Public Health Prevention Service, a 3-year fellowship at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While I was there I benefited from advanced training in epidemiology and health communications. I did rotations in different CDC centers and programs, and had a two-year placement in their Global AIDS Program, which is where I gained experience in HIV counseling and testing. After completing my fellowship, I joined USAID.

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?
There are many different paths to a career in public health, and many different paths to a career in international development. My career tends to overlap in both of these worlds. But I work with doctors, nurses, lawyers, public administrators, policy analysts, health economists, epidemiologists, and communications experts, just to name a few career types in my office. I think the common theme is a dedication to health and development and experience working and living in developing countries. Most people I work with have advanced degrees of some kind, though at what stage people get them varies.

I think one key suggestion I would make for students is to gain experience living and working overseas. Many people I have worked with do so through the Peace Corps, but that is not the only option. There are so many wonderful opportunities to explore the world, through CSB and elsewhere, and students should take advantage of it.

While at CSB, I think it is essential to study other languages-well enough to be able to hold conversations and work in that language.  Studying abroad is also a wonderful opportunity to hone language skills and experience new countries.

For working in public health more generally, I highly recommend taking at least some basic biology classes. MPH students without a biology background may have to take these courses in graduate school, where it is more expensive! I also recommend taking a course in statistics.

What skills are important in your field?
As I've mentioned, language skills are very important. For a career in public health, skills like biostatistics and epidemiology are key. While many people learn these in graduate school, you can also learn then on the job. I would say that another essential skill is cultural sensitivity. There are many ways to gain experience with cultural sensitivity, but it is essential when working in other countries or with different populations.

What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
I studied abroad in China in 1998 and that really helped prepare me for working overseas. I think my biology degree also gave me a strong background in sciences relevant to my work in HIV, like basic understanding of immunology, virology, and biochemistry. As I've mentioned, understanding statistics is important. I studied both French and Chinese at CSB and both have been useful.

What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your job?
HIV is a devastating epidemic in many of the countries in which I work. I think the most rewarding part of my job is the hope that my work is contributing to HIV prevention and access to care and treatment services.