Alumni Profile: Alexandra Levitas

Alexandra Levitas (MSc Public Health - Health Services Research Stream, 2019) currently works as the Health in All Policies Project Officer at Haringey Council and is about to take on a new challenge in the Public Health Intelligence team at Islington Council. In this blog post, Alexandra talks about her time at LSHTM, advice for current students and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her.
Alexandra Levitas outside of LSHTM's Keppel Street

Why did you decide to study at LSHTM?

It was honestly pretty random. I wanted to move to Europe (from the US) to be closer to where I grew up. I was also curious about how European universities differ from American ones. Initially, I looked at continental Europe, but then my partner got into LSE and we decided to move to London together. I applied to a handful of London schools, LSHTM was the first to get back to me, and I accepted. Only later, when I started asking around and doing some background research on the School, did I realise what an impressive and important institution it was.

How has your degree at LSHTM complemented your career?

LSHTM was a crash course in all things public health, which allowed me to move into the field.

I came into public health from anthropology and public history. I had a lot of knowledge about the history of medicine and a keen interest in the formation and structure of public services. But I lacked the concrete skills in epidemiology, economics, and public health to engage with contemporary healthcare systems. My year at LSHTM filled this gap, forcing me to constantly rethink and re-examine how healthcare is organised and delivered.

LSHTM also made me fall in love with methodology. I had done research before, but the level of detail LSHTM placed on training our research skills gave me a deep appreciation for a well-constructed study. Since graduating, I have published my own research on migration and health, and I am sure the skills I learned at LSHTM will go a long way in helping me find my future place in public health.

Were the relationships you formed at LSHTM useful – in what way?

The friends I made at LSHTM will remain some of my closest friends for the rest of my life. LSHTM is a good place to network, and there are a lot of people doing fascinating research that you can connect with. But for me, my year as a master's student was a lot more about making friends than making professional connections. 

The friends I made are now all doing amazing things. We’re still there for each other to discuss COVID prevention practices, share nerdy podcasts or talk about life’s ups and downs. The programme would not have been the same without them, and I would not be who I am today without them either. 

Have you connected with alumni since leaving LSHTM?

I’m currently an Alumni Facilitator in the LSHTM Pentacell programme (offering support to MSc students who are studying remotely) and still tune in to some online groups to see what other alumni are doing.

Please summarise your achievements over the years and how you feel about them?

I’m proud of the work I’ve done on my master’s thesis. I managed to build meaningful relationships with researchers in Poland and conduct primary research on access to healthcare services among Ukrainian migrant women working in domestic labour in Poland – a topic I feel strongly about. I got to present my research at a major Polish conference and eventually had it published in a peer-reviewed journal. It felt nice to have my work acknowledged this way and was a much more satisfying end to my master’s than simply sitting exams.

What do you hope to further achieve in your field in the future?

I still feel like a baby in the field, and I’m not entirely sure where I want to end up. Ideally, I want my work to feel meaningful, even if I don’t have a clear picture of what that means yet. I would like to find ways to continue working on migration and health. I’d also love to find a way to straddle academia and community engagement, despite the two often remaining siloed. Most importantly, I want always to stay curious and work with other curious people on complex and exciting questions.

What advice do you have for current students?

There will be moments during your masters when you feel like EVERYTHING in the world is dependent on making singular choices. This will be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. And it’s not true. Your choices are important, but the world is too full of randomness for a single choice to be unambiguously right or wrong.

Instead of clinging to your master plan, try to find things that interest you, that you enjoy, with people you enjoy working with. Who you work with will often be a lot more important than what you’re working on. And if you find something that feels engaging, don’t worry if it’s right or wrong. This, of course, is much easier said than done.

Do you have any standout memories from LSHTM?

Two months into the program, I organised a Thanksgiving dinner for my classmates. We packed close to 20 people into my micro-flat and spent a lot of energy working around the guest limits of the student halls I lived in. Amusingly, only one other person at the gathering was American and had ever celebrated Thanksgiving before. That year, my birthday fell on the same day. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and didn’t tell anyone, but the secret didn’t last long. Halfway through dinner, I was surprised by a lovely card and a homemade birthday cake with candles! It was after that day that I started thinking of my classmates as my new friends.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

The first big blow was not being able to find a job for eight months. I started looking for work in February 2020 – bad timing! So for most of 2020, I was unemployed, not on the same continent as most of my family, and in lockdown. There was something ironic about just finishing a public health degree and feeling completely useless and helpless in the middle of a global health crisis. I know a lot of us were in a similar situation, and while I’m lucky that everyone I know has stayed healthy and well, I’m also very glad those 8 months are over.

Now that I’ve found a job, I work in a team that works in sectors that affect key social determinants of health but are traditionally not addressed by public health teams: housing, urban planning, transport, library development etc. While working in these areas, I’m witnessing some of the long-term consequences of the pandemic. All these will exacerbate the already stark health inequalities and worsen long-term outcomes decades after the pandemic ends. It’s important to remember that the public health needs before COVID are still not met and will continue to be important during and after the pandemic.

This has been a tough year for most of us, but I’m hopeful that COVID has made the importance of public health visible worldwide. I don’t think we’re out of the tunnel yet, and there will be a lot of pieces to pick up once the pandemic feels over. We will also need the time to mourn. Some of us will have to mourn loved ones, but even if we’ve been lucky, we will still be mourning the plans and trips and events and life that’s felt suspended over the past year.

I hope we will see a shift toward prioritising better healthcare, community care and a safety net. I hope I will find ways to do my part in fighting for those things.

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