Prof Heidi Larson - women leaders insight series

What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor?

Keep going and surround yourself by supportive people. There will always be critics out there and it’s important to be able to stand up to them. Believe in what you’re doing and don’t let the critics get you down.

What has been your career highlight?

I would say my career highlight is when I receive emails or letters from, or talk to, young emerging researchers or students who tell me that my research and teaching really changed their thinking and inspired and motivated them. That’s the greatest highlight - that I feel like what I am doing is worthwhile

How do you overcome challenges that you have faced in your career?

I just never give up, I keep persisting and I think it’s just sticking with it – I think that’s important. There are many opportunities to switch gears and give up if something is not going the way you want. I don’t think you’ll ever get to the answers of what you’re looking for if you don’t get over some hurdles.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in global health?

I think the greatest challenge in global health is human behavior. We have amazing scientific tools and more and more health interventions.  We have done a tremendous job in that area but we are just not there in human behavior. In fact some days I feel with this whole post fact environment that we are losing ground rather than gaining ground

Some of the biggest health challenges of our time are lifestyle choices – too much sugar and salt – smoking too much and drinking too much. Violence – it’s really huge. In the work that we are doing, which is another example of human behavior, being a barrier in vaccines – one of the most tried, true and effective health interventions that we have in abundance. Vaccines have saved millions of lives, yet we have a growing number of people who are refusing vaccines, questioning vaccines. Opting for a vaccine free life is totally counter intuitive to what the whole scientific and medical research mission is about. I think that it’s a big challenge.

In my research group the Vaccine Confidence Project we have a team of multidisciplinary researchers, political science, psychology, anthropology, epidemiology, big data analyses, multiple languages – looking around the world, media monitoring also - and there is a number of different reasons but there is this underlying distrust in some cases. It’s not specifically in the science or the intervention, it is in the governments that deliver them or it’s in the big business that produces them.

How important is the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference?

It’s very important. We’ve made a huge fundraising effort to allow a number of young women from low and middle income countries to be able to participate. One thing we heard in talking to a number of the younger participants last year is they need models, they need mentors, they need opportunities.

“The energy is tremendous, the applications we got for scholarships from young women around the world gave me a lot of hope for the future. The insights, the enthusiasm was really visceral and I think that these conferences endorse some of their vision. Hopefully it will give them opportunities for mentorship and open their eyes seeing to see that they can achieve what they want to achieve.

What made you want to be involved in the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference?

The initial one held at Stanford last year got started after few of us attended a number of global health conferences and events around the world. While there were a number of women in the audience that were highly skilled in their field and they seemed to be male dominated stages a lot of the time.

We just felt like if not for our generation but the emerging generation it is important to get more diversity because those are the places that younger women and younger men look to. As they are start on their career, seeing a stage dominated by men is not particularly motivating for a young women, and also it doesn’t set a good model for young men. I think that we wanted to start changing and shifting that landscape and creating an environment that not only starts to change our current stage but to set an example for the future.

What role can men play in working towards ensuring gender equity in global health leadership?

I think the number one thing is respect. Respecting women’s views, respecting their intelligence, respecting their capabilities, supporting their hopes and their opportunities and what they can give.

There is plenty of evidence that companies and organisations thrive when there is shared leadership between men and women at the top. There is no equity if there are no men involved.  This isn’t about making a world only led by women. This is about having partnership and having shared ownership and leadership of global health issues and addressing them.

Men and women bring different strengths to some of these global health challenges and we need all the perspectives and energy and talent that we can get. The world is in a very vulnerable and challenging time. Global health needs the best of skills and talent and whatever gender, whatever culture you are from that should not be the barrier.

How proud are you that LSHTM is holding the next WLGH Conference?

I am thrilled. It is of huge value to LSHTM but with our history, scope of networks around the world and students – many others will benefit from this event.


Prof Heidi Larson is the lead organiser of the Women Leaders in Global Health conference 2018. She was joined by Dr Joanne Liu, International President of Doctors Without Borders on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on Friday 9 November to talk about their hopes for the conference and fostering leadership for women.