Alexandra Vrazo, PhD, MPH
Graduation Year: 2012
Current Position: Senior HIV/AIDS Clinical Services Advisor, USAID, The Global Health Fellows Program II/ The Public Health Institute
Alexandra Vrazo entered the Integrated Graduate Program (now known as the DGP) in 2007. She joined the dual degree PhD/MPH program and performed her thesis research in Rich Longnecker’s lab. We caught up with Alexandra recently to hear more about her journey from an undergraduate in the United Kingdom through to her current position in pediatric and maternal HIV/AIDS programs at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Getting to Northwestern:
Alexandra grew up in Chicago, but moved to England at the age of 10. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Bristol in virology and immunology. She had the opportunity to do some lab research and knew that she wanted to go on to do get a PhD. Although she wasn’t entirely sure what she would do when she was done, she loved virus-host interactions and wanted to take the opportunity to do some cool science during her degree.
Alexandra also knew that she wanted to come back to the United States. Instead of applying immediately for graduate school, though, she took a position at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for AIDS Research, where she was performing immune profiling of T cells from HIV+ patients in NIH clinical trials. This experience solidified her continuing interest to enter a PhD program and to study problems that were relevant for people. In exploring potential PhD programs, she was particularly attracted to Northwestern because of Rich Longnecker—Alexandra’s undergraduate thesis was related to Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), so she was very familiar with his work already. But it was really solidified when she came here to interview—as she describes it, she was struck by the friendliness of Northwestern and by its location in downtown Chicago.
Once she arrived at Northwestern, Alexandra applied to transfer into the PhD/MPH dual degree program. She wasn’t aware of the program before she arrived, but knew right away that she wanted to do it. She was really attracted to the idea of one day working in population health and infection control. The combination of research experience and public health degree could put you in a position to improve the health of many people at once.
In the Longnecker lab, Alexandra studied the EBV viral proteins LMP1 and LMP2. When these proteins are expressed in B cells, they changed the behavior of the B cells, pushing them into antibody-producing cells or memory cells even in the absence of antigen, possibly as a viral mechanism for promoting long term cell survival. As part of her MPH degree, Alexandra also completed a project with Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Infection Control Unit. This unit had just began using a new test for latent tuberculosis infection, the Quantiferon-Gold™ blood test, and Alexandra’s project was to assess the effectiveness of the test. Her results were used to develop new policies for tuberculosis testing in the hospital.
In addition to her lab and MPH work, Alexandra was active in a number of student organizations that she credits for helping her leadership skills. She was involved in the Chicago Graduate Student Association, where she served as the student health advocate, and in the Graduate Leadership Council. She says this introduction to advocacy has been very useful in her later career.
Alexandra completed a three year postdoc at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where she studied natural killer cell function. At the time, she already knew that she wanted to move into more of a global or public health role, but felt she needed more practical experience. She volunteered at public health organizations, including at a mobile syringe exchange for intravenous drug users, as a mentor to an MPH student working with a Jamaican clinic on an AIDS needs assessment, and with an NGO doing HIV prevention work in Kenya.
After these experiences, Alexandra decided to move fully into health programs and started a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with AAAS in 2015. She was placed with USAID working as a technical advisor fellow on pediatric and maternal HIV/AIDS. She has stayed at USAID ever since. Her efforts support USAID’s mission of saving lives, through reaching HIV-positive pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, their HIV-exposed children, and HIV-positive children and adolescents.
Alexandra describes her job responsibilities as falling into three categories. One is working with colleagues in several African countries through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). She supports USAID field teams and works alongside other stakeholders, including other US government agencies, NGOs, multilateral organizations, and local counterparts to implement programs for mothers and children living with HIV and AIDS.
When asked what she likes about her job, Alexandra really focused on the mission and the feeling that she is really making a difference in the world. She also talked about how the rest of the team, who are mainly pediatricians, are also very passionate and driven by the mission of the agency. She also mentioned that she likes the variability of the job—you never know how your focus might shift based on new priorities, which keeps it interesting.
Interested in a similar career path? Alexandra had several pieces of advice for students aspiring to a similar career. She talks about some of the transferable skills that you build in a PhD--perseverance, patience, and flexibility-- that are really important for this career. She also noted that networking is really important for landing a job.
If you are a dual degree student interested in global health, she gives a piece of advice that she wishes she had known—do your field and culminating experience in a global health environment. At the time she was doing it, she wasn’t able to travel abroad given time limitations, and thought that meant she couldn’t do something in global health. But there are opportunities to work with organizations that do global health work without having to be located internationally.
If you are not a dual degree student and wish to do global health work, don’t despair! An MPH is not necessarily required, and you can get in-country experience by living and working overseas without needing a MPH. There are a few ways to get that kind of experience, but she recommended considering two: The Global Health Corps, a competitive funded fellowship for those under 30 years of age specifically looking to get into global health, and the Peace Corps.
Final pieces of advice from Alexandra? First, jump on opportunities as they come. Don’t turn down an opportunity just because it’s not perfect; it might not come again. Second, hang in there! Graduate school doesn’t last forever.