Home People Professor Devi Sridhar – Breaking Stereotypes

Professor Devi Sridhar – Breaking Stereotypes

by Grazia

In our current issue, Grazia’s Front Cover Creative Director - Kaniz Ali has had the pleasure of glamming up and catching up with our cover star, inspirational world renowned public health researcher - Devi Sridhar FRSE who is both Professor and Chair of Global Health. In this exclusive interview Devi opens up to Kaniz about breaking stereotypes, health, education and much more!

CEO : Zahra Saifullah
Managing Director : Nashmia Amir
Front Cover Creative Director : Kaniz Ali
Photography : Danny Singh
Outfits by : Raishma Couture
Hair / Make Up / Styling : Kaniz Ali assisted by Mehreen Syed
Location: Grosvenor Suites, Edinburgh

Grazia: What inspired you to head into the world of research?
Devi Sridhar: My grandmother who lives in Chennai has been a huge source of inspiration. She did her PhD quite late in life (after raising her family and helping raise her grandchildren) and always enjoyed research and writing. Quite simply, research is finding out more information about a particular topic- and in universities, this is done in a tightly structured way through working in a lab doing experiments, or collecting data during fieldwork, or analysing data in order to answer pressing problems and offer solutions. And over the decades, that research builds into a particular expertise. I used to spend a lot of time in libraries as a child and teenager. It’s one of the few places to go without spending any money, which is welcoming to anyone, and where I could spend hours reading, learning about a new topic and writing.

Grazia: Were you always aware you wanted to become a researcher from a young age?
Devi Sridhar: I wasn’t clear that I would become an academic and work at a university. But I enjoyed school, reading, books, ideas, really anything that involved learning more about the world, understanding how things worked and why, and then trying to get information from wherever I could. Back then it was libraries, books, encyclopaedias, teachers- that was before the internet and online resources. Now whatever information you want- whatever you want to learn about- all you need is the internet and it’s all there. I think many young people don’t know what they want to do with their life- and my advice for them is to do something you enjoy, make sure you’re also good at it through practice and training, and then see where your skills are needed. This can change over time- when I was younger I wanted to be a pediatrician, then I wanted to work with animals, then I wanted to be a tennis player, before ultimately seeing that an academic career was the best fit for my interests.

Grazia: You hold many positions including being a Professor and Chair of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, Head of the Global Health Governance Programme and an author of 3 books. You also regularly contribute to BBC World Service, CNN, Channel 4 News, and BBC Radio 4. How do you manage personal life and working life?
Devi Sridhar: If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. And that’s how life feels to me. I enjoy my work- it’s meaningful in that I think it does help make the world a better place- and improve people’s lives. So this gives me the energy and motivation each day to pursue my research projects, do university teaching, but also share this information with the wider world through going on TV, or writing a column for the Guardian, or presenting radio documentaries. Work doesn’t feel like work to me: it feels like a vocation, it feels meaningful and it feels fun. Not always, but most of the time. But I also make time for other things that make me feel happy: seeing friends and family, and also baking. I love following a recipe, baking a cake or biscuits or something yummy, then sharing these with loved ones. Having outlets outside of pure work are important: they create a balance.

Grazia: You have some incredible achievements from a young age. You were promoted to Professor and Chair at the University of Edinburgh at the age of only 30. What’s the best advice you can give to someone who is looking to enter the same career path?
Devi Sridhar: Education, education, education! Study hard and take advantage of opportunities to learn. Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you- so though it can be difficult at times, stay in school, go to university, keep studying, keep reading, keep learning from senior people in your area of research, and don’t be afraid of hard work. It won’t feel like work if it’s an area you’re passionate about. Also when you’re looking to do research, go for a puzzle or research question that no one else is looking at – be original and creative. That’s where breakthrough findings are done. It’s looking at a problem in a different way, or being willing to re-analyse data and question what’s been done before, and being open to trusted colleagues input. I always cross-check my work and listen to others in the field.

Grazia: What has inspired you to write The Battle Against Hunger (Your book that was released in 2008)?
Devi Sridhar: While I was doing a masters degree at Oxford, I was offered a fully-funded place at Harvard Law School. And when having to sign a lease on a flat in Boston, I decided that I’d rather go to India and do research on infectious disease, malnutrition and poverty. I chose to take a different path that tied into my passions in public health and well-being. And so I did my PhD at Oxford based on fieldwork in India, and this became the book The Battle against Hunger. It documents the extent of hunger in India, efforts to address this problem and proposes solutions. It’s hard to write the first book: there’s a sense of “can I do this?” or a “will people read it?” and “is it good enough?”- all those questions went through my head and I just kept working away one day to the next.

Grazia: Tell us more about your latest publication: Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why?
Devi Sridhar: Chelsea Clinton and I met in Oxford while she was finishing her PhD on the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria and I was doing a postdoc fellowship focused on the World Bank and the World Health Organization. We decided to combine our interests and research into a book looking at global efforts to improve health- how the UN works, what it tries to do, and how it could work better especially in low and middle income countries.
This book was timely as it came out just after the 2014 West Africa Ebola crisis and so could summarize some of the lessons learned and how the world could respond better in the future. I think that book was useful to those working in global health in governments and UN bodies, but also students in the field wanting to understand how the system works, and where the gaps are.

Grazia: Can you tell us about your future goals and aspirations?
Devi Sridhar: I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and people who’ve guided me through my career. So I’d like to help other people, especially those from underrepresented groups like women, in their career. It feels like an obligation to build a ladder – or a climbing frame as life isn’t always going in one direction- and support young people. My team in Edinburgh is a fantastic mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds because diversity makes for a smarter and better team. And I tell young women to be confident, bold, and not to be judged by other people’s expectations or judgement. You do you. I’d love to continue writing articles and books on global health topics as well as recording radio shows and documentaries in this space. Outside of work, I want to become a better baker, perhaps try to be more creative with cakes, as well as start leading outdoor bootcamps to get more people into exercise and moving.

Grazia: You’ve achieved an incredibly inspiring amount by the age of 38, what would you say has been the highlight of your career and some of the most emorable achievements?
Devi Sridhar: I’ve had a meaningful career- and there are many moments. But one clear highlight is that I could contribute to the World Health Organization and governments responses across the world during a major public health crisis. I worked closely with ministers, senior leaders, scientists, and this was only because I had spent years before building up expertise in global public health. Another huge moment was having my last book Preventable make the Sunday Times best-seller list. To have arrived in Britain with two suitcases in 2003 as a student who wasn’t sure she was smart enough for Oxford- and to go from that to having my book read across the UK and seeing it on that list in the Sunday Times on a Sunday morning – that was a special moment.

Grazia: During the pandemic you played a vital role in the UK media, tell us about your experience throughout that time.
Devi Sridhar: The pandemic affected everyone, in one way or the other. And my job was simply to communicate what was happening and why. My brain works quite simply- I try to break down complex problems into their parts, and then explain them to myself. Once I understand something, I can pretty much explain it to anyone. Social media has also been positive- I’m active on twitter and Instagram- as I’ve been able to directly engage with people without it being filtered through politicians. Because I’m independent and try to always be honest and straightforward, I would just share the latest information whether on vaccines, variants, transmission or emerging new data. I’m happy to see a lot of interest now in public health- whether it’s in daily conversations, government meetings, readership of my column in The Guardian, or reading a book on public health. Health is one of those things we take for granted until we become unwell and it’s usually been a low priority for governments. That’s all changed with COVID-19.

Grazia: If Devi was not a researcher what would she be?
Devi Sridhar: I love sport, so probably a footballer or some kind of athlete. Tennis is my favourite sport but I also enjoy football, running, swimming, paddle-boarding, really any kind of physical activity and movement. Or a school teacher as I like young people and children, and sharing knowledge and supporting the journey from child to adolescent to adult. I love novels and fictional worlds- whether it’s about dragons or mermaids or set in different parts of the world. So maybe I’d also try to write some fiction myself and see whether I could use creativity and imagination to bring something new to people.

Grazia: What do you enjoy doing most in your spare time?
Devi Sridhar: I love exercise and fitness: physical activity of any kind has major physical and mental health benefits. It makes you happy, and it’s fun. It’s good for meeting people and being part of a community, and also for dealing with stressful situations. So I’ll turn to yoga, or running, or going to the gym and lifting weights. I’ve just finished my personal training certification so that I can teach group and individual fitness, and also on my list is becoming a trained yoga teacher. In the summer I try to be outside as much as possible. And in the winter I try to find inside spaces to stay warm while exercising.
Family and friends are also important to me – I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of friendship, for me my girlfriends- who have been there for decades. People are what make life joyful- relationships are the core of a happy life.

Grazia: You are a Professor at The University of Edinburgh what inspired you to go into teaching?
Devi Sridhar: I love sharing knowledge- and I like young people and children. They’re full of passion and possibility and the ability to learn incredibly quickly and then build on that knowledge in a creative and original way. Teaching young people doesn’t have to be in a classroom. It can be taking a walk in nature and talking about the plants and animals around, or working as a team
on a project and learning how to get on with people with different personalities, or reading a wide range of books to learn about the world, or baking a cake and learning about chemistry. Education of course needs to involve literacy and numeracy, but needs to go beyond that to developing a love of information, how to find that information and using that information in the world today.

Grazia: You are incredibly passionate about education. If there is anything you can change in the world, what would it be and why?
Devi Sridhar: I would love to see more girls staying in school- being supported by their families, communities and teachers to get an education and dream big. In the end, most of the world’s problems could be solved if more girls were able to stay in school, if they were able to go onto higher education, and we had more female leaders across the globe in government, private sector and across the arts and other areas. There’s clear research that when girls are educated- child survival improves, domestic violence goes down, societies are more equal, and there’s a greater sense of community and well-being.
If half the world’s population is women, then women should be represented at that level across society. But that has to start early and with telling young girls that anything is possible. I’m a classic example of this- if I could make it as a professor, then anyone can.

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