A Life in Global Health: Laila Soudi, MS

For many, the choice to pursue a career in global health may not be as clear as it was for Laila Soudi, who received her Master’s in Global Health Sciences from IGHS in 2015. Soudi grew up in Jordan, which is home to as many refugees as native Jordanians. Soudi’s mother, like many of the refugees, is a displaced Palestinian. Her father is originally Syrian.

As a teenager, Soudi visited Husn, one of Jordan’s sprawling refugee camps. There, she met a young Palestinian woman just a few years older than she was. But this young woman was married to a much older man, had several children, and was experiencing the effects of trauma.

“I realized it’s all a matter of chance, who ends up in a camp and who has the privilege of living in a city,” Soudi told IGHS in a recent interview.

The young woman at Husn, and the millions of other refugees in camps, lacked access to mental health care. Indeed, there are no more than 100 psychiatrists in all of Jordan, which sits in the heart of a region long dominated by war. The supply of refugees is seemingly endless.

Soudi felt called to do something. The question was how to build her capacity to effect change. Step 1 was an undergraduate degree in Psychology with a neuroscience emphasis at the University of California, Berkeley. (Soudi’s family had by then immigrated to California.) Step 2 was a Master’s of Global Health Sciences from UCSF.

Why UCSF? “I knew that UCSF was an amazing institution on the front lines of health research,” Soudi said. Her mother had confessed that she dreamed of attending a top-caliber school like UCSF. “She didn’t have the opportunity to do this,” Soudi concluded, “but maybe I could do it for her.”

After completing the MS program with a capstone project seeking to measure rates of PTSD and depression in the Middle East, Soudi found work with a Stanford research team looking for early signs of mood disorders in the brain scans of U.S. children whose parents had been diagnosed.

A conversation with Victor Carrion, MD, the John A. Turner Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Stanford — whose research focuses on the psychological impacts of early-life adversity — led to an incredible opportunity for Soudi to focus on refugee mental health. Carrion offered to pay her salary from his endowment for a year as she researched the problem and possible solutions by traveling to affected areas. “This is my contribution to the refugee crisis,” Carrion told Soudi.

Traveling for a year through the Middle East and parts of Europe — by then beset by refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war — Soudi gathered data and perspectives on how trauma manifests in Middle Eastern refugee populations, what the barriers to care are, and what interventions have shown promise. She organized a clinic where medical doctors provided care and she conducted mental health assessments. (A series of posts on the Stanford School of Medicine blog chronicles her travels.)

Among the things this research made clear was that meaningful change wouldn’t come from a young researcher working alone. Soudi penned a letter to the Stanford University president in 2017, making the case that universities have a moral obligation to use their intellectual resources to help the world’s refugees. Whether as a testament to the power of Soudi’s voice as someone who has seen catastrophes up close or simply to her powers of persuasion, he responded, providing seed funding for a Stanford effort to address the global refugee crisis.

Working under the senior associate dean of global health, Soudi founded the Stanford Refugee Research Project, which identified ways for the university to engage the refugee crisis in the Middle East through education, health and other channels. For instance, Stanford computer science students helped teach a coding bootcamp to help Syrian refugees in the Middle East land good jobs.

Soudi recently left that project, again recentering on refugee mental health, this time working under the guidance of Gary Darmstadt, MD, MS, the associate dean for maternal and child health. Sana Relief, her current effort, will train lay people to deliver basic mental health care to Arabic-speaking refugees and to refer them to qualified professionals when their challenges are more severe. The mental health support is folded into primary medical services, an approach that is gaining traction around the world.

We asked Soudi how her UCSF training has helped her make the progress that she has in just a few years. The program gave her a broader sense of the challenges of global health work, she said, so she didn’t waste time proposing solutions that could not succeed.

As she sees it, you go to graduate school largely to build your network. The MS program “brought together people from all stages of their career, and it really was a global program. The faculty were people whose research you read, and they really made themselves available.”