IGHS MS program is helping Aya Thabet move from industry to global health

Last year, Aya Thabet left a job working in market research in the Cairo office of an American pharmaceutical company for a position at the World Health Organization (WHO). Thabet, now an M.S. student in global health sciences at UCSF, took a two-thirds pay cut in the process.

“I wanted to do something that aligns more with my values,” she explained.

Thabet became a pharmacist in 2012, she recalled, because in Egypt, you can either be a doctor, a pharmacist, an engineer or a disappointment to your parents. But Thabet’s appreciation for the science behind it is palpable. Medicine studies disease to diagnose, she explained; pharmacology studies disease to treat.

The trouble with working in the pharmacology industry was a lack of focus on the science — what makes one drug work better than the alternatives for some patients and worse for others. Pharma companies, as Thabet describes them, are in the business of sales. They just want to sell more widgets.

At the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean regional office in Cairo, Thabet put her pharmaceutical knowledge to work in a unit that supports countries as they evaluate and improve primary care.
 Her scientific expertise helps support public health decisions about which interventions offer the most benefit at the least cost.

The WHO is a big organization with a broad mandate, working in pretty much every country in the world. Thabet enjoyed her work but felt she was seeing only a small part of the big picture. She applied for and won a Fulbright Scholarship to study global health in the United States. The UCSF program appealed to her because it was less than a year long and included a practical capstone project.

“I think what I’m seeing now is how to connect the dots. The courses all feed into each other in a way,” she said. “For example, in epidemiology they talk about things you learned in biostatistics, so you learn how to apply what you learned there in other fields. It gives you a very broad view.”

Though Thabet leans more towards practical experience than book-learning, she has found, to her surprise, that she enjoys being in class. (The 11-month program means students attend classes from Monday morning through Thursday mid-afternoon.)

“The faculty really try hard to explain,” she said. “You can feel their sincere effort to try to help you understand.” Faculty are also available during office hours, over video chat and on the online education portal UCSF uses.

When Thabet returns to Egypt in the fall of 2020, she hopes to go back to the WHO armed with more skills she can use to help public health officials make informed choices.

“What I knew about epidemiology before was just the basics — the prevalence and incidence of disease and how to calculate them. But now I can see how to evaluate a good paper versus a bad paper. You can get two papers giving different figures for the same thing, but they are measured differently. I’m learning how to judge which is more accurate and which to use,” Thabet said.

“This is actually really useful. If you can’t really judge the science, you will base your interventions on nothing!”