How do I do what you do?: Public health law, pharma, and vaccine policy, with Alexandra Bhatti

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Alexandra Bhatti, a public health attorney who is currently director of US Vaccine Public at Merck & Co. They discuss what led Alexandra to pursue public health law, her experience working in the public sector vs private sector with a pharmaceutical company, and her work in vaccine policy.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What led Alexandra to public health and then later public health law
    • What events led to Alexandra finding her niche in public health law
  • Advice on overcoming anxiety when it comes to networking and connecting with others
  • How the pandemic helped to emphasize the importance of public health policy and law
  • What a day in the life of the Director of US Vaccine Public Policy at Merck & Co. looks like 
  • How both the private and public sector have intertwining roles and the importance of interprofessionalism in advancing public health
  • The value of having direction while remaining open to opportunities in your career
  • Advice for those in search of growth in their career
  • The importance of building a community and supporting your peers

Today’s Guest:

Alexandra Bhatti is a public health attorney with a decade of diverse vaccine programmatic and policy experience across the government and private sector. She is currently Director of US Vaccine Public Policy at Merck & Co. Inc, where she leads US state and federal vaccine policy development and research as well as federal vaccine policy advocacy to advance evidence-based policy solutions that can help achieve and sustain high vaccination rates. She concurrently has served as faculty at Arizona State University in the School for the Science of Healthcare Delivery over the last 7 years. Prior to Merck, Ms. Bhatti was a public health attorney at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she led vaccination law research.  Her roots are in state public health where she was previously  a manager within the Arizona Department of Health, Immunization Program Office as well as a Senior Public Health Scientist within their state laboratory. 

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Alexandra 0:00
Sometimes things might not go to plan for you. But I think thinking of it as an opportunity, and I know that that’s so hard in the moment. So it’s easier said than done, but thinking of those moments as opportunities to learn to pivot to like gut check. Okay, so what do I want to do? Like what are the other options before me, I think it’s also important.

Sujani 0:23
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hey, Alexandra, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. So wonderful to have you here to join me and our listeners to talk about your public health journey.

Alexandra 0:49
Thank you, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Sujani 0:52
Especially you know, having such a busy period in your life with move, and you gotta jump on a plane after this. So I really appreciate you spending the hour with me here today.

Alexandra 1:01
Yeah, my pleasure. This sounds like a great, great conversation. So I’m looking forward to it.

Sujani 1:06
So you know, it’s been, I think funny, because I hadn’t spoken to a lot of public health lawyers in like, the two years or so of having this podcast go live. But in the past year, and especially in like, the past couple of weeks, I’ve been speaking to more and more people. And I initially thought it wasn’t such a, you know, popular area of like, you know, seeing the intersection of public health and law, or that, you know, many people pursued that path. But I think you know, more and more I’m hearing that there’s one interest in the area, and then two, people are actually working with those two designations out there. Maybe that’s just like ignorance on my part. There’s quite a few of you out there. And I think we’ll kind of talk about that, because I did see a bit about, you know, there was a couple of like, conferences that you were at, where there were individuals from, like public health and law coming together. But, you know, obviously, there’s like, two different ways that one finds themselves in this type of work. And it’s either they pursued law first, and then they went into public health second, or they were in public health first, and then they went into law second. And in your case, you were in public health prior to pursuing law. Did I get that correctly?

Alexandra 2:25
And that’s exactly right.

Sujani 2:26
Yeah. And so like, what was it that you know, really got you into public health and start with public health, and then we kind of move into the legal aspect of your career. If you think back to when you discovered the field of public health, what’s your earliest memory of thinking? Okay, you know, this sounds like a great field, maybe I’ll consider building a career here.

Alexandra 2:47
So it’s interesting, because I feel like I was one of those quintessential students who had this aspiration of becoming a doctor, right? My mom tells me that back in first grade, I was there asking what do you want to be when you grow up, apparently, I had written I want to be a doctor, lawyer or judge and, and that order to and I really clung on to being a doctor. And so even through high school, I was doing different volunteer programs with hospitals and college, I was doing all the different volunteer work I could, do research I could, you know, pad my resume, so to speak, and be a competitive candidate. And it’s interesting, because along that journey, I was actually exposing myself to other areas. So, for example, in undergrad, I started working in a research lab at the bio Design Center at Arizona State University. And it was so interesting, you know, this is now me being starting to do some bench science and bench research. And, you know, while the intent was initially to help, you know, research looks good on your resume for medical school, it actually started making me think a little bit broader. And then after undergrad, I felt like I wasn’t quite ready yet to apply to medical school. And I thought, you know, it’d be great is maybe getting my master’s in public health first. And so it was almost the very last minute decision. I remember I took the juries, and this summer, and I was looking to see which grad schools were still accepting applicants and it was, I think, since like June or July, and it was it came down between the University of Pittsburgh and Emory University of Pittsburgh has an infectious disease program, infectious disease microbiology program. And Emory was bio logistics, and I got into the infectious disease and microbiology program at Pitt, and that was my preference. And it was, you know, I literally got in on I think, August 4, or something I applied on the fourth I got in the 80 thing class started on the 31st of August, so it’s all very, I’d never even live in another state that I had to move from Arizona to Pittsburgh, so very different climates. But I think you know, to kind of to get to your question in terms of, you know, what was it that got me into, I think I was, you know, through my education. And then in my public health program at Pitt, I initially was still doing that bench science work. So I was almost like a hybrid MPH student where a lot of my research for my, my defense or my thesis was actually based off of the bench science work that I was doing. So studying mycobacterium tuberculosis and working on developing a new real time PCR assay for the in parallel to that, I’m taking a lot of these different public health classes, and certificate in public health preparedness and disaster response and that the director, actually of that program, and one of the people who have managing it was actually a public health attorney yourself. And that was probably the first moment where I was exposed to different types of careers and pathways that people can have that it’s not just, you know, this singular path, like I must become a doctor, right? There’s all these different ways that you can actually support the health of a community and individuals. And it’s really exciting to see. And so then I’m taking health policy classes through my public health program. And that opened my eyes a little bit more to what policy is like. And so after graduate school, I started working at a lab, the State Health Department’s lab in Arizona, I knew that I didn’t want to work in the lab, I think I enjoyed aspects of it. But I felt like something was missing still. And I felt like I really wanted to better understand public policy as eventually, would they. And so I started going to law school at night, and went to law school at night working full time for the health department, transition to more of a public health programmatic role. But long story short, I think my journey into public health was just a byproduct of what I initially thought I wanted to do. And my world just kind of opened up as a result of trying these different things.

Sujani 6:50
It sounds like to me that you were well aware of like the public health field, because you are already thinking about a Master’s of Public Health immediately after your undergrad. Is that something that you like were exposed to somebody you knew had that degree? Or was that you know, based off of just like research you were doing of like, what do I do next after undergrad?

Alexandra 7:10
It was largely based off of doing my own research and digging and trying to understand if I wanted to get my masters in different fields is what would it be? And I think the public health fields really resonated a lot more with me, especially as we started getting into the infectious disease space, because it kind of aligned with already what I was learning about undergrad.

Sujani 7:31
And so did law school, then come like immediately after your MPH degree?

Alexandra 7:39
Let’s see, I think I took it took about a year and a half off between graduate school and law school. So I was working full time in the lab for about, yeah, for about a year and a half. And it was almost a similar story. So after grad school, I’ll just tell you, after grad school, I actually was exploring trying to be a navy microbiologist first, I thought it would be super cool, and really a really interesting adventure. And at that time, you know, I was waiting for some slots to open up for it in that field and that’s why I was waiting after grad school for a while. And after a while I was like, you know, I, I’ve been wanting to go into policy, I want to do this. So I might as well just go to law school now. Almost same story for grad school, I took the LSAT, and then was looking for schools in my state that where I could go to school and still work because my dad at that point was like, you need to start building some experience, too. You can’t stop working, necessarily, you know. And so I went to, there’s only one school option for me in Arizona where I could take classes at night while still working for the health department.

Sujani 8:46
And as you’re kind of exploring law school, you’re working at the Department of Health Services, do you have like a vision in mind as to like, what sort of a role or career you’re looking to build with all these, I guess like credentials and experiences like, surely there must have been like, Okay, this is the kind of role that I’m working in, like I have interest in policy, maybe this is the organization I want to be part of, and this is the kind of work I want to be doing? Or was it like more of like an exploratory exercise where you’re like, okay, let’s see where law school leads to?

Alexandra 9:21
I think there were a few different pathways that I could go that I saw myself. And, you know, I always volunteered on the side and the kind of more political arena. So I knew that there was a world where perhaps I could do more like a lobbyist position from a health health perspective. Given my scientific background, I also knew that patent law potentially was an option for me where I could still stay close to the field. In fact, when I was an Arizona State and undergrad, I did an internship in patent law, so I had gotten some exposure to it then. And so I knew that there were some options. I’ll be honest, I think when I really got some clarity was I changed jobs, the health department to work in the immunization. In services office and with a program manager in their office. And there are two events, I guess it would be those defining moments. One, I was at one meeting steering committee meeting where the network for public health law was presenting. And here I see James Hodge, who is the regional director who still is a Arizona state. And it’s really built up such an incredible program there for public health law. He’s presenting on this topic and hearing it so basically, here, here I am listening to someone who’s marrying the things that I’m interested in right now, you know, talking about immunization and vaccination and lot in the same conversation. I was like, wow, this is what I’m really interested in. So I started talking with him. And he was kind enough to kind of open his doors, so to speak. So I could ask questions. And similarly, I had the opportunity to do a reverse site visit at CDC. And I was sitting in one of the presentations. And Matthew, who is the director of the Public Health Program at CDC started talking. And I remember going up to him afterwards. And I think I said verbatim, how do I be like you one day? Because then like, what you’re describing is exactly the one that you know, they’re talking about setting health law and health impacts health and health outcomes. And that just really clicked with me. So basically, from then on out, I was connecting with others in the field, Matthew introduced me to other folks on his team, they let me almost basically x turn with them and do some work while I was working for the health club in Arizona. And like this, is it. And so about when I graduated law school in 2015, I was already trying to think about how can I get a job at the CDC? You know, what can I do? How can I get in? And so my first job actually ended up being an Orion fellow in their Office of the Associate Director for Policy, but eventually ended up being able to make it into Matthew Penn Public Health Law Program at CDC, with a bunch of other public health attorneys as a small but mighty community.

Sujani 12:00
I love that story. I love that you went and asked an individual that you really like looked up to, like, how do I do what you do. And I think that’s such a important lesson to tell other people, your dreams and your goals, because they’re essentially going to help you get there. And we don’t have to do any of this alone.

Alexandra 12:17
I totally agree. I think that’s one thing that I’m- that I really try to encourage others to is to not be afraid to ask questions, not be afraid, to your point, go up to folks that you look up to, and ask them those questions. Because people want to help you people do want to, like pay it forward and help others get to, you know, find their direction, and navigate the journey. So I always try to encourage folks to not be afraid, because what’s the worst that can happen? You know, and the potential upsides of asking questions and putting yourself out there. So feel great.

Sujani 12:50
Yeah. You know, just to like, paint a picture of that scene. It sounded like there was a talk. And then this individual was there. And I’m assuming it was, there was a lot of people wanting to speak to him. Were you at all nervous? Like, you know, just some, some tips for for our listeners who may be like, I can’t even imagine myself like walking up to a speaker at a large conference and say, like, I want to be like you What do I do?

Alexandra 13:17
It was I’m, I can almost like picture the room still. So clearly, because it was one of their big auditorium seats. It was actually a big room there. There are lots of folks in the Senate. And I think there are a few folks that are- They were waiting around to talk to Matthew afterwards. And I think what I try to remind myself have is it’s a few things. So one, of course, I’m super nervous. So let’s not kid ourselves, like I was nervous myself, you know, you feel that kind of butterflies in your stomach thing, then you’re about to put yourself out there. But then you remind yourself again. So I tried to ask myself, like what was the worst that could happen in this situation is one thing I try to do. Honestly, though, once you pass your test that with yourself, you realize that this really isn’t a big deal. You’re just talking to another person. And you’re just trying to, you know, make a connection and get advice. And I find the more you do that, the more comfortable you get, by the way doing that. And I think I’ve put myself out there now, quite often that folks may realize that people want to get advice people actually do want to help and like I said, pay it forward. So I guess the advice is almost you have to kind of enter that discomfort that you’re going to feel when you’re putting yourself out there, but know that the value that you can get out of it is so worth it. Because oftentimes people are going to say yes. And want to talk to you.

Sujani 14:39
Yeah, it’s almost like you know, just going back to a point you made like exercising that muscle doing it over and over again. And that yeah, just that discomfort is going to lessen over time. I think about myself in the young me when when I tried to approach people and most often like the nerves got a hold of me and I would like walk away and not ask my question. And you know, the more I suppose you do that, the more you’ll convince yourself out of it, and you’ll see that there was so much value in the short conversation that you did have. And then you kind of like thrive on that positive reinforcement and keep doing it over and over again.

Alexandra 15:17
That’s 100%. Right? And even today, I mean, I don’t think you ever, I don’t think it’s something that gets old. I mean, even in my relatively mid career, and I still will go up to folks who are much more senior than me and ask for advice or ask for 20 minutes or two minutes of their time just to understand their journey, understand, you know, their thoughts on, you know, whatever situations I’m trying to grapple with, as I’m continuing to try to navigate my career.

Sujani 15:47
Yeah. I love that you said that. It’s like, it doesn’t just stop once you’re- you’ve become like, you’ve passed that, like early career stage, I think we’re always growing, we’re always needing that support. And, and we’re always needing to, like, get inspiration from others.

Alexandra 16:02
That’s great.

Sujani 16:03
Okay, so you spent about three years that CDC, and then what happened for you after that?

Alexandra 16:10
So I will say that that was it. The team was the best team I’ve ever worked with in my life. And I love my team at now. But we were all just a bunch of public health law nerds. And it was great. And but I think I was also looking for, like that next challenge. So I just been keeping my eyes out more passively for opportunities that were coming up and just trying to say, Oh, is that something that sounds interesting to me. And a role had opened up at Merck, the pharmaceutical company in vaccine policy, and it was a director of vaccine policy. And I said, Okay, I’ll apply. I remember the people that you worked at Murphy would come into the office and Arizona as part of health services, and they’re wonderful. So I was a little nervous at first, because I work, you know, I’ve always worked in government. And now I’m thinking about going to private sector to manufacture. But like I said, you know, I created some good relationships with folks who I knew that work there. And so I asked them questions. But long story short, actually, I applied for one role, and I didn’t get it, I interviewed and instead, they actually suggested that I might be a better fit for another role. And so then I interviewed for that, for policy development as an associate director role policy development for them. And that was it. So I accepted that job. I worked in that role, production policy development for about a couple of years. And then I was promoted in role to director. And it’s, it’s been really exciting, because what I can say is, I feel like I’ve been able to bring a lot of what we did in the public health locker room at CDC to Merck. So I feel like I can still get to do a lot of the fun policy research that I used to do, but then take it to the next level.

Sujani 17:53
What great timing, I mean, for you to get into that sort of a role, right, with the pandemic, almost just a year later from there.

Alexandra 18:01
That’s true. I mean, it’s, I think, when I think about the pandemic, so just to say, I moved about my home in June 2019, in Philadelphia, and then, you know, eight months later all working from home. But yeah, so I think the pandemic has really underscored a couple of things for me one, and I think the community that just the importance of vaccines, right, and we’re relying on vaccines right now, and to help us get through and finish this pandemic, and, like more endemic stage, but to also underscored, like the power of policy too, and how much it really underpins our public health and vaccine infrastructure. So as you were saying, you know, out there other public health attorneys at your meeting, or folks that are in public health law. I think the field is growing, but I think that the pandemic has really helped shine a light on how important law and policy is to improving and promoting public health.

Sujani 19:01
No, absolutely. Another part of this period of your- your career that I wanted to focus on and give our listeners a glimpse into is how the pharmaceutical world is in the lens of public health, I think, maybe maybe the pandemic has changed things. But I know prior to that, there was always a conversation around like, Oh, I’m in public health, I don’t necessarily want to go into Pharma. But I know that conversation is changing. And I know that a lot of great work happens when we do have these public and private sector partnerships. So yeah, I would love to, you know, not only focus on a day in the life of your role, but also maybe the conversations that you’re hearing now that you’re in a pharma company.

Alexandra 19:48
These are great question. So I’ll just say when people ask what I do, the first thing I say is, I’m in public health. I feel so deeply that the work we’re doing is still so anchored to public health, especially when you work in the vaccine space, you know, and so I still feel that way every day. And I think about the colleagues that I work with. And I know that they feel it too, to the point, I do think optically, maybe it’s- maybe that narrative is changing too, a little bit for the positive. That I think in terms of how the public is maybe viewing pharmaceutical companies, I think it’s, it’s a difficult space, but I do think I know, personally. And for the folks that we work with, even in the public sector, it was hoped, and I think that they do feel the same that we all have this common mission, which is for especially in the vaccine space, right? We’re trying to prevent disease, and promote vaccination, right? Like coming out of this pandemic, we don’t want to enter into like measles outbreaks, right? So how can we all work together and come together, recognizing that it takes all of us working together to be able to accomplish that shared mission?

Sujani 20:55
Absolutely. Yeah. So I guess like, as the director of US vaccine, public policy at Merck, what does a day look like for you? Or maybe, you know, a week?

Alexandra 21:06
So I like to say that I think I wear a few different hats on our team. So on one end, I lead our US vaccine policy research agenda. So what is that? You know, somewhat- What have I did it at CDC than was- what we call legal epidemiology, which is the study of law and how it can essentially impact if that health outcome, right, so I work with a lot of our research scientists to really put the evidence base and evidence based policy advocacy, so to speak. So what is the impact of cool vaccination requirements on vaccination coverage rates? Right. Do we see that when there are certain laws in place in certain nuances within the alarm place? We see higher vaccination uptake? Yeah, I think we recently published a study, I think maybe this was last year now, where we looked at Hepatitis A vaccination requirements and child care in schools to see when they are in place, we see higher vaccination rates in the States. And then within those states, depending on the strength of those requirements, right? Is it easy for parents? Is it more difficult for parents to maybe opt out? Or is it easier? Do you see any changes in the vaccination rates? And, you know, the answer is yes. Right? And so I think that’s part of the work I do. So it’s part of like, what is the day in my life look like part of it is leading that research. And still publishing, still going to some of the congresses and conferences and presenting, sharing with our colleagues, because as a female, we do have the resources to be able to do a lot of this research too. And there are gaps in the literature and our knowledge that we are able to sell. So we are happy to also share these findings with the rest of the public health community to help inform others efforts to as other stakeholders are trying to think about, you know, what are the right policies that they should be considering for their communities? That’s one aspect of it. And the other aspect of my job is almost that kind of pull through all of that research at the Federal National level. So I’m part of what I’m responsible for is federal and national vaccine policy. So you know, working with stakeholders, like folks in the government, whether it’s, you know, CDC or HHS more broadly or some of the partners, different immunization coalition’s and so forth, to really be thinking about how can we, as Merck play a role in supporting vaccination. And then of course, in addition to me, there’s a whole team that also works at the state level that tries to drive that good policy to support public health as well, at the state level, and really kind of toe the line to where there’s that policy that’s being proposed. That’s it in a nutshell, I think, again, like there’s a lot of meetings. There’s a lot- there are a lot of meetings, and there’s a lot of folks to work with. But it’s fun. There’s never a dull day.

Sujani 23:57
That’s awesome. You know, when I when I look at your role at the CDC, it was a public health attorney. And it sounds like you know, you’re doing more legal stuff. And I’ve done a couple of episodes on just kind of understanding, what does public health law entail within like, you know, health department, for example, how much of like, the legal aspect of your training, you’re using now at Merck, comparatively to like what you were doing at CDC?

Alexandra 24:27
Still use quite a bit of my training. So from the research perspective, in using it and that we’re creating almost legal databases of what laws look like across the country. So for example, pharmacists scope of practice laws, so to be able to understand what does the landscape look like and be able to speak to it and where does it need to get to I think having the public health law background is really helpful to understand it. And when you’re especially then when you’re thinking about, like, what does good law look like, as you’re trying to advocate for good law, right? The policies to be in place. I think that the background and the training is, is really helpful. I’ll say just as a side for anybody who’s interested in policy, though, and in that world It by no means do you need to be an attorney. Because I get that question a lot like you seem to be in policy, do you need to have a law degree? I will say, though, that for some of this work, it does help. Right, the way you look at the law and digest it and understand the power of a comma. And provision is really helpful.

Sujani 25:32
Yeah, that’s good insight. You mentioned working with a lot of stakeholders in your current role. And in your- in your previous role at CDC, you say, you know, there was a bunch of other attorneys that you were also working with. So your team was made up of other attorneys people that you could, I guess, talk the same talk with, whereas in your current role, it sounds like you’re working with a more diverse group of individuals. Could you talk a bit about like, you know, who you get the privilege of working with, you know, the backgrounds of these individuals.

Alexandra 26:02
And I’ll say just, you know, CDC, the team I was on, we are a bunch of attorneys, but we all had a focus area, for the most part. So I was in the vaccination space. So that meant I worked with the immunization services division, and CDC, and so ended up working with a lot of scientists and clinicians to work sometimes it was that we weren’t all speaking the same language. But I think having the public health index nation, programmatic background, helps kind of build those bridges. At Merck, it’s been in the engagement piece, there are so many different types of groups that we’re able to engage with the types of individuals from, even internally within work, you know, now that I’m working at a business you’re working with, like your commercial colleagues, right, the foods that are on the marketing teams, you’re working with folks that do like market research, and you’re working with people that are also on the data analytic side. So it’s cool, because you’re seeing and clinician, so every really good thing does, you know, exists there, right? It’s, it’s interesting to see how all the pieces fit together to again, drive that mission of every life protected through vaccination. And I think that’s an eye opening just from an internal perspective. And then when you think about externally facing I mean, I think again, the pandemic’s really underscore that everybody, like all of these groups have a role to play. So whether you’re talking about employers, or the education community, or the nutrition community, the disability community, so you’re talking that advocate for a lot of different spaces, who all care about the same thing, right, the health of individuals. And I think that’s really exciting. And I think that you can learn so much from other people, both the folks that we’re engaging with internally, as well as externally.

Sujani 27:43
You know, when you sit back and reflect on the journey that you’ve taken from, let’s say, you know, when your mom asked you, what do you want to do when you grow up to where you are today, what are some things I guess that come up for you in terms of like, do you wish you had taken a different path, or maybe, you know, a huge challenge that you had to face that you overcame, and you’re really glad that that came in your life, maybe just a bit about your reflection of- of your journey so far?

Alexandra 28:11
I had to think about maybe what the two things were that come to my mind when I reflect on my journey. If there was one thing I could have done differently. And I’m saying this, recognizing that I’m, I really am so thrilled with where I’m at today. But if there was one thing I could do differently, I think I would have really tried to dabble in a bit more internships and externships, particularly in undergrad and in part of grad school to I think back now, and there are so many different fellowships, and other externships that are available that can really expose you even earlier on in terms of where are the opportunities, and that’s one thing that I try to encourage students that I speak with and work with today, you know, like, have you heard of the TMS fellowship at CDC or P-Hat, there’s just, there’s so many great opportunities that you can get your feet wet, so to speak, in public health, a little bit earlier on to see the breadth of what you can do. So I would say that my one thing that I maybe would have done differently. And the other thing I think about that almost related to that is, I think earlier on I was sat on this path where I was so laser focused that I wanted to be a doctor. And I think about it now and I almost lost it. I never would have expected to be where I’m at today. And I think that my- my journey is just this, almost like it’s not as big as but you know, I’ve basically changed my career a few times and public health alone. And I know that I’m not done yet. And I anticipate that my career will continue to go in ways I can’t necessarily predict. The question I really don’t like is when people ask, where do you want to be in 10 years because 10 years ago, I’d never thought I’d be here today. And I think it’s good to have direction and know what things you get fired up with, right? Like, what- What makes you happy? Where do you start feel like getting some fulfillment from, but I don’t think you need to have a title for it. Right? Like you don’t have to have that specific role you’re anchoring to necessarily. And I think I’ve gotten to where I’m at by taking almost nothing calculated risks, but, you know, being flexible and open to new ideas along the way. So I guess that would be the other pieces, allowing yourself to have that space and flexibility and not necessarily having to have all the answers in terms of what you want to do with your life. Because I’ll say, I, I don’t know what I want to do, right. Like I said, in seven years, I’m not sure what position I’m going to be in, our focus will be in policy.

Sujani 28:28
I like the analogy that comes to mind for me, as you say, this is like I have a one year old now. And I remember when I was kind of getting ready for welcoming him, there was this like, talk or something I was listening to, and someone had said, you know, write up your birthing plan exactly how you want it, and then just like crumple it and throw it out, because often things don’t go as planned. And it’s almost like, you know, there’s this big goal. And then you want to have some direction towards it. But having the flexibility to say and trust yourself to like, lean into something else that comes your way and opportunity or people and just be open to that rather than saying, Nope, this is the plan I have. And this is the only planning and I follow.

Alexandra 31:29
Yep. And I think the other thing is, you made me a bit too is this idea of like failing forward to so sometimes things might not go to plan for you.

Sujani 31:38

Alexandra 31:39
But I think thinking of it as an opportunity. And I know that that’s so hard in the moment. So it’s easier said than done, but thinking of those moments as opportunities to learn to pivot to say to like that sec. Okay, so what do I want to do? Like, what are the other options before me, I think is also important.

Sujani 31:56
One of the final ish questions I ask is general advice you have for people in like their early or mid career, or students. But I think I want to kind of like, ask you specifically, advice around earlier. And we, when we started chatting, you kind of said that you were looking for the next challenge. And that’s what kind of motivated you to apply to the job at Merck. I don’t know, if you like recall that period. But advice around when someone is feeling like, you know, they’re called for the next thing, they’re looking for a new challenge. Just advice around how to, I guess, bring more clarity into that calling, or how to, like, lean in a bit more to that, because it’s, it’s very easy to kind of like to stay comfortable and say, you know, maybe, maybe I’m not going to take the risk of applying to a job in another city and having to, like, uproot my family, for example. But you know, if the, the need for you to have huge challenges is so strong, it’s almost impossible to ignore it. So yeah, just advice around, you know, what you, I guess we’re able to gather from your own experiences.

Alexandra 33:06
There are a couple of things. One that comes to mind is, for me, I always want to feel like I’m growing, even if it means developing within your role, but also feel like I have some sort of path or an idea of what’s know that I have like a next thing. Like, if I don’t feel, in some situations like I’m developing, I’m growing or I am staying stagnant for too long. I think there is just this insanity that that was a little bit where I need to figure out what that is, right? And sometimes it isn’t necessarily about changing your role. But maybe it’s about thinking about what can you do within your role to still grow and develop whether that maybe you can work with your manager on doing some sort of training to develop and continue to grow your skills expertise in a particular area, maybe it’s a stretch assignment. So I know that different types of organizations handle this differently. You know, at CDC, one, you could potentially look at detail. So you, you’re in your role, so that you leave your role to maybe work part time or full time in another position. Similarly, at Merck, we can do we called gigs, so you can spend 20% of your time in another role or 100%. So you can develop, you can stretch yourself in a way that you feel like you’re still growing. So I guess that would be for me, when I’m hitting that moment where I feel like I’m not learning and growing, developing, it’s a personal thing to a certain degree too. And in terms of the risk taking piece, I think that we all have different levels of tolerance and a different life situations that may not allow you to necessarily move across the country, but also say like in this post pandemic environment, remote working is also a lot more of a possibility. Like it wasn’t before. I mean, I just moved to Madison, and I’m working remotely now.

Sujani 34:53
Yeah, like I think the piece on growth and I think just outlining other possibilities that maybe lower risk, I think is great. And I think maybe what I’ll add is that even if the organization you work for doesn’t have a formal opportunity for you to stay in your role and experiment with other ones, they even bring that up as a possibility with your managers is a good start. Because you’re starting the conversation, you’re telling somebody that I’m interested in this other other area, are there ways that I could get exposure to it? I think that was, that was a great idea as well.

Alexandra 35:29
Yeah. And the other thing is, you know, there are other organizations you can be part of where you can also grow and develop and feel like you’re contributing. So for example, I’m part of the American Public Health Association, and I’m in the Health Law Section and leadership position there. And I feel like I can connect with not only connect with others in the community, but also provides another opportunity to grow and expose yourself and learn. So I almost wouldn’t limit yourself to the four corners of the wall of the company or even in, there are other ways that you can either volunteer or engage with other societies within your community, too. And the last thing I’ll say is, it almost comes back to the the other thing we were talking about around not being afraid to ask questions and talk to people, when you aren’t feeling like, I don’t know what that next thing is, Should I do a stretch assignment? Do I need to, you know, think about another opportunity here or there, you don’t need to make that decision alone, as you said, you know, talk to your manager. But I also think- I think my manager actually said it best. And I think I’ve also heard it in a book too, that you building your own personal board of directors is really important that you can like mentors. You know, maybe they don’t necessarily have to be people that is in your company that can be in different fields, but having people that you can go to and ask questions with as, as you’re trying to grapple with, okay, you know, I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my career right now. What do you think, you know, here’s the things I’m trying to think about. What do you, you know, how do you navigate a similar situation? But I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be afraid to talk to people and have those trusted kind of advisors that you can compress your test some of those decisions with.

Sujani 37:14
I love that. And I feel like I don’t need to ask my last question, because it was exactly that it was about community. And we’ve been asked from our community of public health professionals that they needed a space to connect. And so next month, we’re actually going to be listening to our community members and launching kind of this idea of a public health career club. And, you know, I’m curious to hear if a story comes to mind for you, where community or specific relationship really played a huge role in your career success.

Alexandra 37:44
So many instances where the relationships that you’re building along the way has been just so instrumental for so many reasons to, one, from just pure networking and trying to understand what other jobs are out there. Building and sustaining relationships is really important to have that network. So when you are applying for a job, so you actually know somebody that works at a company or people can give you advice of what it’s going to look like working in a pharmaceutical company, for example. I think that’s one side of it, that relationships are so important that I think right now, the other side is that I think our public health community is just so fatigued because of the pandemic. And so the other important role that the community plays, but also just being there for each other. And so I think that community that you’re also building can be helpful, just so that we all remember that we’re together and then it’s together and can support each other through it can be really difficult times because especially during the pandemic has been pretty rough across the entire public health community. And I’m thinking, obviously, the community rose to the challenge, but it hasn’t been easy on- on the community.

Sujani 38:59
Yeah. Yeah. No, thanks for- thanks for bringing that up as well. Well, now that we’ve kind of like, walked down memory lane, I’d like to take the last couple minutes to just ask you about what you’re excited for you, when you- when you think about the future of your career?

Alexandra 39:15
I am excited because I’m not necessarily sure where it’s gonna go yet. I think the more that- I think the more I’m learning and growing, the more I’m seeing that there is you’re putting yourself out there, there are so many possibilities. And sometimes that can be a little daunting to but that’s actually something I’m most excited about is, like I said earlier, 10 years ago, I never expected to be where I’m at today. And I imagine that- I can’t even begin to imagine where I’m gonna be in 10 years too. And so I’m excited because I think the field that I’m in is continuing to grow and evolve. And so I think that there are going to be new roles out there that we knew didn’t exist today. They don’t exist today. And so I’m looking forward to kind of what the future holds.

Sujani 40:02
Amazing. Thanks so much Alexandra for joining me and you know our community to share your career journey with us. And just thank you for all the great work that you’re doing in public health.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how it this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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