Katie Leach-Kemon, motivated by experience and empowered by math

Quick BIO: Katie Leach-Kemon, 29, data development manager at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation; master of public health from the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health.

“Changemakers” is our new series exploring how young people, connected and globally aware, are working to change the world. If you know a young person (think “Millennial” or “Gen Y”) committed to change, global health and the fight against poverty, please send the person’s name, short bio and contact info to Jake Ellison at jellison@kplu.org.

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

Katie Leach-Kemon arrived in Niger as a newly minted college grad, eager to help in her role as a community health agent with the Peace Corps. She teamed up with health workers who were identifying acutely malnourished children, and then assisting their mothers to better feed their kids. It was culturally sensitive stuff.

“I was straight out of college,” she said, “and I had a lot to learn.”

Leach-Kemon studied the more experienced workers to figure out how to relate effectively with the Nigerians. She eventually learned so much that she was able to deliver educational radio shows on hygiene, malaria and HIV/AIDS in Zarma – the dominant language of the region where she volunteered.

Here’s why and how Katie Leach-Kemon got involved in global health and development:

Q: Why is “global health and the fight against poverty” an important issue for you?

During her time in Niger, Leach-Kemon witnessed how hard life can be in a developing nation with severely limited resources.

“I had this incredible sense of urgency to ease suffering,” she said. And while there are many avenues for tackling these problems, she’s working to try to optimize healthcare treatment.

“If you can identify what things are most cost effective, that’s very powerful,” Leach-Kemon said. “It’s not enough to want to help people. We have a responsibility to make sure we’re investing our resources wisely to achieve maximum impact.”

Q: What personal experience inspired you? What idea is driving your commitment?

Again, Leach-Kemon recalls her time in Niger. “People you are friends with, doing all the right things, getting vaccines for their kids, using treated bed nets, breast feeding … then you see that their child dies suddenly of malaria, and it’s heart breaking and frustrating and just not fair,” Leach Kemon said. “That sense of urgency got me interested in global health.”

Q: Do you think your generation is more attuned to global issues such as global health and the fight against poverty?

“I think we are definitely more aware because of the fact that we have people, influential people, in our lives encouraging us to pay attention to it,” she said. Prominent donors and activists such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono have raised the profile of these issues.

Q: Do you think your generation will make a difference?

Yes, and “there are a lot of things they can work on.” Leach-Kemon said. “There’s need everywhere. It’s not just about helping people abroad; it’s about helping people here. Global health really means trying to help improve everyone’s health.”

Q: How did you land a job in this field?

“Being here in Seattle and being able to use contacts at the UW Department of Global Health, and contacts with IHME (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation), and taking more quantitative analysis classes than I’d planned on in my master’s degree,” she said. “There’s a dearth of quantitative analysis in global health.”

Q: If you were to advise someone on how to get a job in this field, what would you tell them?

Cultural and “contextual knowledge is important,” Leach-Kemon said. “Having quantitative skills, and having an open mind. If you’re trying to help people improve their lives in another country, you need to be open to other ways of doing things.”

Going abroad is a great way to learn firsthand about other nations and their cultures, but there are many immigrants from around the world living in the U.S.

“There’s a lot that can be learned from cross-cultural work that can be done here in Seattle,” she said.

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