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Becky Bartlein, health advocate, hot on the trail of bad drugs

Quick BIO: Becky Bartlein, 28, research coordinator for the University of Washington’s Global Medicines Program; master of public health from the UW’s Department of Global Health

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

This is the second installment of our new series “Changemakers” 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


It’s been a battle to get drug manufacturers to make medicines needed by people in developing countries, drugs to treat diseases expunged from wealthy nations. But what happens when the drugs finally reach these populations – do they work? Are they being used safely? Are there nasty side effects?

Becky Bartlein is trying to answer these questions as part of the newly formed Global Medicines Program at the University of Washington. She is the research coordinator for the program, which launched in 2010. In her role, Bartlein does everything from grant writing and managing budgets to creating research protocols and compiling data.

The program is involved in multiple projects, including one that’s tracking the effects of anti-malarial drugs in pregnant women in Africa, and another examining the side effects of HIV drugs in patients in Namibia.

“We look at populations that are not usually part of clinical trials,” Bartlein said. “It’s important that someone is looking for adverse events.”

Here’s why and how Bartlein got involved in global health and development:

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

Bartlein, who grew up in Wisconsin, is following the lead of her elders. “My grandmother was a very strong advocate of universal health care. I grew up with this notion of the need for social justice and equity and the fact that healthcare, and good health, is a right that everybody should have.”


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

Bartlein first worked abroad in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then she was a crisis volunteer with the International Organization for Migration assisting people displaced after a typhoon struck the Philippines. There she focused on issues of domestic violence and assault. (Editor’s note: The order of Bartlein’s experience were incorrect in the original version of this story.)

“I lived in a rural village in Senegal
for two years, and more than the work I did there, I became very close with my host family and my host community,” she said. “It strengthened my belief that we’re all the same and we deserve the same opportunities and the same level of care.”

Bartlein knows she’s had more advantages simply because of where she was born. “I’m not succeeding because I’m smarter or more worthy, it’s just a matter of circumstance. This is my way to attempt to make those circumstances fairer.”

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

“Yes. We get so much information from the internet and TV and all the advocacy groups out there it’s sometimes overwhelming to parse out what’s important,” Bartlein said. She also wondered if the awareness is somewhat limited to educated, upper-middle-class young people, while “there are still a lot of young Americans who are struggling with the fact that there are not jobs for them.”

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

“I think we can make a difference, but I don’t think we should expect it to come quickly. We’re a generation of kind of immediate gratification,” Bartlein said.

She also said that she and many of her peers are conditioned to thinking that ‘x’ action always leads to ‘y’ result.  “I learned in Peace Corps that you can put in a lot of effort and see very little result. That can be frustrating for my generation. It’s going to take a lot of dedication and hard work, and not adhering to the fads with global health that come and go.”

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

Bartlein from her time in the Peace Corp.

While she was working on her master’s degree, Bartlein was a research assistant to the UW’s Andy Stergachis. At the same time she was graduating, Stergachis became director of the Global Medicines Program and encouraged her to apply. She feels lucky to have the job.

“It’s so disheartening out there,” she said. “I’ve been in this situation. You send in your résumé and you’re perfectly qualified, but you never get a call because there’s someone on the inside.”

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

“I’m a big proponent of Peace Corps. Two years in a village or town or city in another part of the world is really important to understanding the context. It gives you more than a six-week or six-month study aboard program can,” Bartlein said. Another option is simply to travel to a developing nation and help out where possible.

She added: “Figure out what you’re good at. We don’t need a million epidemiologists or a million of anything. We need web designers, people who are good at making mobile phone apps, we need managers. Figure out what you’re good at and what you enjoy, even if it doesn’t seem like a very clear connection to global health.”

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