Over the last two decades, Beatriz Thomé, MD, MPH, PhD, has worked as a pediatrician, research manager, university lecturer, and monitoring & evaluation specialist in countries as geographically disperse as Mozambique, Switzerland, and her native Brazil. When asked what’s the thread that ties together her wide-ranging career in public health, global health, and medicine, Thomé responds with a simple question: How can I contribute?
“When you have an approach to health that comes from ‘this is a human right,’ and fighting for better health overall and for a world that is more just and fair, I think you can do it anywhere you sit,” said Thomé during a phone interview from her home outside Geneva.
Thomé has had her eye on the big picture ever since she was introduced to the concept of the social determinants of health as a medical student at the Federal University of São Paulo. While her colleagues were thinking about what specialties or procedures they wanted to focus on, Thomé sought out opportunities to better understand how culture, environment, and politics impact primary and family health. For example, she joined a university group that provided health care and training to indigenous communities in the remote Xingu Indigenous Reserve in Mato Grosso, Brazil. That experience, which exposed her to traditional healing practices and the challenges of implementing health care interventions in limited resource settings, influenced the shape of her professional trajectory.
After completing her residency in pediatrics in 2005, she accepted a volunteer and, later, a full-time opportunity in Mozambique with Columbia University’s ICAP. At the time, Mozambique was recruiting pediatricians to help administer pediatric formulations of antiretroviral medications to children living with HIV. As a pediatric HIV clinical advisor, Thomé was tasked with helping to plan and scale a nationwide pediatric HIV care program, including developing a training curriculum for non-pediatric physicians and other health care personnel.
As Thomé’s career began to tip over from medicine to public health, she realized that her clinical training had not adequately prepared her for the professional challenges she was facing in Mozambique. To fill in the gaps in her skillset, Thomé enrolled in the University of Washington Department of Global Health (DGH) Master of Public Health program in 2008.
In Seattle, Thomé was pleased to discover that her MPH community openly discussed issues of equity and justice, something she says is “not exactly the rule” in global health discourse.
“Having this incredible group of people in the northern hemisphere talking about that is not the norm. I wasn't ready for that. I felt home at home instantly,” said Thomé – who was raised and educated in a country where healthcare is a constitutional right – during an alumni conversation hosted as part of the 2021 Global Health Career Week.
While at UW, Thomé continued to work in Mozambique through the nonprofit organization and DGH center Health Alliance International, where she conducted her thesis research on barriers to care for pregnant women diagnosed with HIV. She also gained a network of like-minded peers and a strong foundation in technical skills like biostatistics and epidemiology, which opened new doors for her as her career progressed.
Following her graduation from UW in 2010, Thomé spent the next four years in New York as an HIV Care and Treatment Clinical Officer with ICAP. In 2014, she returned to Brazil, where she transitioned into working on vaccine development for dengue fever and influenza for the public health system, became a lecturer at her alma mater, Federal University of São Paulo, and earned a PhD in Infectious Diseases from the University of São Paulo.
In 2020, once again in search of a new perspective on global health, Thomé (who is fluent in four languages) relocated to Europe to work for the Global Fund. As part of the Monitoring & Evaluating Country Analysis Team, Thomé coordinates an initiative co-funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to strengthen community health systems through digital solutions. In her role, she works closely with Ministries of Health in Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia to integrate new technological tools into existing health information systems, a project made all the more critical due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reflecting back on her storied career to date, Thomé said she sees her professional choices as “different chapters of the same book,” and rejects the conventional wisdom that you have to specialize in a particular function, or choose between public or global health. Her diverse experience is an advantage, she added, because it gives her insight into how the strategic national programs she works on will be implemented by the communities they’re intended to serve.
“The way I like to conceptualize global health is issues in health that are relevant to other populations,” said Thomé. “You need to be respectful and mindful of the differences – how health will mean different things to two different populations and the approach to providing health will be different. But at the same time there's something universal about health that needs to be ensured.”
Regardless of her current job position, Thomé finds ways to apply what she’s learned in previous roles and contribute to causes she cares about. For example, although she no longer works in vaccine development, she has participated in multiple vaccine ethics groups. Currently, she is the co-chair of the WHO Ethics & COVID-19 Working Group, which has recommended guidelines for establishing ethical research conditions during an emergency and implementing quarantine measures that balance collective interest with individual liberties.
For Thomé, her participation in these committees is about more than just personal interest or subject matter expertise. It’s also an opportunity to bring a balanced point of view to critical global health conversations and decisions.
“It's important when a woman from the Global South has a seat in any discussion because that's not necessarily always the case,” said Thomé. “I feel like I’m there for myself, but also to represent the Global South. I really try to bring in our perspective and a woman's perspective as well. Every time I get a chance to take part in a group, it's a step ahead for many of us.”
As for where she sees herself in the future, Thomé says she looks forward to being able to travel again to collaborate with colleagues and communities in partner countries. Other than that, she’s keeping her options open, and encourages aspiring global health professionals to do the same.
“What I’ve learned in more than 10 years now is that within public health there's so many things that you can do,” said Thomé. “It may be that I won't be doing HIV, TB and malaria work or data systems as I am now. It may be research again, it may be vaccines again. But it will be public health, that's for sure. That’s the part that remains the same.”
Learn more about the UW global health alumni network, which includes more than 460 graduates of DGH degree programs working across five continents to improve health and eliminate health disparities around the world.