9 February 2019
From studying at London’s global university to pursuing a career in global health for the World Health Organisation, UCL alumna Zainab Naimy is helping change the world.
UCL alumna Zainab Naimy (Global Health, 2011) describes herself as “Norwegian, with an Afghan background, working for the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Switzerland, where she supports countries across Africa and Asia in improving quality of care for women and children”. With such a global reach, it comes as no surprise that we decided to interview her for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
For the last seven years, Zainab has focused on improving the health of mothers and their children in some of the most impoverished nations through her work with the World Health Organisation and through academic research.
“I started my public health career initially at WHO Nepal where I was working with the government and multi-stakeholder partners to improve health services for women and children; from childbirth through to adolescence.”
Today, Zainab works at WHO’s Network for Improving Quality of Care for Maternal, Newborn and Children Health. Ensuring safe births is still a challenge in many areas of the world. WHO estimates more than 300,000 mothers and 2.7 million newborn infants die annually as a result of a lack of access to consistent quality of care.
Zainab said: “Currently, I am working at a global level to support 10 countries across Africa and Asia to improve the quality of health services delivered to mothers and their newborns.”
The Network has an ambitious mission to halve maternal and newborn deaths and stillbirths in health facilities within five years.
Zainab’s role involves the large and often delicate task of assisting in-country offices in implementing improvements in their health systems. “My work involves day-to-day technical support for the countries we are specifically working with. This includes policy dialogue and coordination with ministries of health towards improvements in quality of care across the health care system,” Zainab explains.
A seamless step change
Zainab’s career didn’t start in global health. It was during her training as a medical doctor where the first inklings to explore global health started.
Zainab said: “I wanted to expand my focus from individual clinical cases and understand how we can create an enabling environment where good quality care can be delivered consistently.
“During a visit to Afghanistan, I had a first-hand encounter that showed the challenges that low and middle-income countries face, especially in fragile settings. While there, I was involved in a car accident. Luckily we escaped without major injuries but it did give me insight into how unstable health systems can be in developing countries.”
Zainab continued: “After that, I was even more motivated to direct my professional goals towards helping countries that face greater difficulties in building robust health systems.”
As London’s global university, UCL felt like the perfect stepping stone. After hearing about the MSc in Global Health at UCL at a summer course at the University of Copenhagen, Zainab knew she had to apply and “hasn’t looked back since”.
While she didn’t think she would be pursuing a career in global health, Zainab always knew she would work in science. Growing up with a father who was a successful surgeon, studying medicine seemed like a familiar path. “We often see ourselves as what we can see around us. Being familiar with science and medicine allowed me to imagine myself in the same field.”
But Zainab recognises that not everyone’s path into science is as straight forward, particularly for women in this industry.
“I have been lucky to work in environments with very diverse cultures. I do realise that isn’t the case for many. “Traditionally, there hasn’t been many role models for young women in science, making it difficult for them to imagine themselves working in these industries. It’s difficult to imagine what you cannot see,” commented Zainab.
What advice would she give to the next generation of women (and men) looking to make a break in science?
“Talk to others,” says Zainab. “People have reached where you want to see yourself and can help you navigate a sometimes not so clear path.”
“One piece of advice that someone gave me was that early in your career it doesn’t matter where you work, but who you work with. I have found that to be true; you can learn a lot if you’re in the right conducive environment and with the right support.”