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AUA alumnus Dr. Garry Aslanyan (MPH ’97) is one of the first graduates of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program of the American University of Armenia (AUA). Starting his career in dentistry, Dr. Aslanyan soon realized that he wanted to go into Public Health to be able to solve issues that science alone could not. Manager of partnerships and governance at the World Health Organization (WHO), adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa, Dr. Aslanyan is currently also hosting the Global Health Matters podcast, which explores how innovative public health policies and strategies could contribute to achieving health for all. Learn more about Dr. Aslanyan’s journey in the interview below.
Dr. Aslanyan, you have had a very impressive career trajectory as a public health professional. Tell us please, how you started your journey in this field.
I think my choice of a career in health was instilled in me by my mother, who worked in a hospital laboratory. But the desire to make a change in the field grew stronger after I started working in a hospital and came across many people who had disabilities caused by the trauma they had suffered either from the 1988 earthquake or the first Artsakh War. I was very young back then, but looking back, I find that experience to be invaluable. It was through that experience that I have come to understand that prevention is as important as treatment, if not more, which is what triggered my interest in public health later in my career.
My first interaction with public health took place in Boston, at a lunch with my late aunt, who introduced me to the director of the Public Health Department of the city. As our conversation circled on topics of public health, I became intrigued by the political and other aspects of what seemed to be a simple issue: the fluoridation of municipal water of the city of Boston to prevent dental caries. I was fascinated with the combination of skills and knowledge that he possessed to operate effectively at that level. Before that encounter, I wasn’t sure what someone in public health does. But then, I understood that in order to solve many health-related issues, one has to balance knowledge and science with communication and public speaking to get to results that make a difference. And, later, when I learned about the AUA MPH program, I immediately thought that’s what I want to do! You know, the adversities of both earthquakes and wars are preventable.
What role did AUA’s MPH program play in your career growth?
The MPH program at AUA gives you fundamentals of public health on which you can build real life experiences. We were very fortunate to be the first MPH cohort to graduate from AUA, and I was actually the first in my class to present my master’s thesis as I had to do it early, just before my move to Canada. Being the pioneers of the program, we had the feeling that we had to succeed. I will not exaggerate if I say that every single person in my class was an overachiever, and all of them became outstanding professionals. Public health is a multidimensional and very broad discipline, and the MPH program gave me the foundations of all the skills I needed, which I later developed further, including comprehension of public policy, global health diplomacy, etc. I can say that after so many years, AUA’s MPH program remains unmatched in its quality and reputation both in Armenia, as well as in the region. We should be very proud of it.
How do you successfully manage to combine your job as the manager of partnerships and governance at WHO with research and teaching?
It is not easy in terms of time pressures, but I find these to be complementary. For example, the recent executive course in global health diplomacy that we launched at the University of Toronto brought together public health professionals and other colleagues who already work in various settings, both in Canada and globally. While we teach them the art and science of diplomacy, we also learn from their real life experiences and situations, which is invaluable. Similarly with research activities, while being in a management position, I don’t have time to actually do research, my engagement with research projects is to serve as a “knowledge user,” which helps the researchers tremendously to fine-tune their research questions and also make recommendations based on their findings that are in fact helpful to the health of people.
Currently, you are hosting a podcast called Global Health Matters, sharing experiences and views on different aspects of global health research. Tell us more about the podcast. Who are your guests? What topics and questions do you discuss?
Indeed, the podcast is a recent endeavor that our program at WHO has embarked on. There has been a shift in how people consume information, about which we quite often learn from the life stories and experiences of others. We noticed that there weren’t many podcasts on global health, and even less on how research/innovation helps us achieve our goals. Furthermore, we were shocked to find out that many do not include voices or guests from low and middle-income countries. Hence it was a no-brainer to launch the podcast. I had no prior experience in hosting or moderating a podcast, but with the help of the production team we have already produced six episodes focusing on topics like women in science, or why Africa was prepared for the pandemic better than people predicted or communication of science. Altogether, we will have ten episodes in 2021. I hope many colleagues and students at AUA will tune in and listen, and be in touch with their views or suggestions. Plans are also underway for season two of the podcast in 2022.
In a time of the global pandemic, when the whole world is facing challenges every day, what is your advice as a public health professional?
My main advice is to focus on integrity and open communication with colleagues and the public. So much of what we may not be able to do is rooted in mistrust or lack of transparency. So those in public health should be very clear and transparent about what they do and how they do it. I also think Armenia could become a leader when it comes to health and/or public health – one doesn’t really need to be rich to have a healthy society if we focus on prevention and have a long-term strategy to that effect. Armenia could also be a leader in global health diplomacy – current trends are a bit worrying in terms of global health policies as many countries are looking more inward. My dream is to launch a global health diplomacy program in Armenia. Who knows, maybe one day my dream will become a reality.
You started your career in dentistry and maintained your license to practice dentistry in Ontario. Do you ever miss your job as a dentist?
I don’t miss the actual day-to-day practice. But I am involved in the profession as I am the Chief Examiner for the specialty of Dental Public Health for the Royal College of Dentists of Canada, a body that bestows fellowships to successful candidates, which is the highest degree of honor for a dentist. Also, you may know that oral health is not included in Canada’s otherwise well-known universal health care system. In my free time, I provide advice on strategic directions on how we can make place for oral health in the system.
What would be your career advice to young people in public health?
One piece of advice I give to many young public health professionals is to make sure to experience the “public” side of public health. It is very important to spend at least some part of one’s experience working in government, regardless of the level. In democratic societies, this is an important experience to have, even if you don’t end up making a career out of it. Very often, those working in public health lack that experience, which ultimately makes it more difficult to make the changes we need considering the inexperience and uncertainty of how things work and what is the most strategic approach to resolving current public health problems.