A “woman of courage” reflects on a career in global health

Woman wearing purple sash with text reading "Women of Courage" stands next to smiling man.
Dr. Jacqueline Sherris and PATH cofounder Gordon Perkin at the University of Washington Women’s Center’s Women of Courage awards. Photo: University of Washington Women’s Center/Alan Abramowitz.

This month, Dr. Jacqueline Sherris, our vice president for public health impact, will leave PATH to start a global health consulting business. Jackie is internationally recognized for her expertise in global health and known as a passionate advocate for women’s and children’s health. Michele Burns, PATH’s content director and one of Jackie’s early hires, asked Jackie to reflect on the evolution of global health since she joined PATH in 1988.

Q. I understand you were named a “Woman of Courage” by the University of Washington Women’s Center recently. Congratulations!

A. Thanks. It was an honor to receive that award.

Q. Given the stature of previous honorees—such as Senator Patty Murray and former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire—this is a tremendous testament to your achievements. As you were receiving the award, which of your accomplishments stood out as the most important?

A. At PATH, I’ve been most proud of my ability to channel the tremendous capacity, skill, and knowledge we have across the organization and bring it to bear on critical global health problems. Because I have a history with the organization, I’ve been able to mobilize my networks and experience across PATH to help us move big projects forward. And it’s been so exciting to see long-term projects reach big successes, whether they’re addressing meningitis, cervical cancer, Japanese encephalitis, or HIV in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I’m also proud of the people I’ve hired. I’ve been directly involved in hiring and/or mentoring a number of PATH’s current program and project leaders. If there’s a legacy I have at PATH, they’re it!

Two women and a man stand in front of a pharmacy counter. Behind the counter, two workers stand in front of shelves of products..
Jackie visits a pharmacy in Vietnam with a group of PATH supporters to see our work in strengthening the skills of pharmacy staff. Photo: PATH/Nguyen Ba Queng.

Q. What was the field of global health like when you entered it in the early 1980s?

A. Well, we didn’t call it “global health” back then—we called it “international health.” And there was a lot of interest in (and funding for) family planning and population issues at the time. Vaccines and disease eradication were a big focus too. Smallpox had just been declared officially eradicated from the globe in 1980, and there was excitement about bringing this learning to other infectious diseases. HIV was only beginning to be understood as a major global threat, and with it tuberculosis—which the public health community thought was defeated—was reemerging.

It was an exciting environment, but it was so much smaller than it is today. In Seattle, PATH was really the only global health [nongovernmental organization] at that time. The amounts of money were much smaller, too. I remember being thrilled about getting $60,000 to do some important work for the United Nations, but frustrated at the limits we faced in taking good work to scale.

Q. How would you contrast that environment to today’s?

A. The global health architecture is fundamentally different now. In addition to the US Agency for International Development and the United Nations, which were critical actors in the early days, many additional influencers are addressing global health today—groups like the Gates Foundation and GAVI, as well as entities in the private sector.

The disease burden is different, too. As we’ve made progress against some of the leading causes of infectious disease, especially HIV, malaria, and TB, we’ve seen shifts in epidemiology and disease burdens. Noncommunicable diseases are now becoming a much more significant cause of illness and death.

And we have so much more information today. In the early days, we just didn’t have the nonstop flow of information, data, ideas, and innovations that we have now.

A group of six people stand in a hallway.
Jackie helps show US Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, third from right, around PATH’s Seattle heaquarters. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

Q. PATH has grown tremendously over your time here. Have any elements remained the same?

A. I think what PATH has always done really well—and what I always had admired in Gordon Perkin, PATH’s first president and my first boss here—is our interdisciplinary approach and way of looking at problems. We don’t just say, wow, malaria is a big problem, so we’ve got to get bednets out there. Instead, we work to understand the malaria problem and take a thorough look at the interventions we have today as well as those that are on the horizon, like new drugs and vaccines. We think about how the private sector gets involved, make sure policies are in place, get governments to come on board, and so on.

We can do that much more effectively now—because we’re bigger, we have deeper experience and skills, and we have more resources. But we did it back then too. Our staff were always aware of the broad scope of the issues affecting public health challenges.

Woman wearing a tiara and feather boa speaks into a handheld microphone.
Jackie dressed for the occasion: awarding the highest PATH staff honors at a ceremony. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

Q. Thinking about your day-to-day experiences here, some moments must certainly stand out. Can you describe one or two?

A. Well, getting a check for $2 million from the Gates Foundation—made out to me!—will always be one of those funny moments I’ll remember. That was when PATH and five other organizations had just been funded by the Gates Foundation to establish the Alliance for Cervical Cancer Prevention. That first payment illustrates just how new the processes and systems were at that time. Obviously, it was really exciting to get that level of funding for an issue we cared so much about.

Other moments in my cervical cancer work stand out too. I was thrilled when we were able to bring collaborators from four countries together to launch the early stage of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine project. It set the stage for a multicountry effort that was a really rewarding experience.

Q. Do you have advice for people starting out in global health?

A. I generally tell people who are starting out to first get a really good academic grounding in the areas that they’re passionate about, whether that’s public health, communications, bioengineering, or business. They should get really strong technical skills so they can bring that expertise to their job.

And I encourage them to take different opportunities for gaining real experience related to global public health. For some, that may mean spending a year in Africa, or working in a community health clinic. For others, it may be working at a business that develops safe water treatments. However it happens, they should get that that grounding and then apply it to the areas that they’re passionate about.

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