HEAL Spotlight: Alexandra (Ali) Jones

  • Name: Alexandra (Ali) Jones
  • Originated from: Sydney, Australia
  • Global public health areas of expertise: Food policy, public health law
  • Educational background: Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (University of Sydney), Master of Laws (Global Health Law) (Georgetown Law, Washington D.C. USA), PhD (Medicine and Health) (University of Sydney)
  • Jobs before your current position: Graduate lawyer in corporate practice, human rights advocate, legal policy advisor, now public health researcher
  • Recent webinars/publications you’re proud to be featured on: BMJ Editorial: UK’s Sugar Tax Hits the Sweet Spot and the BUPA Foundation’s Emerging Health Researcher Finalized 2020 video:
  • Advice for emerging global public health professionals: All disciplines are welcome here! We need people working in global public health that aren’t just coming from a medical/science background. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that global public health issues are all around us–to address them we need scientists, but we also need a diversity of other experts. There isn’t one course of study that is ‘right’ to bring you to this field—there are so many ways you can come into global public health. Look at the organizations that are doing the work that you like, the kinds of people they employ, and write and speak to them. Most jobs in the world aren’t advertised in an open call out, they go to people who are already known to those working inside. You still need to have the skills, but it’s a huge advantage to be already familiar if you want to get a foot in the door. In summary, read widely about public health issues that interest you and be curious and brave in approaching people working on those ideas and in thinking about how you could contribute to that work.
  • Personal website: https://www.georgeinstitute.org/people/alexandra-jones
  • Twitter handle: @alikjones

Your story

I’m a lawyer, and I studied law because I wanted to protect disadvantaged people in society. Unfortunately, in law school culture, it’s very easy to get sucked into working in the corporate law world. I did do that for a couple of years, and it was an important training experience for me. I didn’t last long, because it didn’t make me feel good. Most of my work was about making rich people richer. After a couple of years, I successfully applied for an Australian government program that gives young professionals development experience (a bit like PeaceCorps) and was sent to Cambodia for a year. That year taught me how hard development is, and also how naïve I was to go in thinking a 25-year-old could help Cambodia’s human rights situation. However, I also saw a lot of promise in health because all countries have an interest in improving the health of their populations—both for health and economic reasons. It seemed to be one of the more inspiring parts of development work. When I left Cambodia, I didn’t have a clear plan, but I knew I wasn’t going back to corporate law. I considered a Master’s in Public Health, but somewhat by chance I found a master’s program in Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It proved the perfect opportunity for mixing my law background with public health.

The discipline of global health law really grew during the AIDS epidemic, and the human rights movement that came with it. The most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in society were suffering the most during the epidemic, and in many ways, law was part of the solution in holding governments to account for providing the prevention tools and treatment they needed. At Georgetown I was fortunate to work on HIV/AIDS policy for a few years, but I also knew that it was an area in which a lot of people had already forged careers and much health progress had been made.

In contrast, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) now kill the majority of people worldwide, including those in low- and middle-income countries. There’s still so much work to do. The vectors of these diseases are not viruses or bacteria but, in many cases, unhealthy products (tobacco, alcohol, junk foods) marketed by transnational corporations. There’s a huge need for lawyers to work on policies that will put higher standards on these companies and make sure health comes before profits.

All of the WHO resolutions on NCDs include language calling for contributions from outside the health sector to address the global health burden of these conditions. That’s why I’ve found my calling in this area. We’ve done well using law to control tobacco, but food is the next wave. That’s why it’s the space I want to serve and advocate in.

Inner Lantern glow-up 

  • Lessons learned over the last year or so: There’s always so much work to do and it will never be all done. You also need to take a break from work for it to be sustainable in the long run.  Burn out is not useful for you, nor the people you’re working with and for.
  • What’s your favorite global health organization/agency and why: The Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) are a group of lawyers who help countries draft tobacco and food policies and laws, and to navigate the political process of getting them implemented It’s a very top-down approach, but that top level can change the health of the population.
  • If you didn’t have to work what would you do: Ride my bike! I bike-pack, where I put my tent on the back of my bike and you just ride around in nature and camp wherever you’d like. I’d go on an around-the-world bike-packing trip and speak to people along the way about the issues that matter to them.
Ali using the bike as an escape from work in the Australian alps
  • What is one of your proudest accomplishments: What I’m hoping to do is tread a path that shows more lawyers that they can work in the public interest.  There’s a lot of smart people who want to put their legal skills to good use. To the health professionals I work with, I hope I’m showing that regulators and lawyers, not just doctors and dieticians, can reduce health risks and save lives.
  • Coolest global public health specialization to be in: I’m biased, but of course food policy. Better food systems are the key to both human and environmental health. If you’re working on food policy, you’ll be working on human health and climate change, and that to me is the coolest thing.
  • What’s one thing everyone in the global public health field should know: All voices matter. We need to decolonize global public health. We often hear voices of those at the top, which are too often still privileged males. We’re all interconnected, and the best solutions will come from a chorus of diverse voices.
  • What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned thus far: You can’t do everything, and you’re not going to do everything perfectly. It’s okay to choose an area you’re passionate about, work on it, and not expect to know everything. As long as you’re always open to not being right, then that’s great. A very good answer to something is, “I don’t know, tell me about it.”
  • Favorite work memory thus far: I just received a reminder this week on Facebook that eight years ago, I was in Kenya with Peter Piot, a senior elder of the HIV/AIDS movement, and a bunch of local public health specialists talking about the rollout of PrEP (preexposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV transmission). They were laughing about condom education, but also speaking about how much the HIV situation in Kenya and Africa at large had improved. I was able to see on the ground the difference that a mix of preventive options and medicine has made to the prognosis for people living with HIV.  
Ali in Kenya with the condom education team
  • What is special about the place where you grew up: I’m from Sydney, Australia and the landscape here is what makes this city special. Right now, I’m living by the coast and listening to the birds outside.
  • What makes you happy: Speaking to policymakers and the public about our research. It’s fun. Today I did newspaper and radio interviews, and in both cases I have to translate complex findings into language that makes ordinary people care. I get a lot of joy out of that.
  • Favorite place to eat in your hometown/area you’re currently living in: I like to take a picnic of my own snacks to the beach.
  • If you could live anywhere, where would you live: I’ve lived all over the world but I’m very content to be home in Sydney.
  • What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation: The Australian Health Star Rating front-of-pack nutrition label, and lessons for other countries to do this kind of labelling better (cheating, because that was my PhD topic!)
  • Urgent issue in global public health you wished more people knew/cared about: I think we’re pretty good at dealing with things that are urgent, like COVID-19. I wish more people (and more governments) cared about NCDs–they’re a ‘slow motion’ disaster–which makes them much harder to get politicians to care about.
  • What do you wish you knew more about: Decolonizing global health. I know I’m already very privileged, and I want to understand more about how I’m part of a system that isn’t equitable, and what I can do to change that and empower others to rise.
  • What location is at the top of your travel bucket list: Antarctica. I was meant to go there this year as part of a women in STEM leadership project (Homeward Bound) but because of COVID I’ll believe it when it happens.
  • What lifestyle changes are you trying to make: I’m happy with what I have going—I’ve never owned a car and ride a bicycle everywhere. I eat a healthy diet but I’m not too restrictive. I’m trying to drink alcohol only on weekends.
  • What is worth splurging on every time: Good, fresh produce.
  • How will you make your life a “meaningful life”: Hopefully by doing work that improves the health of millions of people, and by caring for the people closest to me.
  • Best trip of your life thus far: My time in Cambodia—both travel and work for a year. The jump from being a young lawyer in Australia to living in the chaos of Asia, and from working at a law firm to lawyering when there’s no functioning rule of law…I learned so much about Asia and about myself.
  • Three words those close to you would use to describe you: That’s tricky. I’d guess articulate, driven, and (hopefully) kind.  
  • Role models: In terms of authentic female leadership, Corinna Hawkes from the UK. The last time we invited her to give a speech, she gave it on examples of when she’d failed in her work and what she learnt. She’s actively establishing a global leadership network for women in food policy that’s very inclusive. I’m also hugely indebted to Bruce Neal, my PhD Supervisor–he’s an amazing scientist, pragmatic policy advocate, and a good friend.
  • Advice on going for a PhD: A PhD is a big undertaking and depending on where you do it can be a big commitment financially and emotionally. It’s a test of determination, not necessarily intelligence. Given that it won’t necessarily bring you financial or job security at the end either, I think it’s wise to be strategic and think, “Is this something I need to get where I want to go?” I remember whining a bit to a mentor (Prof Boyd Swinburn) when I was deciding whether to proceed and he told me that I “should see it as a privilege to spend three years of my life becoming a world expert in something I cared about.” He was right, of course, but it wasn’t all roses. Another great piece of advice I received from Australia’s Professor Rob Moodie was to make it work for me. It’s a unique opportunity in your life to learn from people you really respect, or to take yourself to countries where you really want to get experience. As long as you can remind yourself why you’re doing it and what the long-term goal is, it will help you get through the tricky days.
  • What is the best way that someone can spend their time: Doing things they enjoy. In a career context, it’s ideally about finding something you enjoy doing and then becoming good at it. That’s your unique contribution to the world.
  • You dream of a world where: Everybody gets to sit down to a healthy and sustainable meal each night.
Ali (left) at the Food Governance conference with friends and mentors: (from left to right) Sandro Demaio, Boyd Swinburn, Belinda Reeve, and Corinna Hawkes
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