Africa In Our Lives: Julius Gilayeneh

What’s your background and educational journey? 

I am a Medical Doctor and public health practitioner from Liberia. The evolution of my interest in public health is deeply personal. It was largely inspired by my interaction and experiences with the health system in my home country during my latter years in Medical School and particularly while practicing as a Medical Doctor in the largest “no fee for service” public hospital located in the capital city (Monrovia) in one of the biggest slum communities in the country. At this facility, I experienced firsthand the inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of the health system which was exposed by the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in 2014. As a young Medical Doctor with little or no experience in public health, I was privileged to be deployed to provide support during the EVD epidemic to the County Health Team in one of the hardest hit counties (Margibi) at the time when a record number of health workers were reported dead from the county primary public hospital due to EVD and infection was spreading rapidly in the county and across the country. The experiences and achievements from this assignment combined with my prior knowledge from working as a clinician helped shaped my desire to pursue opportunities that will equip me with the network, knowledge, and skills to contribute meaningfully to improving the quality of healthcare delivery in a resource limited setting like Liberia. The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders was one of such opportunities. I was privileged to be placed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the summer of 2016 where I networked with other young professionals with similar interest and acquired additional knowledge and skills to prepare me for future ventures in public health and leadership.

After the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I enrolled at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where I obtained a Master of Science degree in International Health and Tropical Medicine.  I immediately returned to Liberia and have served in various capacities within the health sector, including being the Head for Epidemic Preparedness and Response at the National Public Health Institute of Liberia and Deputy Program Manager for the National Malaria Control Program of the Ministry of Health of Liberia. Currently, I serve as the Deputy Director General for Technical Services and Chief Scientist at the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) where I am responsible to provide technical oversight and supervision over Liberia’s Disease Surveillance and Emergency Preparedness and Response Systems, Laboratory diagnosis and Quality Standards at the National Public Health Reference Laboratory, Public Health Workforce Capacity Building, as well as Environmental and Occupational Health activities. In this role, I also provide oversight for in-country Public Health and Medical Bio-Medical Research collaborations and activities and at times serve in investigative or advisory roles on various scientific research in Liberia, including the Fragments of the Forest project with Prof. Gregg Mittman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tell us about your experiences as a Mandela Washington Fellow.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship provided an exceptional learning experience and opportunity to network with and learn from other talented young professionals from across Africa and others in the United States. The fellowship experience has contributed significantly to my personal and professional growth and transformation by equipping me with networking ability and unique skillsets that has enabled me to navigate the health landscape as a major public sector actor in Liberia in search of sustainable solutions to address the current and emerging health needs of the population. During my fellowship at UW-Madison, we were exposed to a mixture of academic lectures, site visits, leadership institute sessions, community service, etc. What was most inspiring to me during the fellowship is the extraordinary commitment and passion that those I encountered demonstrated to the service of humanity. Reflecting on my experiences at UW-Madison as a MWF, I get reminded constantly that leadership is about service. This is what motivates me every day.

Tell us about the Fragments of the Forest project

Fragments of the Forest: Hot Zones, Disease Ecologies, and the Changing Landscape of Environment and Health in West Africa is a European Research Council Advanced Grant under the direction of Professor Gregg Mitman, who is a historian of science, medicine, and environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.  Gregg is leading an interdisciplinary team of PhD students from Liberia and Guinea, with backgrounds in molecular biology, conservation biology, and medicine, as well as a postdoctoral fellow from France, trained in social anthropology.  The team aims to explore the ecological, economic, political, and social forces at play that have turned fragments of the Upper Guinean Forests in Liberia and Guinea into “hotspots” where biodiversity conservation concerns, emerging infectious disease threats, and resource extraction interests converge. I am a scientific consultant on the project as a representative of NPHIL.  One of the goals of the project is to produce a history of the Liberia Institute of Biomedical Research, in partnership with NPHIL, that will feature the stories of Liberian scientists who did much to advance biomedical and public health research in Liberia.

Where can the ASP community learn more and support your work?

My work is mainly within Liberia at the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL).  NPHIL is a center for excellence in public health and science that was created by the Government of Liberia following the 2014-15 Ebola Virus Disease epidemic to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats. The establishment of NPHIL also brought the National Public Health Reference Laboratory (NPHRL) and the Liberia Institute of Biomedical Research (LIBR), established in the early 1970s, as two of six core technical divisions of the institute. The NPHRL is responsible for public health diagnostics while LIBR conducts public health and biomedical research. Thus, NPHIL leads the research agenda in Liberia and is collaborating with several institutions nationally and international to promote a culture of research and science in Liberia. The institution welcomes more support and collaboration from universities, research groups, and other institutions in the form of research partnerships, capacity building opportunities, strengthening of the lab system, etc. More information on our work is available online via the institution’s website:

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?

My career path has been quite linear although a few twists and turns were encountered along the way.  Altogether, these experiences have shaped my thinking and approach to life in general and my career in particular. I still clearly remember how terrified we were when the first case of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was diagnosed at the facility where I practiced in 2014 which was followed by a number of infections and deaths among health workers and subsequent closure of the facility. A few of my colleagues and I were re-assigned at the national referral hospital and by the second day of our assignment that facility too was hit by EVD with a similar sequence of events like the first facility. After being compelled by the circumstances to sit home, a few colleagues and I mustered the courage to volunteer with the EVD response activities. My main motivation was for our “lives to return to normal” because as long as the outbreak persisted, it was impossible to return to routine hospital work. After a month of volunteering, I was entrusted with a huge responsibility of coordinating the EVD response activities in one of the hardest hit counties along with the CHT. This experience for the couple of months was memorable. My understanding of the health landscape became different and my career direction changed.

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?

The most rewarding part of our work is to be able to produce measurable results and keep the population of Liberia and the world safe despite the numerous challenges delivering health interventions and service in a resource limited. We have successfully managed several disease outbreaks (including Lassa Fever, Measles, Monkey Pox, etc.) and public health events, thereby limiting geographical spread within and outside of Liberia.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

My career has transformed significantly over the past 6 years and I’m extremely proud of the extent to which I developed professionally and evolved over time. My scope and understanding of public health issues has been greatly enhanced. As a result, I’m more confident of my ability to contribute more meaningfully to the development of programs and policies that will positively impact population health, especially within resource-limited setting and in underserved, and vulnerable populations.