Meet Professor Amita Vyas, Ph.D.

Why Public Health?

I was always drawn to the health field and had a great deal of the idealist in me. But it wasn’t until a very special and adventurous journey that my eyes and mind opened to the world of public health. As a college student, I read an award winning book, the City of Joy, based on the true story of young doctor who travelled to Calcutta India to work with Mother Teresa’s Missionary. That one story inspired me to convince a few close friends that we need to do the same. So at the age of 20, I travelled across the globe to India and knocked on Mother Teresa’s door. I spent that summer working in her Center for the Dying and Destitute---where men and women spent their last days---many of whom had leprosy, TB, and other life threatening illnesses. I spent my days mostly with dying women, providing basic care, giving them a human touch, trying to give them hope, and listening to their stories. That experience exposed to the true meaning of the saying “being born female is dangerous to your health.”

I was able to see how poverty, lack of education and empowerment, violence, and other gender inequities are at the core of so many health issues faced by women and families. That was the beginning of my journey into public health…..and more specifically into the field of population health and maternal and child health.

What is the focus of your current research?

My research focuses primarily in the area of reproductive health—both in the United States and globally, where despite so many efforts, we continue to live in a world where every minute a woman dies of childbirth, where there is a feminization of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, where women are used as weapons of war, and 1 in 3 women globally are victims of violence. We live in country where almost 50% of all pregnancies are unintended, where and 1 in 4 teenage girls have an STD, and where the right to choose is still debated amongst our policy-makers. We live in a city where children and families live in urban poverty and disproportionately suffer adverse health outcomes. The MCH program and our faculty address these and other issues through research, practice, and service. We provide a classroom environment where we can discuss the complexities of these issues, intelligently discuss solutions, and learn how to work alongside diverse communities and cultures.

What is the best part of your job as a professor here at GW?

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of my work is watching students take the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom and apply it to public health issues they are so passionate about---every semester I am amazed at the level of energy and commitment students share to public health. GW students are special---they want to be in the Washington D.C. community making a difference and they want to reach across the globe to make a difference. GW students want to touch and feel public health---not simply read about it from inside a classroom. Our students embody the true principles of public health and service.

I understand that you travelled to India on an HIV/AIDS mission with Ashley Judd, the Global Ambassador for YouthAIDS.

While visiting HIV prevention programs in Dharavi---the largest slum in all of Asia where 1 million people live on 400 acres of land – I was surrounded by a group of young children. As they asked me so many questions about the United States and myself, I told them I was a professor from George Washington University, and one of them looked up at me said “I know GW.” Can you imagine, thousands of miles away, a slum child knows of GW. 

It is because our students are out there---they volunteer their time to work for local and global non-profit organizations, they join the Peace Corps, they are Fulbright scholars, they move to a country like India to work with impoverished communities to implement and evaluate life saving HIV prevention programs.

You're a working mother, is that correct?

Yes, I am the mother of three young children, and people often ask me “How do you do it? How do you balance work and family life?” And although I don’t have the answer to that million dollar question, I do know that I am inspired to wake up every morning and come to the GW School of Public Health and Health Services because I am committed to the public health challenges that need our attention.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve those most in need by conducting applied research that will influence policies and programs and I am inspired by the students who walk into my classroom because they want to make a meaningful difference in the world.