Erica Lessem will never forget that summer evening in 2008. She was seated at a table in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. With her were breast cancer survivors who had never before shared their experiences with the disease, which is highly stigmatized in their country.
“When one of the women cathartically bared herself for the first time, the others eased her insecurity,” Lessem recalls. “At that moment, I truly felt the impact of my work. My commitment to working in international health was solidified.”
Lessem worked for two years in Tbilisi with the Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps. In addition to creating and coordinating a breast health awareness program, she designed a school emergency preparedness project, developed vocational and youth training programs, and more.
But Lessem’s passion for helping disadvantaged populations began years before her work in Tbilisi. As a teen, she traveled to Dominica and Nicaragua, translating for dentists, working with farmers and building a preschool. “I witnessed the breadth and depth of human suffering from which I had been so fortunately spared,” she says.
Subsequent work experiences have highlighted the disparities in care between the developed and developing world. At the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, Lessem has seen how infectious diseases can affect the populations, health systems and economies of developing countries.
At the Bloomberg School, she plans to build on her knowledge of infectious diseases, specifically cervical cancer. “While cervical cancer is largely preventable, fighting it in resource-poor settings is challenging,” says Lessem. Her goal is to work with researchers and with local communities to develop sustainable solutions to this disease. “I am eager to again experience the reward of instituting effective programs in disadvantaged settings, to again feel how I felt while seated at that table in Tbilisi.”
Director, TB/HIV Project, Treatment Action Group