Meet Anna Roberts
OI: When did you first realize that a career at the intersection of public health and law was a good fit for you?
I am originally from Tennessee, but have had the opportunities to live and work in several different countries and with a wide variety of populations including refugees, sex workers, people who inject drugs, ethnic minorities and people with highly stigmatized medical conditions. Working with these groups is a constant reminder of the significance of the role of law and the impact of law and policy not just on public health, but on the direct health of individuals. The first time I ever saw the impact this can have on individuals and families was when my cousin contracted HIV in the late 1980s. He lived in small town Tennessee and the community had never known an HIV positive person. The legal/policy frameworks that exist today to support positive people, simply didn’t exist at that time and the lack of knowledge within the medical and general community meant that he faced a significant amount of stigma. He passed away from AIDS related conditions after a long struggle to live life in the face of fear, misunderstanding and non-existent protections. His experience was a jumping off point for me to try and find ways to encourage community, knowledge and understanding within both health and law.
OI: What was your path to the O’Neill Institute?
When I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on career-wise and decided to get out and try some new things. I was in the Peace Corps for 2 and a half years and then worked in Uganda with a development organization. Through the course of these two contracts, I saw the ways that public health was directly affected by marginalization and systemic failures to support certain populations in a community. I became passionate about learning ways to create an environments where people could have more control over their own health, particularly around disease prevention. I did my Masters in International Public Health and then went straight into my Law Degree, both at the University of Sydney in Australia. While doing my Law Degree, I worked as a researcher at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center based at the University of New South Wales on the Global Burden of Disease Project and the UN Reference Group on HIV and Injecting Drug Use.
When I completed my law degree, I went to work for Legal Aid New South Wales in the Civil Law Division and spent the majority of my time as a solicitor in their Human Rights practice. I left Legal Aid to take up the Deputy CEO role at the Australasian Society for HIV Medicine (ASHM), the peak NGO for medical professionals working in HIV, viral hepatitis and sexual health, where I was engaged in federal and state level policy and education. ASHM was the scientific partner for the 2014 World AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia and it was there, during a talk by Mark Dybul, that I first heard of the O’Neill Institute and went on to apply for a Fellowship position. I moved back to the US after 13 years (and dual citizenship to Australia) in September 2015 to take up my current role.
OI: What are your other areas of interest?
I love to travel and I am a pretty adventurous soul! I have been fortunate enough to travel to some beautiful and wild places and do so whenever I can. Some of my favorite travel spots so far have been Zanzibar, Borneo and Costa Rica but I am looking forward to traveling domestically a bit while I am back in the US. I love sports and played volleyball in college, but prefer more outdoor activities these days, particularly hiking and camping. I am really looking forward to this summer and getting out into the beautiful national parks around the DC area!
OI: What excites you most about your work?
My colleagues and partners bar-none. Working at the O’Neill Institute is a fantastic opportunity to engage with incredibly skilled and knowledgeable people from a very wide variety of backgrounds. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate on projects across a huge spectrum of topics including universal health coverage, non-communicable diseases, migration and criminalization. I learn something new every day and have the opportunity to bring my full range of skills and experience into an area that I am passionate about while working with some incredibly inspiring and talented individuals, including many of our students.
OI: Do you have a favorite justice?
I was legally trained in Australia and so I do have a favorite High Court of Australia former Justice, Michael Kirby. Many, if not most, Australian lawyers will name Kirby because of the eloquence, determination, common sense and compassionate use of the law that comes through in his judgments, particularly in his dissents. He is a passionate advocate for the HIV community and a global leader on many fronts. His work is an excellent example of the ways that legal frameworks can be used to bring important discussions to the community’s attention and to change thinking around long held dogma.