July 10, 2014

We continue our profile series about our associates, fellows and faculty as described “in their own words.” In this edition, meet Fernanda Alonso, an Associate at O’Neill. Fernanda holds a Master of Laws in Global Health Law from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Laws from the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico (ITAM), Mexico City.

OI: When did you first realized that a career at the intersection of public health and policy was a good fit for you?

FA: Since highschool,Ihad always been very interested in human rights and development, but getting into the health sphere was sort of an accident.Iwas working as an intern at Oxfam in Mexico City focusing more on climate change and education when a friend of mine needed a research assistant for a couple of months towork on a project with Mexico’s public health system. She was working for a professor who was starting the "Right to Health Program" at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE), a university and research center in Mexico City. I kept working on small projects with them and realized that in Mexico (as is probably the case in many parts of the developing world), a huge driver of change is improving health. Mexico’s biggest issues, such as poverty, have an underlying health component and I found it fascinating to start approaching policy from that optic.

OI: What was your path to the O’Neill Institute?

FA: The Right to Health Program at CIDE and the O’Neill Institute established an internship program, where students or research assistants from CIDE can come spend three months at O’Neill during the summer. During the second year of the exchange, I was working full time in the substance control area of the program on issues including tobacco control and drug policy. I was selected to be the person from CIDE to intern at O’Neill. It was then that I learned that O’Neill had an LL.M program at Georgetown Law, with a focus exclusively on health. I went back to Mexico with the idea that I would come back to do my Master’s degree here. During my LL.M, I worked as a research assistant at O’Neill and had the opportunity to stay on after graduation.

OI: Does your experience working in Mexico bring a unique perspective or advantage to your work at O’Neill?

FA: Many of the projects thatI get to work on at O’Neill are closely related to Latin America. Currently, one of my biggest projects is with the Pan American Health Organization on non-communicable disease regulation in the region. My work in Mexico and myunderstanding of social, political and cultural factors plays a huge role. Because Mexico and most countries in Latin America have the right to health as an explicit right in their constitutions and international human right treaties play a significant role, public health is seen from a very different perspective than in the U.S. While my experience plays to my advantage in projects related to the region, I have had to learn much about the U.S. health care system and how different factors, such as states’ rights to make different policy and laws.

OI: You’re working on a project involving public health and the legalization of recreational and/or medical cannabis? What are the goals of this project?

FA: Before coming to the LL.M., I had worked almost exclusively in drug policy. However, I found that in Mexico this issue was hardly ever approached from a public health standpoint, but rather almost exclusively from security and public safety perspective. Up to this point, the public health community has largely stayed out of the discussion on cannabis legalization, perhaps due to the stigma or to uncertainty over exactly how to participate most constructively. Yet the public health community has considerable experience and expertise (e.g., from tobacco and alcohol control efforts) that can directly inform the challenge of designing and implementing cannabis legalization, consistently with its primary purposes, to protect and promote the public health most effectively.

With cannabis legalization still in its infancy, the public health community currently has a window of opportunity for playing an enormously constructive role that could inform the existing debates and help jurisdictions with legalization to avoid institutionalizing features that unnecessarily increase public health risks and harms or fail to secure potential public health gains. The main goals our cannabis project are to identify the most pressing public health issues related to cannabis and develop guidelines for how legalization laws could be structured to best protect the public health.

OI: What are your other areas of interest?

FA: While my main project currently is related to legalization of recreational and medical cannabis, it is not the only area that interests me in drug policy.I am interestedin the harm reduction part of drug policy. For example, the U.S. is currently facing a growing heroin epidemic and there are limited public health measures in place such as needle exchanges and overdose prevention to deal with the situation. There is much work to be done on the prevention and education sides of drug policy and we should not overlook these areas when focusing on more common topics such as marijuana.

OI: What excites you most about your work?

FA: It excites me to learn about all the different projects and people that are currently working in the public healthsphere. In my time at O’Neill,I’vehad the opportunity to collaborate with people from all over the country and have been able to see how their work is creating change on the ground. Sometimes we forget how many organizations, NGOs, universities and individuals are working to create positive change in health both in the U.S. and internationally. Getting to work with people from such different backgrounds and disciplines is an incredible experience.