Ruthly François

Pursuing public health in an unprecedented time

Story by Mark Potts
Photograph by Michael J. Clarke

For Ruthly François, COVID-19 brought home issues she hopes to deal with in her future career in public health.

“We throw around the term ‘social determinants of health,’” she says. “Everybody knows those buzzwords; we don’t really take the time to know what they mean. But the pandemic showed us the inequities that we have in our healthcare system.”

Those social determinants include racial inequity in healthcare, and François thinks it’s vital that medical students’ training covers that. “Just like you learn about pharmacology, anatomy, and physiology, it’s also important to teach students about how social factors can impact health,” says the 2017 Suffolk 10 Under 10 alumni honoree.

François, BS ’12, was simultaneously pursuing a MD and a PhD in the epidemiology of infectious disease when the pandemic hit.

“It’s been obviously unfortunate seeing everything happening, but it’s been amazing from a public health point of view, and also from a science point of view, seeing how fast we were able to come up with vaccines and how fast we were able to mobilize resources to make sure that public health needs are met,” she says.

As a young girl growing up in Haiti, François says she was encouraged to focus on a career in law, engineering, or medicine. “I enjoyed biology and science in school,” she says, so her choice of medicine was easy. She came to the United States in 2009 bound for Suffolk.

After graduation, she earned her master’s in international health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.

François started her MD and PhD program at the University of North Carolina in July 2019, when no one had heard of COVID-19. By the time she was ready to begin hospital rounds as a medical student, pandemic protocols were in place.

“In March 2021, we were able to go to the clinic, take care of patients,” she says. “It was exactly what I wanted to do.”

François hopes to eventually bring her training home to Haiti to have an impact on the quality of medical care there.

“The recent earthquake in Haiti only reinforces my desire to be trained in infectious disease epidemiology,” says François, who has chosen to study malaria for her PhD. “I believe that it’s crucial to keep in mind infections such as malaria and diarrheal diseases, which often surge after natural disasters.

Understanding their distribution and factors influencing their spread will inform both acute and long-term control interventions, so that populations who are already dealing with significant losses do not face compounding challenges from infectious diseases.”

Ruthly François, BS ’12

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