Meet Purba Chatterjee, connector working to decolonize global health

Serving as an HIV counselor in San Francisco at the height of the HIV epidemic helped Purba Chatterjee connect with her calling. Since growing up in India, she had always been interested in health but didn’t quite know how to make it a career. After taking a course on the biology of AIDS as an undergraduate, she volunteered as a test counselor and got a close look at the emotional impact, stigma, and challenges newly diagnosed people faced. “Hearing their stories had a huge impact,” says Purba. “I wanted to be part of that movement, to somehow contribute in whatever little way I could to have some contribution to the field.”

Her contribution in the decades since has been vast, spanning the United States to Uganda, Kenya, and India, and helping to build successful public health programs from the ground up. She was part of taking UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations from a virtual to a brick-and-mortar center with over $10 million in grants. She was integral to the administration of the CDC-PEPFAR funded Family AIDS Care and Education Services (FACES) program providing HIV prevention and treatment in Kisumu County, Kenya.

When the COVID pandemic began, Purba became a key member of the San Francisco Department’s COVID response unit. She did contact tracing herself and trained the city and county’s workforce on contact tracing and case investigation. She received the UCSF School of Medicine Dean’s commendation for her contribution to the COVID response efforts in the city of San Francisco.

Thanks to her experience across different divisions, departments, and countries, colleagues have come to view her as a connector, helping people find other people, jobs, grants and projects to serve the higher goal of improving public health.

Now Purba is bringing that experience building networks and managing complex international projects to the Bixby Center as Associate Director of Global Health Research. She’ll be using the knowledge she’s amassed to provide support and mentorship to staff, fellows, and investigators early in their careers. A central part of that work is building momentum in the movement for equitable and ethical partnerships with researchers and institutions in other countries. The project launched in a meeting with global health partners in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Peru, and India to envision what a paradigm shift in knowledge, leadership and resource management would look like. They’re working together to develop guidelines that are actionable and measurable. “A lot of academic institutions in the Global North have done work in this space, but always from the lens of the Global North,” she says. “My goal is to really flip that and encourage our partners to view it from their lens, and to amplify their voices, not ours.”

Like any meaningful equity work, there are challenges in shifting the way big systems function. It takes concerted effort to shake the colonial mindset that puts US-based institutions above others. It manifests in roadblocks like US-based institutions refusing to rely on institutional review boards in other countries, even though the research is happening there. Documenting these problems and raising them with leadership are important first steps in moving this sometimes glacial work forward. Ultimately, Purba wants to see respect and trust at the forefront of all our global health partnerships, making sure that our partners are at the table from the beginning. “Their voices should be at the forefront of any kind of partnership. They really are equal partners in everything we do.”