Alumna Spotlight: Leena El-Sadek ’15 Combines Justice and Global Health


El-Sadek, a research analyst in RTI's Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience, traveled to Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska, to talk to students and key informants to learn how public schools are combatting mental health issues with students.

Published July 24, 2017

“The Duke Global Health Institute simulated the ‘real world’ because you actually engaged with the real world,” said Leena El-Sadek, a 2015 alumna from Terry, Mississippi, and Cairo, Egypt. “I’m grateful for the lessons I learned at DGHI, both inside and outside the classroom, as I’m confident I’m a stronger thinker and problem solver in my current job because of them.”  

El-Sadek, who co-majored in global health and cultural anthropology with a minor in neuroscience, was drawn to criminal justice and public health because of her experiences growing up in Mississippi. After a few global health classes and several experiences working with refugees in the Middle East, she was inspired to integrate her interests and approach justice from a health perspective. 

Now, El-Sadek works as a research analyst at RTI International in the Drug, Violence, and Delinquency Prevention (DVDP) program and thanks the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) for teaching her many of the skills she uses day-to-day.  

Taking a Second Look at Justice in Mississippi 

While growing up in Mississippi, El-Sadek felt that many people tended to oversimplify the state’s challenges. For example, when her teachers explained that Mississippi had high rates of crime-related behaviors because “people were just making bad decisions,” she started to wonder how the justice system functions and how it relates to poor health outcomes. 

“It’s a lot more complex than that,” said El-Sadek. “A lot of Mississippians are born into realities that make it extremely hard to prioritize health. Many of them are just focusing on immediate security and survival.”

El-Sadek strongly believes that true justice does not exist until all communities have the same opportunity to achieve a full, meaningful life. Coming to Duke, El-Sadek knew that she wanted justice at the forefront of her undergraduate studies.

Global Health Ignites a Spark 

During her freshman year, El-Sadek took the “Introduction to Global Health” class taught by global health and public policy professor Kathryn Whetten. Through that class, she realized she was most passionate about serving in an avenue that integrates policy and healthcare. She remembers discussing HIV in the Mississippi Delta and watching a documentary that Whetten had helped produce portraying HIV crises narratives. The story-telling method really struck a chord with El-Sadek. 

“This approach just made sense to me. These challenges that people in Mississippi and around the world experience—they don’t just happen,” she said. “There’s a whole story, a whole context, behind it. You can’t separate these problems from history, or from policies, or from economics, or from a whole host of other decisions that are out of an individual’s grasp.”

El-Sadek said that that was the moment she knew she wanted to pursue a global health major. She realized that a global health approach would allow her to examine the full picture in, not just a snapshot judgement of someone’s life, when looking at justice. 

Pursuing Refugee Stories in the Middle East

El-Sadek wasted no time diving into the cross-section of justice and health at Duke, and most of her work centered around the well-being of refugees in the Middle East. Her sophomore year, she participated in Duke Immerse with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and traveled to Egypt for several weeks to conduct life story interviews with Iraqi refugees. The following summer, she went to Jordan with a Bass Connections team to interview refugees and refugee organizations. 

“We used life story interviews to understand the effects of forced displacement on health outcomes,” said El-Sadek. “Each country incorporated refugees in their society in a unique way, and I found it fascinating how the differences among the country’s policies and laws could result in completely different experiences.”

These research experiences led up to one of the most impactful projects she worked on and what El-Sadek describes as a pivotal moment in her global health experience at Duke. Her junior year, El-Sadek applied to and received the Bains Family Research Grant from DGHI to conduct two months of summer research in Egypt. There, she worked with refugees from Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Palestine and other countries. By then El-Sadek had taken about two years of refugee-related coursework at Duke, but she found that the opportunity to work directly with refugees allowed her to glean a more personal perspective of the crisis. 

“It’s one thing to read about the effects of forced displacement and trauma on individuals in the classroom,” she said. “It’s a whole other thing to be able to hear these stories firsthand and engage in conversations to learn more about the crisis.”

That experience was the stimulus for both an interest on policy-level influence and her senior thesis project based on the interviews she collected in Egypt and Jordan regarding the effects of forced displacement. She credits to DGHI to making that eye-opening project possible.

Moving Forward to RTI International

Upon graduating in 2015, El-Sadek joined RTI International as a research analyst in the Drug, Violence, and Delinquency Prevention (DVDP) program at the Center for Justice Safety. There, she has worked on projects relating to health disparities, mental health issues and the effects of incarceration on individuals and their families. 

“This experience was important to me because it exposed yet another facet of the criminal justice system that I believe as a society we tend to neglect,” El-Sadek said. “How often do you hear folks talk about families when it comes to the criminal justice system, or children, or partners?” She wants people to understand just how far-reaching the effects of the criminal justice system are.

El-Sadek has loved her time at RTI International and believes that the DGHI curriculum provided her with a strong foundation that prepared her for her career.

“I see my current work as an extension of my DGHI experience,” she reflected. “I took away big lessons like learning the essentials of a randomized control trial for implementing an intervention, and small lessons like learning how to navigate and overcome field site challenges. These lessons are applicable and useful to me every day.”

Looking forward, she is committed to pursuing her passion: that one day, we can say that we are a little closer to a just reality, not just for a select few, but for all communities. She knows it’s a long road ahead, but it’s one that continuously energizes and inspires her to keep pushing. 

I took away big lessons [from DGHI] like learning the essentials of a randomized control trial for implementing an intervention, and small lessons like learning how to navigate and overcome field site challenges.

Leena El-Sadek '15, global health major