MD student Aiden Varan set for future in global health

By Nathan Fioritti, University of Melbourne

‘I’ll never forget being in the field and a measles epidemic was brewing at the same time as the Ebola outbreak because vaccination rates had dropped. I saw sick kids on field visits but had absolutely no idea what was wrong with them. These were not situations where I could offer any technical guidance or assistance, which was problematic, and that drove me into medicine.’

At only 27, Aiden has achieved a great deal on his path to the Doctor of Medicine. Although the route he took was far from conventional, there was a strong driving factor that led him there—his passion for assisting communities.

Aiden grew up in New Zealand and moved to Australia when he was 18. He was awarded a Melbourne National Scholarship and recognised on the Dean’s Honours List for his Bachelor of Science in Genetics with Honours.

When he graduated, Aiden sought to gain experience to prepare him for a community-based professional career. He took an opportunity to volunteer as a sexual health peer educator within a rural community in Uganda, where he lived for six months. This volunteer work opened him up to the area of public health and prompted him to think about a population approach to health.

He went on to study a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Global Epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. While there, he was part of the winning teams for both the local and international Global Health Case Competitions (GHCC). The local case tackled childhood obesity in Mexico. The solution Aiden’s team presented involved new education programs, an extension of pre-existing government measures, and a sugar-sweetened beverage tax which has since been implemented in Mexico. The international competition saw teams take on the role of a Canadian agency tasked with finding the most effective way to invest bilateral aid to improve health and wellbeing in Sri Lanka. Aiden’s team focused on mental health and proposed community-led interventions to address depression and anxiety.

Since completing his undergraduate degree at Melbourne, Aiden has worked with prominent health organisations around the globe, from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most notable are his experiences working on the US–Mexico border—coordinating outbreak responses between very different yet inseparable regions—and in Sierra Leone as an epidemiologist during the Ebola response last year.

Describing his past roles, Aiden comments with humility:

‘I’d had an interest in medicine for some time but wasn’t convinced that it was necessarily the right route for me, or that it best fit my interests and my skills.’

The opportunity in Sierra Leone saw Aiden once again take on a more hands-on fieldworker approach. During this time, he was exposed to physicians and practitioners with strong leadership skills and medical knowledge, which led him to question his own ability to assist those in need.

‘I had a very acute realisation while working in the field that as much as I understood about the statistics of health and illness and transmission of infectious diseases, I actually didn’t have a good understanding of health and disease in and of itself. I had built strong ancillary knowledge but lacked core knowledge.’

At this point Aiden’s trajectory shifted again, placing him on the path to Medicine.

‘It’s been a very roundabout route but I think what it’s helped me to see is that, although I come from a science perspective first, community is my major focus in terms of how I look at health and how I look at disease and populations. Now it’s about closing in on what individual health actually looks like and what individual pathology looks like.’

Recently, Aiden was involved with another GHCC—this time the local University of Melbourne competition. The event, held on October 14, was a great success. Acting as project manager, Aiden assisted primary coordinator, Professor Phil Batterham, throughout the rigorous selection process and provided administrative support during the competition.

There may still be a long way to go but Aiden is certain he found himself where he is in the right way. When he graduates Aiden plans to enter clinical practice while remaining engaged with community health domestically and abroad. He hopes to gain more field experience in diverse settings to expand his usefulness as a health professional.