News - A career with heart: lessons from 20 years in the UN

11th September 2017

After 20 years of working overseas to help make the world a better place, Dr Amaya Gillespie has returned home to Brisbane and is helping others who want to make an impact internationally.

Dr Gillespie, who is an Adjunct Professor with the School of Public Health and Social Work, worked for United Nations agencies including UNICEF in senior positions until 2016 and was named QUT’s Outstanding Alumnus of 2006 while leading the UN Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children.

She came back to Brisbane last year and is now using her experience and skills as an executive coach and personal development mentor. Fittingly, she has a special interest in bringing talented public health professionals to the forefront of international health.

Dr Gillespie has a Bachelor of Education (Health and Physical Education) and a Graduate Diploma in Health Promotion from QUT. She also has a Master of Science and a PhD in Public Health (Behavioural Science) from the University of Oregon.

Her current links with QUT include being on the Faculty of Health’s Alumni Advisory Committee and on the Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation’s External Engagement Committee.

Dr Gillespie’s UN work began as a consultant in Asia where she was head-hunted for a global senior advisor position for adolescent health promotion (especially HIV prevention) with UNICEF and UNAIDS. That led to a move to Geneva in 2004 for a five-year role as the director of the UN Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children.  She was then appointed head of the UNAIDS office in Zambia and most recently she was based in New York as UNICEF’s Partnerships and Special Initiatives Manager.

She said she was proud to have been involved in several important “firsts”, including developing some of the first education programs on HIV and sexual/reproductive health in the 1990s, “when there was no treatment and little hope for heavily affected parts of the world”.

“There are so many things that we all wish had moved faster, and achieved better results – like the millions of children orphaned by AIDS, or left without protection from violence, or the families left stranded by emergencies every year,” she said.

“Despite the challenges, everyone who works for the UN feels immensely proud and privileged to be contributing. Almost everything that is achieved happens because of an enormous number of people doing some really heavy lifting so individual triumphs are few and far between.

“Most recently I was part of the leadership that responded to the first global public health emergency – ebola – declared by the World Health Organisation in 2015, and that team of people eventually achieved what seemed impossible: the end of that ebola outbreak.”


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