Sharan Kuganesan grew up in Toronto, Canada, immersed in both her family’s Tamil culture and also the languages, foods and customs of her friends and neighbors with roots in many different parts of the world.
Sharan’s parents immigrated to Toronto in the late 1980s from Sri Lanka as refugees, fleeing civil war. She grew up among her large extended family and the area’s Sri Lankan Tamil community. She took Tamil classes every Saturday and still speaks the language fluently.
At the same time, Sharan attended public school and would bike around her neighborhood in the suburbs of Toronto, with friends from Jamaica, the Philippines and India. As soon as they were old enough to leave the school grounds for lunch breaks, Sharan and her friends became adventurous eaters, seeking out the Trinidadian roti, Vietnamese pho, Jamaican beef patties and Turkish burek available around them.
Sharan’s path to working in global health began with that early exposure to many cultures, and on the few trips she took to her parents’ village in Sri Lanka as a child. She and her parents visited a school that her parents were helping to support, including shipping computers there and helping purchase the school’s first water tank.
“I remember going there like it was yesterday,” Sharan said. “It was the first time I saw what inequity looked like for other kids my age, and it stuck with me.” When she was 16, Sharan remembers trying to explain global public health as a field of interest to her parents, before she even knew the right terms for it.
Sharan attended college at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, double majoring in Biology and Global Development Studies. When she graduated, she went to work at CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), the largest mental health and addiction hospital in Canada, where she conducted research on addiction to inform harm reduction interventions and policy reform strategies.
She then got her Master’s in Global Health at McMaster University. For her thesis research, she lived in Karnataka, India for three months, supporting a psychiatrist who operated mobile mental health clinics in villages, drawing people who would otherwise have had to make long journeys from their villages to the hospital in the city. Dr. Devaramane established the mobile clinics after noticing a pattern of frequently missed appointments, a reluctance to take medicine correlated with a lack of literacy, and an inability to make out-of-pocket payments to the hospital—all of which led to patients regularly getting lost in the system. Sharan interviewed patients and collected data, compiling a list of barriers patients in rural areas faced when trying to access mental health care.
She was then accepted into Global Health Corps, a highly selective fellowship that brought her to New York City. “It changed my life,” Sharan said. “I wouldn’t be in New York or doing global health work, as it’s a field that’s relatively small in Canada.”
For her fellowship, she worked for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS, where she conducted a needs assessment of 120 community-based clinics across the city and provided technical assistance to improve HIV health outcomes.
“The role showed me, yet again, that someone’s zip code often determines the disparities in how they receive care, even in one of the most well-funded cities for HIV care,” she said.
From there, in 2018, she joined Vital Strategies, excited by the organization’s focus on population-level impact and policy change. “The work that we do at Vital is often done by the people in the communities where we work and by people who look like them, and that made a big impact on me,” she said.
Sharan was one of the first people hired to work on STOP, Vital’s tobacco industry watchdog, which aims to expose the tobacco industry’s tactics in hooking future generations of smokers. She is proud of having helped the project grow from an idea to a fully executed initiative.
“What initially pulled me to STOP is an understanding that good public health can be done in many ways,” she said. “So much of public health work is technical and done in echo chambers. If we aren’t getting our messages out into the hands of people, on their phones and screens, how much influence can we have in improving their lives?”
She is most proud of how STOP has developed compelling campaigns, such as Dirty Money, which expose the corrupt ways tobacco companies continue to undermine policies and exploit people across Africa.
As a program manager, Sharan has written advocacy reports, conducted user experience studies, and contributed to website development. Her current, more focused role with STOP, is to manage the flow of her team and its various outputs, working through roadblocks and coordinating with the project’s partners. The other half of Sharan’s time is spent with Vital’s tobacco control teams in 11 countries.
Outside of work, Sharan loves to paint, a hobby that has brought her peace since she was a young child. She enjoys exploring New York City, and she looks forward to traveling internationally again. She has a goal of visiting 30 countries by the time she turns 30, and she has one more year to meet it.
In the future, she would like to explore her interest in the intersection of health and technology. For now, she is quite passionate about her work at Vital. Because many people understand the field of global health as limited to infectious diseases, Sharan often finds herself explaining to friends why her work is so important.
“When you say you work in tobacco control, they say, ‘you aren’t working in malaria or HIV?’ I try to show how malicious the industry can be in countries like Indonesia or Mexico, and how this has many repercussions on a community. Seven-year-olds can buy cigarettes outside their schools. Women make up a large portion of the tobacco labor force. We need to amplify stories and make people know about the nefarious things the tobacco companies do and get away with every day.”