Julie Washburn

Doctoral Candidate in Population Health at the University of Oxford

Oxford, United Kingdom

Class of 2006, English Literature major


As Julianne Williams puts it, her graduate work in science gave her the “what” and the “how,” but it was her studies in humanities at SPU that gave her the “why” to pilot her academic career in global health.

“My parents always told me that education isn’t just about getting a job,” she explains, “it’s also an opportunity to ask big questions about yourself and the world.”

After graduating from SPU in English literature and the University Scholars program, she earned her master’s degree in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Washington in 2011. Now, Williams is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford in the U.K. She examines the influence of socioeconomic and environmental factors on schoolchildren’s health behaviors in rural Sri Lanka.

The big questions she’s asking now in her research involve rapidly changing health risk factors. For instance, countries such as Sri Lanka that experience rapid urbanization while remaining mostly rural, “have to deal with new health challenges, like obesity, before they finish dealing with the old ones, like malnutrition.”

Public health systems in these countries face a “double burden,” Williams says.

Research like Williams’, into the health of children and adolescents, is “foundational,” in that healthy, well-nourished children are better able to learn and succeed in school. That in turn advances their future and the health of the next generation.

Though Williams’ research is based in Sri Lanka, her work has applications all over the world. “I’m interested in this wider project of finding ways to ensure that our communities, workplaces, and institutions are contributing to a society that is healthier for more people,” she says.

— Damme Getachew

Julianne Williams
Photo by Rachel Hudson

How does your time at SPU connect to what you’re doing today?

At SPU, I had amazing role models and mentors. These faculty members challenged me to reflect on the big questions related to identity, community, faith and work. The UScholars program provided me with an opportunity to work through some of the great texts from a range of disciplines.

Which SPU faculty or staff member made a difference in your education?

Dr. Doug Thorpe is a teacher, mentor, and friend who introduced me to the work of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and writer. Dr. Thorpe has supported me over the past decade as I’ve made some big decisions about life and work.

What advice would you give to current SPU students?

You don’t have to define yourself based on what you studied at SPU. That can definitely “inform” your path forward but there’s no reason it has to “limit” you. You’d be surprised how rarely the myth of the linear career trajectory actually corresponds with reality.