A Strong Moral Compass: Alex Gertner '10

Written by
Alex Wheatley '16
Jan. 6, 2017

Alex Gertner began his life after Princeton at Human Rights Watch, a human rights research and advocacy organization. He left GHP and Princeton with a strong desire to help bridge the divide between how the most vulnerable groups experience health systems and how the most high-level policymakers understand health systems. After three years with Human Rights Watch, this desire led him to pursue an MD/PhD at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine and UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. He entered his fourth year of the program in the fall, with PhD training in Health Policy and Management with a focus on economics.

At Princeton, Gertner conducted research in several parts of Brazil as part of Princeton’s Grand Challenges program and the Global Health Scholars program. In describing his research, Gertner wrote “I studied how health policy was being shaped at high levels of government by global trends in knowledge and economics while being contested in varied ways by marginalized groups on the ground-floor of the health system.” His thesis, “Pharmaceutical Care, Public Experiments, and Patient Knowledge in the Brazilian Public Healthcare System,” stemmed from this research. When asked how GHP affected his Princeton experience, Gertner said it helped him to realize the privileged position that he and other Princetonians hold (in local, national, and global fields), and also to acknowledge the responsibility that must accompany this privilege. “If we are to contribute to decreasing the enormous inequalities that define our time in history, we must begin with an awareness of the limits our own experience place on our knowledge and a high regard for the knowledge and experience of the people whose rights are being systematically denied and violated,” Gertner said.

At UNC, Gertner has worked on various topics within mental health and addiction services, including access to mental health services for criminally involved groups, the effect of overdose prevention policies, and the integration of primary care and behavioral health services. He strives to make his research relevant to his community: the people of North Carolina and the patients he sees in his training. He says that his experiences at Human Rights Watch and UNC have taught him the value of dedicating yourself to a place. Rather than moving from location to location and project to project, he says that learning about, belonging to, and caring about the future of a place is an extremely important component of global health work.

Gertner gets the last word in this Spotlight with another piece of advice for students: be brave. “While the security and comfort of certain post-graduate opportunities are tempting, my advice would be to question whether the work you pursue is the best use of a world-class undergraduate education. If we are committed to improving global health, we will only do it by recognizing the inequalities built into political, economic, legal, and medical systems and then disrupting and reimagining them.”


Alex Gertner is a 2010 graduate in anthropology. He entered his fourth year of an MD/PhD program at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2016.