Alumnae Profiles – Winter 2019

on January 28 | in Web Only | by

Engaged with the world

Sarah Ellerman ’98

Photo of Sarah EllermanThe Trump administration invited Sarah Ellerman ’98 and about 30 of her colleagues to the Rose Garden on October 1 of last year to join the president as he announced that negotiations had successfully concluded for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—aka, the new NAFTA.

As director of services and investment at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Ellerman spent more than a year hammering out details of the pending free-trade agreement with Mexican and Canadian counterparts.

Ellerman, who majored in international studies at Hollins, specializes in trade issues that impact financial services businesses, such as banks, insurance companies, and electronic payment services. “In the USMCA, I was the colead negotiator for the financial services chapter, which sets the rules in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. to make sure that [companies from those countries] can all have market access in each other’s markets,” she explains.

The three countries struck the agreement much more quickly than a typical trade agreement, according to Ellerman, who points out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was negotiated over seven years. “It was a priority for the administration that we get it done fast, which we did,” Ellerman says.

Before taking her current position, Ellerman spent more than a decade working at the U.S. Department of Commerce, including a three-year stint in China, where she managed the Import Administration’s Beijing office. In 2013, Ellerman was selected to serve as a Brookings Institution Legis Congressional Fellow, which resulted in an 18-month assignment in Senator Sherrod Brown’s office researching and developing legislative options on trade.

Even though work on NAFTA 2.0 is complete, Ellerman probably won’t get much time to put her feet up. “We recently notified Congress that we intend to start trade agreement negotiations with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Japan,” she says. “Then we have a lot of bilateral issues with other countries where they aren’t always abiding by existing trade agreements.”

In October, Ellerman was prepping for work trips to Vietnam and London. On average, she travels internationally about once a month, an aspect of her position she adores. “I don’t have a regional limitation on my portfolio, so I kind of cover the world,” she says.

If given the choice, Ellerman would always travel to another country rather than meet with the nation’s representatives in the United States. “You learn a lot more when you’re on the ground,” she says. “You have a better sense of the issues. Plus, I love to try new food.”

—Beth JoJack ’98

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Restoring Dignity

Nessa Ryan ’‘07

Photo of Nessa RyanNessa Ryan became passionate about women’s health issues as a Hollins student—so much so that she traveled to Ghana during J-Term of her junior year to study women and HIV awareness.

Ryan went on to earn two master’s degrees: one in public health from Emory University and another in comparative effectiveness research at New York University’s School of Medicine.

Even so, Ryan — like most individuals in the developed world— had never heard of obstetric fistulas. That changed when she went to work as a research coordinator in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the NYU’s School of Medicine in 2012. There she met physician Dr. Joonhee Park, who’d encountered many women who suffer from the injury during a medical mission trip to Liberia.

Obstetric fistulas, Ryan learned from Park, occur when a baby’s head puts pressure on a spot in the mother’s birth canal during extremely prolonged labor. This can cause a hole to form between the bladder and birth canal, which results in the woman leaking urine for the rest of her life, if she’s not lucky enough to receive medical assistance. (Only about two percent of women suffering from the injury ever get access to surgical repair, according to Ryan.)

Industrialized nations have all but eliminated obstetric fistulas due to the availability of Caesarean sections. Poor women with limited resources are the ones who suffer. “The leaking is terrible but it’s really the stigma that’s the burden,” explains Ryan, who double majored in studio art and biology at Hollins, while also completing the Batten Leadership Institute program.

During her time in Liberia, Park had the idea of creating an insertable device that could manage the injury until surgery was an option or if surgery failed. She partnered with Joanna Pozen, a lawyer and public health professor, and Ryan to create a founding team they called Restore Health. The device, made of silicone and resembling a menstrual cup, is called the Restore Cup.

In 2015, the trio won $25,000 in seed money from the  2015 Entrepreneurs Challenge sponsored by NYU Stern’s W. R. Berkley Innovation Labs. They used the money to perform a small trial of the device among women with obstetric fistulas in Ghana the following year. Those participants experienced a 65 percent reduction in urine leakage, with some women experiencing a 99 percent reduction.

Those results were so encouraging that Ryan, who is working on a Ph.D. at New York University’s NYU’s College of Global Public Health, decided to continue research on obstetric fistulas for her dissertation. She traveled to Ghana this last summer to perform qualitative in-depth interviews with 32 women who suffer from the injury.

After finishing her degree, Ryan hopes to continue researching global women’s health and to work in academia. “I’m interested in understanding and addressing the challenges of accessing health care that women and girls experience in the developing world,” she says.

Restore Health plans to do another, larger trial of the Restore Cup in Uganda in 2019.

—Beth JoJack ’98

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