The Tatler Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha


Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke at the October 19 assembly, and prior to the assembly, Rohan D. ‘25 sat down with her to ask some questions about her life and work. What follows are selected portions of that interview. 


Rohan D. ’25 (RD): What brought your family to the US from the UK?

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (MH): When we lived in the UK, my father was finishing his PhD. We’re originally Iraqi, and my brother (who’s just a year older) was born in Baghdad. The plan was for my dad to finish his PhD and go back to Iraq. That’s where all of our family was, that’s what the plans were, he had a job lined up. That was the late 1970s, and that’s when Saddam Hussein was rising in power. My parents could see the authoritarian regime, the oppression, the dictatorship. So rather than go back home, we emigrated to the States.

RD: How did growing up in Detroit affect the way you approached the Flint water crisis? 

MH: I grew up in metro Detroit, went to school in Michigan, and then went back and worked in the city of Detroit and later in Flint. I think I’ve always worked in places that have been significantly underserved. And that’s by choice. That’s about my drive of wanting to give back, this immigrant perspective of being grateful to be in this country and wanting to give back and serve. But also trying to be in a place where I can make an impact where I can make lives better, especially for children. So that’s kind of informed where I’ve practiced and how I’ve practiced.

RD: Why were you drawn to advocacy work after revealing the crisis in Flint?

MH: I was drawn to advocacy before that. One of the reasons I went into pediatrics is this push for prevention. Part of my job description as a pediatrician is that I’m a clinician. I’m a researcher, I’m an educator, but I’m also an advocate. That was part of my training. But being an advocate is also part of all of our civic responsibility. This isn’t a story about a doctor who was an advocate; it’s a story about a citizen who saw something wrong. So you don’t just have to be a doctor to be an advocate. Everybody has that power within them to be an advocate and to to use their privilege and power to help others.

RD: How do you think the US should take care of immigrants, particularly immigrants who are medical professionals?

MH: So when Trump did his first Muslim ban, Iraq was on that list, and I was so pissed that I wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times called “Corroding the American Dream.” Flint was all about corrosive water. My article was about highlighting what will happen when we aren’t welcoming to immigrants—there’s little brown girls that look just like me that want to come to this country, and they can’t. How will that impact so many of these service-driven professions? Obviously, you know, negatively, so that’s why a big part of the story is recognizing the contribution of immigrants, and how we need to embrace that.

So you don’t just have to be a doctor to be an advocate. Everybody has that power within them to be an advocate and to to use their privilege and power to help others.

RD: Of course. And then, do you have any ideas about how the public, or the government can give more weight to science and respect scientists more?

MH: Yeah, I think I put part of the blame on science — I was honored to be the co-chair of the March for Science a few years ago, with Bill Nye the Science Guy. But part of the reason that I did that was really to encourage folks in science and academia to come out of their ivory towers and engage more in the public. So we, as scientists, do what we’ve been trained to, like write for journals that nobody reads or talk to our peers at conferences. We’re not really good at talking to the public, writing things for the average person, or communicating the value of our science. If scientists were more accessible, maybe we’d have a better global understanding of the value of science. It’s also really important to understand that this dismissal of science is not an accident. You know, historically, there have been special interests and industries that have attacked science and scientists to increase or maintain their profit margins.

RH: What advice do you have for high school students that want to advocate for a cause?

MH: You’ve got this. My activism started when I was in high school; I helped shut down an incinerator. So never doubt the power that you have to make a difference. And I’m going to read you a quote from another doctor that I respect, who said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.” Find something you care about; find people who also care about the same thing. Stay persistent, and, you know, go on changing the world as you guys are.

RD: What is your advice to those whose advocacy is not taken seriously or ignored?

MH: Keep at it; be persistent. Advocacy and change is often a long game. Find allies and build a tent of people who are different from you, who come from different backgrounds. You will have ups and downs —  one day you lose and another you win — and you need to lift each other up. Take advantage of windows of opportunity for change. 

RD: In your career, you’ve intertwined storytelling and science quite a bit. What are your thoughts on combining humanities with science?

MH: I think my love for the humanities makes me a better scientist and a better doctor. Whenever I read a book, I’m stepping into the shoes of others. That is why I have empathy. Being able to embrace the humanities gives you a different perspective on the world. I am a huge fan of a broad liberal arts education, where people, no matter what profession they go into, are able to embrace the humanities to give them a different way of asking questions.


This interview has been edited for clarity.