SIU alumna, global public health expert to speak about equality at Ryan Bioethicist Lecture

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Dr. Senait Fisseha, a renowned figure in global public health, health equity and gender equality, will deliver the 2024 John and Marsha Ryan Bioethicist in Residence lecture at the SIU School of Law on Monday, March 4.


Fisseha, vice president of global programs at the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation, will present “Confronting Power, Privilege and Identity to Achieve a Healthier and More Equal World” at 5:30 p.m. in the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building Auditorium, following a 5 p.m. reception in the law school’s formal lounge. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Fisseha earned her joint M.D./J.D. from the SIU School of Law and SIU School of Medicine in 1999. Fisseha, who grew up in Ethiopia, is also chief adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization and serves on several boards and committees, including as co-chair of the Conference on Public Health in Africa.

“It is truly an honor to be giving this year’s John and Marsha Ryan Bioethicist in Residence Lecture,” Fisseha said. “Professor Ryan’s course helped shape how I think about bioethics in my day-to-day work and the career path I’ve ultimately chosen to follow. The students at SIU are the future doctors and lawyers who will determine the landscape of health care and justice in our country. They will inevitably be faced with daily ethical quandaries that will have real impact on whether people live or die, whether they thrive or struggle. That is a tremendous amount of power.”

Fisseha said her lecture will “explore how our privilege, identity and power shape inequality and encourage students to tap into their humanity first and foremost when faced with decisions that can either widen or narrow those inequalities.”

Bringing communities together

Now living in Rwanda, Fisseha has focused her work on strengthening health systems and primary health care across Africa to help ensure access to safe, legal and affordable sexual and reproductive health services. She has pioneered approaches to align, support and partner with African governments and has tirelessly advocated and supported efforts to build and invest in African public health institutions.

Fisseha earned her bachelor’s degree from Dominican University in 1993. After earning her M.D./J.D., Fisseha completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology and a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, both at the University of Michigan. A reproductive endocrinology specialist, she was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan and founding executive director of the Center for International Reproductive Health Training. She has been named among the 100 Most Influential Africans and received prestigious awards for her contributions.

She received the SIU Carbondale Alumni Association’s 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award and the SIU School of Medicine’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award. Her recent speaking engagements include the July 2023 commencement ceremony at African Leadership University.

Longstanding lecture series

The lecture comes as the law school is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary and legacy with a gala on March 23 at Southern Illinois Airport’s Hangar One Event Center.

“As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we are excited that an alumna who is an international expert in health law is able to come back to share with this community,” Dean Camille M. Davidson said. 

This is the School of Law’s 19th bioethicist-in-residence lecture, and the 17th since John C. and Dr. Marsha G. Ryan endowed the visiting lecture series. Founded in 2006, the John and Marsha Ryan Bioethicist-in-Residence program supports an annual residence and lecture by a law or medicine ethics scholar for the SIU schools of law and medicine.

“Dr. Fisseha is a distinguished graduate of our prestigious M.D./J.D. program at SIU, and one we are very proud of,” Marsha Ryan said.

“Her work in worldwide reproductive health and health care policy makes an impact around the globe on a daily basis. She shows us how the joint disciplines of law and medicine can work toward finding solutions for what seem otherwise to be insoluble problems.”

Marsha Ryan earned her law degree from the SIU School of Law in 1987 and is an assistant professor at the SIU School of Medicine and adjunct faculty member teaching bioethics at the law school. She practiced general and breast surgery in Carbondale for 36 years until her retirement in 2017. John Ryan, a member of the law school’s inaugural class, is a longstanding attorney at Feirich, Green, Mager, Ryan in Carbondale.

The lecture comes as the law school is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary and legacy with a gala on March 23 at Southern Illinois Airport’s Hangar One Event Center.