Professor Jamie Bartram
"Surrey was interested enough to say “come and have a chat” and that clinched it."
CourseMicrobiology BSc (Hons)
Graduation year1985 / 1996
Professor Jamie Bartram is a recognised global leader in the area of health and environment. He has worked at the World Health Organization, improving water, sanitation and hygiene, and latterly as founding director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jamie graduated with a BSc in Microbiology in 1985, followed by a PhD in Environmental and Public Health in 1996. He was named as recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 in the Vice-Chancellor’s Alumni Awards.
Why did you choose to study microbiology at Surrey?
I didn’t come from the conventional background, having already left school and worked in a lab at Great Ormond Street Hospital in diagnostic microbiology. I was determined never to go to university! However, during that time I became very interested in work to help developing countries but getting a starter job in this area required a teaching qualification. I thought the best way to achieve this was to get a degree in a technical subject and then do the teaching certificate. Of all the universities I contacted, Surrey was interested enough to say “come and have a chat” and that clinched it.
How did you change as a student at Surrey?
My time at Surrey gave me lots of exposure to people with different outlooks. As I didn’t take an industrial placement because of my previous experience, I lost my cohort and had to make friends with people who had already bonded. I had to learn new social skills! It was also a time when I became increasingly politically aware which only added to my determination to get into development work.
What did you do immediately after your degree?
I still wanted to work in development and I got the opportunity through Surrey to go to Peru on a water supply project, which strengthened my interest in environmental health and the commitment to reduce the burden of water-related disease.
Tell us about your PhD…
As I gained experience, I realised that our most effective work supporting developing countries was less hands-on and much more about helping communities and countries to create systems and policies to resolve their own issues. To do this effectively I needed deeper insight and expertise – my PhD enabled me to do that.
How did your career progress?
After my time in Peru, I returned to Surrey and became Head of the Environmental Health Division of the Robens Institute. During that time, I was in regular contact with the World Health Organization (WHO) and I was asked to join them for six months — which turned into 14 years! I became director for water, sanitation and hygiene, the job I had dreamed of, and this enabled me to influence and change policy and guidelines, as well as support people to do it for themselves.
For the last ten years, I have been director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), focusing on the connections between water and health – especially the links between science, policy and practice, in both developing and developed countries. I now have itchy feet so have just retired from UNC. Having left Britain in 1998 to live in Rome, Geneva and the United States, and travelled widely, we have just returned home to the UK to live.
What have you enjoyed most about your career?
At the WHO it was absolutely incredible to be leading the science that supports environmental health. It led to the reconstruction of the EU Bathing Water Directive and drove more than 50 countries (including the UK) to re-orientate drinking water safety management from ‘detect and respond’ to ‘predict and prevent’, with substantive benefits to health and development.
At UNC, I enjoyed working with graduate students, nurturing and developing smart young people.
I have been very fortunate in my career that I generally have been approached to work somewhere else, so decisions to move have been about going somewhere new not leaving somewhere old and I have always viewed change very positively, looking forward to what I was going to do next.
Do you have any favourite memories of your time at Surrey?
Once of my reasons to go to university, other than to gain my degree, was to party for three years! I hazily recall skidding on my back through mud towards the pond while wearing top hat and tails for some reason. Another less pleasant memory involves being tear-gassed at the Students’ Union at an anti-apartheid event.
What advice would you give to students looking to follow in your field?
Get concrete experience and develop transferable skills. The nature of knowledge has changed; information is now very available and the skill is knowing what to access and how to use it.
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