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May 30, 2024

Q&A with Former Global Health Institute Student Fellow Bryce Robinson

In this interview, Bryce Robinson (L'24), a spring 2024 Global Health Institute (GHI) student fellow and recipient of the Outstanding Final Presentation Award, discusses his recent graduation from the national and global health LL.M. program at Georgetown Law and shares his experience researching notifiable disease laws with his GHI faculty mentor Colin Carlson, a former assistant research professor with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Bryce Robinson
Bryce Robinson

You recently graduated from Georgetown Law with your Master of Laws degree in national and global health law. Why did you choose to study this degree at Georgetown, and how will you apply what you have learned to your future work?

I have wanted to study the LL.M. in national and global health law at Georgetown for as long as I can remember. The program allowed me to bring together different threads of my interests and experience. I have an academic and professional background in science and have always been passionate about health. For the last few years, I have worked as an intellectual property lawyer. The LL.M. allowed me to deepen my knowledge in my area of legal practice, closely research its impacts on public health, and amass a broader toolkit of skills in other areas of law to support my career as an advocate committed to improving health outcomes.

Originally from Australia, you practice as a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and health. Has your time at Georgetown given you a unique outlook on the U.S. legal system and your field of specialization?

Absolutely. Undertaking in-depth study of U.S. patent law, medicines regulation, health infrastructure, and other areas of commercial and international law has been immensely valuable. These studies have shone a light on the origins and policy not only of U.S. law, but of related laws in Australia and around the world that so often take their lead from the United States.

Georgetown Law is home to an unrivalled community of health law scholars at the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law. It has been a real privilege to be surrounded by so many experts in the field and to have the opportunity to work closely with them throughout the year.

As a spring 2024 Global Health Institute student fellow, you worked with Colin Carlson to research notifiable disease laws. Tell us more about what you worked on and any lessons learned from your experience as a student fellow.

Together with Professor Carlson, I have been researching laws all around the world that require individual cases of specific diseases to be reported, usually to a medical practitioner or government health official. From country to country, I’ve been researching (1) which diseases are notifiable, and (2) who is subject to these obligations (from health care workers and diagnostic pathology labs to schoolteachers, port authorities, and even household contacts or family members).

We will work with other members of the lab to map the legal data onto outbreak reporting data and undertake statistical analysis to see what difference these laws make. Do disease notification obligations improve outbreak reporting and management? What difference do the variations in these laws make to what gets reported in the end?

Although our work is ongoing, this experience has been immensely valuable for me. As health lawyers, it is critical that we maintain strong relationships and open lines of communications with the scientific community. Our work must always be grounded in medical and epidemiological evidence, so we need to rely on others—and be able to speak their language. Being immersed in Professor Carlson’s team has been a great opportunity to revive my scientific literacy, develop important relationships, and stay abreast of developments in various corners of global health science and security.

What was the most interesting or surprising part of your work with Professor Carlson?

The most interesting or surprising parts of my work have probably been the things we’ve noticed along the way. For example, notifiable disease laws are seldom neatly packaged and labeled—although they often appear in obvious statutes, I have found specific disease notification rules in regulations on ice cream, abattoirs, orphanages, and more.

Another interesting aspect of the work has been meeting with Professor Carlson to discuss some of the more poorly formulated laws and the impacts they might have on reporting outcomes. Inconsistency or uncertainty undermines compliance, so clarity is paramount. Even well-drafted laws can have unintended consequences if the underlying policy is not scientifically sound. For example, criminalizing same-sex sex undermines HIV reporting due to fear of prosecution. Requiring household contacts to report tuberculosis, under threat of fines or imprisonment, can inadvertently create a culture of secrecy and push tuberculosis underground. The law does not exist in a vacuum.

In your final presentation as a student fellow, you mentioned that it was challenging to find notifiable disease laws during your research and that they can hide in unexpected places. How did you overcome this challenge?

I think it would be presumptuous to say I’ve overcome the challenge! But we’re certainly finding ways to make it easier. I’ve found great assistance in reaching out to colleagues at the O’Neill Institute who have done similar comparative health law projects, who were able to provide insights on their methods, sources, and connections. Existing databases of related laws are a useful starting point. For some countries, it may be necessary to cross-check with someone working in that jurisdiction. Otherwise, it’s important to observe—and record—patterns that arise across countries, in terms of the more obscure places these laws can hide.

What advice would you give to students applying to the GHI student fellows program?

Before you apply, spend some time thinking about what you want to get out of the program. Let that guide which projects you rank as your top preferences. Carefully consider the list of available projects/supervisors and think strategically about what you can bring to the projects and how they might help you achieve your goals. Tailor your application accordingly. If you have any questions about what it might look like, get in touch with the wonderful folks at GHI!

What will you miss most about Georgetown University and being in Washington, DC?

I guess I shouldn’t say the toasted bagel sandwiches from Call Your Mother… Seriously, though, it has been a real pleasure to be surrounded by people who are among the most esteemed experts in their field, yet are so willing to connect, share ideas, and provide support to colleagues and students. Georgetown is a very special place. I will miss its distinctive warmth, openness, and collegiality.

What are your future career plans, and did the fellowship experience impact your career goals?

I will be leaving my commercial intellectual property litigation practice (and Australia) and taking up a legal counsel role in a public interest organization. My work will focus on ensuring that patent rights do not prevent patients from accessing safe, quality, affordable medicines.