Physician, Novelist, Curator, Activist and TED Fellow

Nassim Assefi, M.D. ’97


As a child of Iranian immigrants, I only had three career choices: doctor, engineer or failure (haha). So I was pre-med as of age eight and I’m lucky that it turned out to be an excellent match with my personality and skills. When I was 19, I found myself doing public health research in Iranian villages, and there was no going back. Between working in an Islamic context that was sexually segregated and my strong feminist leanings, I found I could have the most impact in global women’s health. My longest-term project was working with NGOs funded by USAID to provide primary, community-based health programs to rural areas of Afghanistan and help strengthen its ministry of public health. We focused on the biggest problems in Afghan health, which were maternal and infant mortality. The healthcare reconstruction in Afghanistan has been a huge success, and it joins other major progress–the education system, road construction, mobile phones and a free media, which are often overlooked by the West due to continuing violence and war fatigue. I’m currently the director of stage content at TEDMED. Our April 2014 event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., attempts to unlock imagination in the service of the biggest issues in health and medicine. I’m also finishing up my second novel, which tells a personal story about the perils of foreign humanitarian action. The subject was inspired by a handful of my Afghan women friends who became superstars in their country post-Taliban, only to be harassed, hurt and killed in the backlash. They’ve done amazing things that they would have never been able to do in pre-Taliban days, but they are risking their lives for it. Writing, for me, is about making sense of the complexities of the world and sorting through emotional experiences that are far from straightforward.