Students Call Investment in Global Health Fieldwork 'Invaluable'

October 06, 2014

Want to learn more about the SRT program? The program is open to second and third year students who have an interest in, and some experience with, global health. Projects are now open in Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Kenya and Tanzania. Join us at an  SRT information session on October 16. Deadline to apply for the 2014-2015 SRT program is  November 3

Each summer, dozens of Duke students embark on fieldwork projects in places like Africa, South America and Southeast Asia through the DGHI Student Research Training (SRT) Program.  It’s an experiential learning program for sophomores and juniors that distinguishes itself by its yearlong commitment to global health research. Students returning from the field say the SRT program is an invaluable experience that is broadening their perspectives and preparing them for their careers.

Applying the classroom to the field

William Sperduto , who is majoring in global health and cultural anthropology, was able build upon his knowledge of global health concepts and improve his Spanish-speaking skills as part of the SRT Guatemala project.  He and his team studied breastfeeding habits and child nutrition trends among the Mayan women and children of Santa Cruz.

“It was wonderful for me to apply what I learned in my global health classes, specifically in seeing the complexity and interrelatedness of the problems at hand,” said Sperduto. “During the few days we were able to spend with our faculty mentor Dr. Boyd on-the-ground, I enjoyed learning more about how he sees and thinks about global health research.  He made me realize how much more I could observe and learn from the situations around me.” 

As he learned about the intricacies of global health research, Sperduto came away from the summer fieldwork experience with a greater sense of appreciation.

“My experiential learning trip broadened my thinking and made me realize that real global health progress is difficult to achieve,” said Sperduto. “Our field research experience and adventure left me with a greater appreciation of access, access to healthcare, food, basic necessities…etc.  Encountering layers of problems involving education, nutrition, gender inequality, and alcoholism, allowed me to see that a response to these issues must be multi-faceted.”

Working with Duke faculty and the local community

For two years in a row, global health program II student Sammie Truong completed global health research in rural Uganda through DGHI. As part of the SRT program this year, she and her peers collected data on issues of maternal and child health, cardiovascular disease and sanitation. They also organized a successful community health fair, piloted a microgrant project and assisted with a counseling program for orphaned and vulnerable children.  Truong says the SRT program distinguishes itself through its focus on faculty mentorship and on community engagement.

“SRT introduced me to two incredible mentors, Dr. Ariely and Dr. Kigongo, whose guidance and expertise have invaluably shaped the way I approach and evaluate global health challenges,” said Truong.  “In addition to mentorship, the nature of the relationships I’ve made taught me the flexibility to confront unexpected challenges and the humility to respect the opinions of others.”

She and her team collaborated directly with community partners on their projects, including the District Health Office, local hospitals, and rural health clinics. She says the partnerships and friendships they are able to make within the community drew her back for a second summer. 

“I was hooked on the Uganda site’s model—one that focused not solely on research or service, but rather on an invaluable combination of community health assessments and development projects,” said Truong. "Participating in SRT confirmed my passion for global health and inspired me to pursue similar opportunities in my future career. "

More than the actual fieldwork

Unlike some other summer fieldwork programs, SRT students are fully engaged in project planning starting in the fall semester through regular meetings with advisors and students who previously participated in the project. Truong says this long-term approach to, and investment in, global health field research allowed her team to consider not only the logistical requirements, but also the ethical implications of their fieldwork.

Upon returning to Duke, students have the chance to take their fieldwork through to completion – which includes analyzing the data and briefing the next group of students who are part of the project.

“What I particularly appreciated about the SRT program is that it is not an experience isolated to two months over the summer,” said Natalie Atyeo, a Spanish and Biology major who worked with Sperduto in Guatemala. “The semester before our research experiences began, we gained invaluable information in navigating the ethical challenges and cultural differences involved in conducting research abroad. Moreover, the fact that we had a faculty mentor to guide us through the summer gave me a better sense of how we could use the data we gathered in a meaningful way once we returned to Duke.” 

Students learn by doing

While preparation for a field research experience is important, students soon learn that preparation only goes so far. As students get in the field, they are forced to learn more as they are forced to adapt to changes, challenges and unforeseen circumstances.

“It is easy to enter into experiential learning programs like the SRT program with slightly glorified senses about what can be done in a mere two months,” said Atyeo. “Despite our preparation in the spring semester, I was still unsure about how our data collection would work and any potential logistical and cultural challenges we would potentially confront.”

Atyeo said her and her team encountered that the concept of “years old” or age is often framed differently in the Guatemalan culture. After realizing they may have recorded incorrect ages, the team returned to some homes to verify child ages. 

“It made us realize how we take the interpretation of everyday concepts, like time, for granted,” said Atyeo.

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Guatemala team

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