The Importance of Experience

I’ve been reflecting a lot on how my previous academic, professional and fieldwork experiences have influenced my dissertation project lately. I’m sure that’s a function of not only being in the field currently but also my participating in this mentoring program. I have been interested in women’s health writ broadly since high school – an interest that was shaped by my early exposure to the US healthcare system as the daughter of a hospital administrator – but my experiences as a student at Colorado College and the University of Washington further exposed me to the lived realities of uneven access to healthcare both at home and abroad.

As an undergraduate student at Colorado College, I worked as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood while learning how to engage in reproductive health education and outreach to teens in the Rocky Mountain Region. After transferring to the University of Washington, I was struck by the connections between public health in practice and the use of social theory as a means to try to understand the creation and maintenance of systems of inequality in health outcomes. My participation in the UW Honors Sierra Leone summer study abroad program introduced me to the power of ethnographic research as a methodological approach centered on cultural immersion and human connection. My time working on issues related to women’s reproductive health and access to maternal care in Sierra Leone also taught me the importance of personal relationships outside of the research process, as well as the ethical dilemma’s associated with community based health research in rural communities.

These experiences engaging in qualitative work in rural villages in Sierra Leone directly influenced my decision to intern with a NGO doing community-based capacity building in Uttarakhand, India. As a women’s health intern with CHIRAG, the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, I went to villages in the Kumaon and sat in on health council meetings in order to understand the community ranking of key women’s health issues. I then compared the community priorities to hospital and clinical data related to women’s care-seeking behaviors to look for areas of overlap or divergence. The goal of this work was to better serve women in the NGO’s catchment area, particularly in terms of acute and preventative care. Through participant observation, analysis of medical logs, and the limited use of household surveys, I was able to further hone my qualitative research skills while also engaging in policy relevant work.

As a graduate student at Rutgers University, I have worked as a Research Assistant on two faculty projects. As an RA my co-advisor, I have learned about the backend of data analysis. I worked with her other PhD student to develop a codebook to be used to enter and analyze household surveys on a Fulbright-funded project related to the household impacts of small scale mining (SSM) in rural Ghana. I presented a paper at a national conference last year on some of our preliminary findings related to long-term health outcomes of community members living in areas impacted by SSM. As an RA for Prof. Turshen on her book project, ‘The Violence of Production and Reproduction”, I became much more adept at engaging in archival research and more familiar with relevant literature related to women’s health in the context of extractive industries and immense bodily demands for reproduction. Both of these experiences have influenced the methodological approaches I plan to incorporate into my dissertation research, as well as my familiarity with data analysis once I return from the field.

Currently, I am engaging in preliminary research and participant observation at the Bugando Referral Hospital in Mwanza, Tanzania. Since my dissertation will address outreach and early treatment of women’s reproductive cancers in resource limited contexts, I feel that my academic engagement, professional experience and fieldwork have prepared me to conduct 18 months of qualitative work at Bugando and other clinical sites in the hospital’s catchment area. I look forward to returning next year to begin this work!

About Helen Elizabeth Olsen

I'm a doctoral student living in the New York area.
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