A month into the start of the new school year is a good time to reflect on the value the Center can bring to an academic setting like Duke. More salient is the recognition of the value that students and learners bring to Center. This is my third semester teaching Global Sexual and Reproductive Health, one of the core Center courses. The undergraduates continue to impress me with the experience and passion they bring to the classroom, to their research assignments and to their lives in the Duke community. Every year, I learn new things and gain new perspective from the discussions and viewpoints in brought forth in the course.
This year, I’m leading two additional student research initiatives in which I already recognize that I’ll learn much more than I will teach the students. I have been working with students through the Big Data for Reproductive Health project since May, when Amy Finnegan and I helped manage a Data Plus team that developed a web-based application to better analyze DHS Contraceptive Calendar Data. These students learned about DHS data, studied data visualization techniques and did a needs mapping exercise to determine what sort of application would be valuable. Then, they learned how to code in R-Shiny and developed not one, but four applications to visualize the data. The project rolled over into a Bass Connections team, which will iterate on their design, liaise with key stakeholders and work to determine whether the DHS Contraceptive Calendar is the best source to get salient information about contraceptive trends. The mixed group of undergraduate and graduate students includes champions in debate and extemporaneous speech, computer science majors with experience in tech start-ups and major computing firms, and public policy majors with lobby and advocacy experience in DC. Hearing them come together to share their distinct perspectives and experiences has already been incredibly interesting and I look forward to working together as a team to develop and test these apps.
The second student-led research is a combined initiative funded by the Duke Global Cancer Program and Computer Science Department. We are working with four seniors in the “Delivering Software: From Concept to Client” course. These students are have taken on the challenge of developing a mobile application for use by community health workers providing cervical cancer screening in western Kenya. Very quickly this talented group has come up with a prototype, and in collaboration with a DGHI Masters’ student will populate the app, and field test through our site office in Kisumu.
In addition to the obvious added value of working with the very talented students that Duke offers, we get a chance to see what Sexual and Reproductive Health looks like through their eyes. We are not expecting, or even hoping that all the students will end up with a career focus in Global SRH research, advocacy or policy planning. While some students embark on courses or projects out of a true interest in the field, others have a passing curiosity, or may be interested in mHealth, big data or machine learning. Having the opportunity to explore these interests using Global SRH as a case study may open their eyes to new perspectives that they will take with them as they move to the next phase of their lives. This synergistic intellectual growth is one of the cornerstones of the Center mission.