I traveled this summer to Kisumu, Kenya expecting to work on a project we had poured hours of work into through the Center for Global Reproductive Health. After much time spent discussing our project, conducting literature reviews, and finalizing on our in-depth interview guides, it was disappointing to learn that we would not have our necessary IRB approvals for our project until after our departure from Kisumu. While we are glad to know that our project is in amazing hands here at the Center for Global Reproductive Health, it was frustrating to come to terms with the fact that we would not be the ones to carry out the interviews we had worked so hard on.
As I look back on my summer, I am compelled to reflect on why this change of plans changed my trip for the better. Much discussion around research, especially when it comes to global health research, focuses on the importance of flexibility. Figuring out what to do when plans change and how to adjust your project to meet new circumstances is a difficult yet important task. Yet, what about when your plans not only change but switch from one project to another entirely? For me, this resulted in something I can best describe as “learning backwards.”
As an undergraduate, education can be intimidating and competitive. It seems as if most career paths follow a natural progression. One must figure out what they are passionate about right off the bat, join a pre-professional pathway such as pre-med or pre-law, take countless prerequisites, conduct research on the subject, then one day, if they’re lucky, join the field. Getting the opportunity to jump into a field and learn from experience what calls to you and what doesn’t is a rare experience that I can only attribute to things “going wrong” with my original summer plan. If beginning with a pre-professional pathway is learning in the “traditional” direction, we were given the opportunity to turn this natural progression on its head.
My Student Research Training program colleague Suzanna and I began work on the new study under the Center for Reproductive Health, carrying out the assessments on maternal and child health (MCH) interventions throughout dozens of rural hospitals in Kisumu, Homa Bay, and Migori counties which are in the Western part of Kenya. We jumped right into the field of clinical care, travelling all over Western Kenya in pursuit of knowledge that we, at the time, barely understood. As we carried on, however, I realized something: I loved what we were doing! Our PI, Dr. Jill Hagey taught us about labor complications and which supplies are critical to save mothers in these scenarios all while we were sitting right outside of an active maternity ward. We spoke directly with providers who spend countless hours improvising and making the best outcomes possible for their patients under limited-resource conditions. Jill described to us her own passion for clinical care, and I surprised myself with just how much I enjoyed working so closely with hospital staff. We were given the opportunity to experience life in the medical field without first becoming pre-med and taking the dreaded Physics 2.
While I cannot know what could have happened and what I could have learned if we had instead worked on our original project, I can report that this “switching” of plans made for an invaluable opportunity to learn backwards by collecting knowledge directly from a field I didn’t yet understand or even know I was interested in. It has opened my mind to the possibility of pursuing a career in medicine, even though I didn’t decide on the pre-med pathway upon arriving at Duke almost 2 years ago. This experience has reinforced the importance of remaining open to new experiences in academia, and really listening to my peers and teachers when they reassure me that “I have time” to decide on what I want to be when I grow up. I hope that I carry this open-ness with me throughout the remainder of my time at Duke, remembering that even if I’m not traditionally prepared for an experience, there is much to be said for just going for it, as I might surprise myself with what I find.