Dr. Sumedha Gupta Ariely is an associate Professor in the Global Health department and teaches courses such as Research methods in Global Health (GLHLTH371) and Global Health Ethics (GLHLTH373). She is also a faculty lead for Duke Global Health Institute’s Durham Research and Service work, demonstrating her commitment to the “Local-is-Global” approach in global health endeavors. She has mentored a variety of undergraduate and graduate students through Bass Connections and DukeEngage projects.
In her research, she investigates maternal, child, and adolescent health across international contexts. Notable, she has worked extensively with Uganda, Kenya, and India across her time at Duke. Using her background in developmental psychology, she examines how cultural and social factors relate to a community’s health behaviors and outcomes.
To explore more of Dr. Ariely’s revolutionary work, I interviewed her on her experiences and initiatives in the global health field during her time at Duke to see how they have informed her research.
1. You’ve led initiatives in the “Global Is Local” approach to global health through the Durham community. How have you extended your experiences in Durham to your international research?
The Local is Global approach the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) is taking is really about reminding ourselves that health disparities exist everywhere and we have ethical obligations towards reducing health inequities locally as well as globally. Second, it’s about multi-directional learning and having the humility to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. And here is where I think DGHI is particularly well suited to be part of and contribute to the local work many Duke units have been doing for decades. Local is global is about understanding if and how the solutions and frugal innovations we and our international partners in low-middle income countries (LMIC) have developed can apply to the structural and physical determinants underlying the health of our communities here – issues like structural violence, food swamps, resource and health care access, health behaviors, all of which on a fundamental human level can be very similar across cultures and high and low income communities. And just importantly, how we can develop processes to support our partners in international settings to learn about issues in our neighborhoods, advise and teach us here, and share these lessons and expertise with other communities in the global south and global north. There are good examples of this cross-directional learning in the work Dr. Diana Silimperi and I are trying to do this in Pamlico County, North Carolina, and many great examples in the HIV, mental health (MH) and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) work Kate Whetten has been doing for decades.
2. How have you leveraged your developmental psychology background in your global health research? Do you feel as though this approach offers new insight into the field?
In many ways developmental psychology is all about trying to understand change – physical, cognitive, emotional, psycho-social. It’s about how people (and animals) transform across the lifespan – we study it a la the traditional great theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner, etc, but also philosophically from standpoint of other disciplines, for example how autopoiesis on the cellular level could be a model to think about how self-organizing structures in mental processes emerge. I think this type of philosophical training and background makes developmental psychologists inherently sensitive to, and interested in, the deep complexity in relations between health determinants and outcomes. It also makes us open to seeing the variability in our data as meaningful, and therefore to see the need to spend time personalizing our populational level results when we try and apply them to communities, families, and individuals.
3. How have mentoring students – whether it be through classes or through Bass connections research projects – changed your approach to your research?
I started my role at DGHI, back in 2008 with the mandate to develop a fieldwork program with opportunities for us to partner directly with communities to do health work – research and application. I was coming from MIT, working with amazing people like Amy Smith, and other engineers and applied scientists whose interest and mission was to work with communities to develop simple, contextualized, sustainable engineering designs to solve local issues. DGHI had that same focus – translatable, evidence based efforts. And student passion and idealism at DGHI and Duke was amazing – I’ve seen over and over how much excellent shared learning and scholarly engagement can occur directly on the ground when that passion connects to a mindset of humility + deep interest in understanding the root causes of health issues.
I think mentoring students through SRT, BASS, independent studies/theses helped me realize I want to spend more time doing direct field engagement where the shared outcomes are more quickly discernible and modifiable. I don’t think there is anyone doing work in global health who doesn’t worry about the disproportionate benefit academics/researchers from high powered countries often get compared to the participants and community members working with us. Working at a grass-roots level, we are able to see more directly and immediately how the partnership is going, what is working for each group, and what is being gained for the direct clients/i.e., what the actual benefits are for the people involved.