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Reflections on Global Health- A Few Lessons Learned by a Fogarty Fellow

Reflections on Global Health

From Martha Ryan, 3rd year medical student, and Fogarty Global Health Scholar, 2013-14

At the end of eleven months in Chennai, I’ve learned a lot. There are clearly many ways to have a great international research experience, but I’ve come up with a few guidelines that helped me get the most out of my time here. After plenty of trial and error, here’s what worked for me:

Commit to having a great year before you even arrive
The first few weeks in Chennai were my most difficult. I missed my boyfriend, family, and friends. I was lonely and frustrated, but I didn’t waiver in my decision. When I was stateside, I weighed the options thoroughly. India was an obviously great decision for me. It would be a huge step towards my career goals, and a great chance for me to experience a new culture. Asking anyone with past experience abroad the answer is the same, no one looks back and wishes they had stayed home. No matter what I felt in the short term, I trusted my decision and committed to the right choice.

Plans Change
I had a great experience at the Fogarty program orientation. One of the best parts was talking with people who had recently completed their year. I was just beginning and my project wasn’t moving in the direction I had expected, things were changing and I was feeling unsure. Amazing news, the exact same thing had happened to every single returning Fogarty fellow. Learning I was in the same boat as everyone else changed my entire perspective. It worked out very well for all of them, and I’m happy to say looking back it has worked out very well for me!

Everyone You Meet is Doing You a Favor
I was lucky to work with some excellent individuals at the DMDSC. I like to think that my work will benefit the institution, but at the start there’s no guarantees for anyone. I didn’t get every single thing that I wanted while I was here, and my needs were not always a top priority. That can be tough, but it’s helpful to remember that this institution was busy and productive before I showed up. Any time or resources these busy individuals can give me for my work is a kindness and certainly not something that I am owed. The DMDSC is a great resource for any researcher, and I’m lucky to take advantage of that. Outside of work, the same holds true in many ways. Getting frustrated when people don’t speak English (since my Tamil is useless) or being irritated with the inevitable gawking foreigners receive is easy, but it’s also just plain old entitlement. My research benefits greatly from being in India, I will benefit greatly from my time here. I hope to give back what I can, but there is no doubt that the person getting the most out of my Fogarty experience is me. For that I’m very grateful, and it’s important to show that to those who are investing their energies in you!

Redefine Success
Several classmates of mine took a year to pursue research fulltime on campus. While my interest in research motivated me, it is important to distinguish between their goals and mine. I came to India to learn about living and working here. I learned about how research is done under a new set of economic, legal, and cultural restraints. I learned about collaboration between two research centers on opposite sides of the planet, between people who sometimes have never met each other in person. It was frustrating to encounter obstacles in my research. But these didn’t impede my success, these obstacles are why I came in the first place. I know everyone beginning an international research project hears a million times how things will go wrong and be challenging in ways you never expected. It’s clichéd but its true, and for all the times I heard it, I can’t say it made me immune to the feelings of frustration. For me, I don’t think it’s useful to pretend these things will not bother you. Of course they will, but hearing about something and experiencing it first hand are not the same. I came to India for the experiences, and that means the good and the bad. Success for me of course means learning about research and completing a project I’m proud of, but I also came to learn specifically about the challenges of international collaboration and research. While that can be difficult, it has also made my year so much more valuable.

Take Care of Yourself
The best way to enjoy India is exactly like the best way to enjoy the US. In Atlanta, I would be unhappy if I had no friends or interests outside my work. No surprise, the same is true in Chennai. I started practicing yoga nearly everyday, a great way to get exercise and make friends! I’ve taken up surfing, which is perfect for Chennai’s signature hot and humid weather. I’ve joined movie night with the other DMDSC residents, and been pro-active about getting into the Chennai ex-pat scene. Also, best part, when I take a weekend trip or a vacation I get to visit places most Americans never will! Having a great time in Chennai can seem difficult, but literally millions of people do it every day. Once I started to feel more at home, I was happier in and outside of the clinic.