Do’s and don’ts of global health research

Written by Samuel Jaros, BS student at Loyola University and participant in the 2019 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track

The Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track students recently met with four researchers to discuss the do’s and don’ts of performing public health research with outside communities. The four panelists came from diverse backgrounds, each with unique experiences of successes and failures.

Lindsey Manshack shared her experiences working with Native American tribes. Dr. Caline Mattar shared her involvement with studying microbial resistance as well as experiences with understanding cultural differences even among people who speak the same language. Dr. Vetta Sanders Thompson gave us an overview of her research examining the intersection between race and mental health. Lastly, Dr. Philip Budge gave his perspectives on global research as he works on parasitic diseases in Western Africa.

The HIV research team at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Accra, Ghana

Much of the conversation was directed towards gaining entrance to a community. Many people want help, and there are researchers willing to help. Trust however, must come first. Effectively, the researchers must become a part of the community. Dr. Budge offered advice to never bypass the gatekeeper. If there is a tribal leader or a governing body for example, attempting to thwart their authority will only lead to failure or worse.

Dr. Mattar emphasized the need for humility when approaching a new community. Though titles and experience may lead researchers to believe they have all the answers, nobody likes an outsider coming in and bossing them around. All people, especially those suffering from an illness, simply want to be heard, and researchers will find much more success in new communities if they are willing to listen.

Another question in the discussion asked the panel what major lessons they have learned through experience. There is only so much one can learn from sitting in a classroom. Dr. Sanders-Thompson recalled that new research team members are something she has learned to appreciate. Fresh faces with new ideas and visions can help motivate the whole team to push harder and uncover new data.

Lindsey Manshack had a more cautionary tale from her undergraduate work signing up women for mammograms in underserved areas. The sponsoring organization in her story had fallen into disrepute in the community, making her campaign largely unsuccessful. Understanding not only the people you want to help but also the organizations which are supporting you is essential to integrating oneself into the community.

Though it would be ideal to completely be rid of the “us vs. them” mentality, it is essential to recognize cultural differences between you the researcher and the community you wish to serve. It is only by reconciling these differences, gaining trust, and finding your niche in the community that you can really make a difference in public health.