iSURF week 4: Work & Play

The biggest chunk of my summer will be spent in Tanzania where I’m lending a helping hand in some clinical trials pertaining to maternal health and nutrition. I lucked out with this sweet summer internship with the help of Harvard’s Global Health Institute and their international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program. The program catalyzed my access to busy professors, accomplished postdocs, as well as generous funding for an 8-10 week abroad adventure! It has provided me with all the ingredients and now it’s solely in my hands to make sure I concoct a scrumptious final product!

I’ve been studying up on malaria and how it relates to (deficiencies in) iron and vitamin A, but I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned much more about Tanzanian culture. I was told that people here spoke English; I was told a lie. In an attempt to start crawling over both the cultural and communication barriers, I’m trying to pick up useful phrases in Swahili.

Learning numbers is always a fundamental component to speaking any language – the practical reason being I can now bargain down prices! Yet counting has began to be a scary activity…! This fear stems from my senior year of college creeping closer. I can’t believe – and hate admitting – that three years of my young adult life have ended! I also can’t fathom that I’m approaching my third year of blogging! So many rightful exclamation points!

I still remember the very first blog post I ever wrote. I’m not sure if it’s the first blog that went live, but part of the application for becoming a student blogger involved writing two sample blog posts. I was completing the application at the beginning of my sophomore year and I was fresh out of my first collegiate summer which I spent at home. I wrote about my summer and the seemingly endless doubts and insecurities about spending the entire summer at home.

Generally, Harvard students are intense about utilizing their summers to propel and supplement their studies. I’m one of the biggest advocates for this year-around productivity as evidenced by my avid and enthusiastic participation in science camps during my high school summers. This summer mindset seems to culture the association that summers are only productive if spent anywhere but home. Thus, during an entire summer at home, it becomes very easy to feel like I was wasting time, wasting opportunities and wasting  resources. Every Facebook update from my college friends flashed adventurous world travels. Now, I am the obnoxious one who is not-so-subtly boasting my worldly travels via Facebook. But it’s important to remember my roots; it’s important to note that all my motivations for pursuing opportunities abroad stemmed from my summer at home when I realized how small I was which sparked one of the biggest urges to grow bigger by traveling wider. At that point, flying coast to coast between home and school seemed like the longest flight ever; yet now, the frequency of international flights is at least equivalent to the number of domestic flights I take! I feel beyond fortunate that my interest in healthcare and development easily affords me opportunities to work abroad – not to mention Harvard’s resources and support which makes the logistics of it all even easier.

Every single person I meet stresses the importance of traveling now, when I’m “still young.” It may seem like I’m short on money now, but apparently I’ll be more pressed for time in the future. I’ve willingly taken their advice to dedicate my endeavors to exploring the world. Traveling can be hard, especially when you’re striving to strike the perfect balance between cheap and safety. Good thing there are endless excitements in Africa that constantly distract me 🙂

There is so much stimuli when you’re in a new country that it can be sometimes hard to remember that my first and foremost priority is my clinical research internship. Since I work at the Harvard Decision Science Lab as a research assistant during the semester, my clinical research summer internship is not my first time interacting with human participants. However, the studies we run at the interdisciplinary lab back in Cambridge usually are a one time gig rather than a series of repeated visits which is characteristic of clinical studies. I’m really getting a kick out of being involved in clinical research because I split my time in a research office, a wet lab, and the hospital environment – it’s the trifecta!

It took a few weeks for me to visit the hospital sites involved in the clinical trials, but it was well worth the wait! I loved meeting the enthusiastic nurses working with the trials as well as observing their relationships with the pregnant women. The study aims for monthly visits which have really fostered a trusting relationship between medical staff and patient – something I not only admire, but also yearn for myself!!

There are records on records at the sites! Space for all the information is often a problem.

An unexpected but nonetheless interesting aspect of my summer internship is the healthcare consulting component. The postdocs are very receptive to my thoughts and opinions about protocol and efficiency! I’ve made edits to their standard operating procedure and am in the process of renovating their database. It’s all very exciting because I feel like I’m an important member of their research team. I’m contributing to the project – which is something I couldn’t say last summer when I was shadowing at a private clinic in Peru.

A pharmacy near the research office distributes the supplements to the sites.

As previously mentioned, Harvard students are super determined to construct productive summers. Once j-term (January break/winter break) ends (and perhaps even during the break!), students jump start every spring semester with tons of summer applications. But don’t worry about us – the rough winter weather and of course the academic rigors concomitant to each spring semester also make students very mindful of burning out. In my personal efforts of refreshing myself, I joined some recently graduated Harvard College alum in their fun weekend plans!

The iSURF program always sends at least 2 students per location abroad. However, my program partner, Leanna, was sent ~500 km away to work at one of her sites. She’s working on a study revolving around maternal health and HIV, a study which has more distant sites than my own cases. Leanna was told she’ll be gone for at least 3 days and perhaps up to 2 weeks. I wasn’t surprised by the grand ambiguity because the concept of time seems abstract in just about every country; rather, I was more saddened by how long I’d be alone! Thank heavens there’s a Harvard in Africa contact spreadsheet that I was able to utilize as a preventative measure to my loneliness.

A Harvard College class of 2011 member, Sam, who has been in Tanzania for just a little short of a year, was introduced to me by the executive director of the Harvard Decision Science Lab where I’m a research assistant during the term time. Luckily for me, Sam and Alena are great hosts and they have shown me around one of the main markets in the city’s center. We got along well during our market times, mealtimes, and movie times. One of their friends was house sitting for a weekend and decided to host a dinner party. Plans were made to attend the dinner party in preparation for the city’s Full Moon Beach party. When I first arrived at my internship, a Dartmouth intern was ending her time in Tanzania and basically transitioned me into the internship. Not only did she show me the ropes around the job, but she also emphasized that there was a Full Moon Beach party once a month that I was not to miss – she even made it sound like it was in my job description to attend!

The dinner party and the Full Moon Beach party far exceeded my expectations! It was definitely one of my nights in Africa I’ll remember forever. We collectively cooked a delicious meal from all the random ingredients we had contributed. I don’t ever cook because I never need to – being on the full meal plan at school (like most students) and coming home to parents who dearly miss me, I always have the easy option of eating already prepared food! Creatively cooking was a lot of fun, as was snooping around the house we were house sitting for, which came with 4 pet ducks. The dance party afterwards was also really fun with great music, lights, and atmosphere. I was a bit nervous because all my company would be older than me by at least 3 years, but age never posed any obstacles of disconnect! It was a super fun, super memorable night/morning – everything in Tanzania happens really late (we ate dinner around 10 pm!)!

A handful of hours of sleep later, I hesitatingly woke up to my alarm. I had plans to meet another group of friends for the Tanzania vs. Ivory Coast soccer game, a FIFA World Cup qualifying match! My main link to this other group was through a Harvard College 2008 alumna who is interning with the US Embassy in Tanzania which provides housing for their interns so most of them were roommates if not also current graduate school classmates. It was my first professional soccer game and I was stoaked beyond belief! In all honesty, I was half stoaked, half scared; the same Dartmouth intern who had raved about the monthly Full Moon Beach party had also told me that she and 2 of her friends were mugged by thieves with knives outside the stadium. The sensible half of me told me to avoid the stadium at all costs, but the stubborn side of me reasoned that if I was with a big group of friends, everything would be okay.

Quickly did I learn that the stadium was synonymous to chaos. My friends and I had done everything we could think of to make the soccer game a nothing but pleasant experience – we got in a taxi to the stadium 3 hours before the game started and we splurged an extra $4 for VIP seats. There were, however, many more factors out of our control! First of all, they oversell tickets to the game so everyone is both eager and aggressive to enter the stadium. There appeared to be a huge bus that was selling tickets so people were crowding that bus and were even trying to climb up on the tires to crawl in the windows. The driver wanted to avoid everyone breaking into the bus so he sped down the road without any concern for the hundreds of people standing in the street. Additionally, there are multiple gates to the stadium that people swarm and shove their way inside. My friends and I stood in line for a while, but eventually gave in to join the mobs so that we’d be able to enter too. Pickpocketing is always a heightened concern in crowded areas. Some people tried to pickpocket some of my friends even when their hands were resting in their pockets! Someone did manage to pickpocket some cash out of my friend’s pocket, but this friend is fluent in Swahili so when he verbally confronted the thief, some mob justice ensued and random people in the crowd started beating the thief until the police broke it up. Needless to say, all heart beats were rapid.

Pulses remained high even after we managed to group-push our way through the initial gate. After a quick moment of relishing in our front gate triumph, we heard the crowd roar from cheers of happiness which sparked us to race towards the second, inner gate as to not miss any more of the action. At the second gate, people just wanted to push through in an unorganized manner, but the police were very adamant about mandating a single file entry and they were willing to use force. During my first attempt to pass, the man in front of me got hit a few times by a policeman’s stick so I instinctively turned around. My friend held my hand for the second attempt, but our link broke in the crowd and I was almost pushed into an officer. I was extremely fearful of getting beaten so when I almost stumbled into an officer, I threw my hands up in a surrender position. The police officer could probably see all the fear in my face even if he was blind; he smiled at me and it broke all the tension. We had a great moment. After this second entry, everything was smooth sailing! It was crazy to see how everyone’s barbaric behavior instantaneously disappeared when they could see the soccer field! Everyone was super nice inside the stadium and some strangers even helped me get a seat with a good view!

My friends and I were pretty shaken up from experiencing such a high concentration of seemingly near death moments. We decided to treat ourselves to some fabulous Chinese food – we did have another full week of work ahead of us!

I think I’ve told my soccer game story about a dozen times, adding more and more drama to each subsequent version. My stadium experience may seem horrifying and overly risky, but as I mentioned in my last post, the iSURF program grants participants pretty much complete freedom to make and handle our own decisions.  The soccer game was only a cool experience because all of my friends and I managed to leave unscathed. We’d be happy to have Lady Luck as a member of our friendship circle anytime!

PS – Sorry for the lack of pictures! I want to keep a clean, non-mugged tracked record so I often leave the camera at home.

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  1. PLM’s avatar

    Traveling is important, and even better if you are doing some social work. Great post Jeanie

    1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

      Thanks for reading! I couldn’t stress more the importance of traveling and grasping a world and culture that you can’t imagine – especially when there are so many (funded!) opportunities to travel during undergrad! My friends in Tanzania consist mostly of grad students and one of them stated that he had more opportunities during his undergrad years than any other period of his life – and this meant opportunities beyond traveling as well!

    2. zawody’s avatar

      It’s hard to imagine how hard is work in Tanzania! I always dreamed about african trip. I think about volontariat but I’m not medical experience…

      1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

        I’m an undergraduate student so I also have no medical schooling under my belt. Saying that ‘seeing how the health system works in Tanzania (and Peru last summer) has been an incredibly insightful experience’ can be the understatement of the century! There are a ton of internships – and internships abroad – where medical experience isn’t necessary! Check out the OIE, Office of International Education, here:

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