Student's Experience/ Mahlet

Oli Otya!

I am here to share my summer practicum experience with the Rakai Health Sciences Program (RHSP) under the SSTAR Project. My name is Mahlet, and I am a second-year MPH student at Columbia University with a Global health certificate. I was first drawn to the Rakai Practicum because of the community-based service delivery programs that RHSP provides, especially programs that are focused on adolescent girls and young women. Like the rest of my classmates in Spring 2020, I was preparing for my six-month practicum adventure and to immerse myself in field-based activities. When the pandemic hit and we were no longer able to travel, everything changed instantly. At the moment, everyone was scrambling to figure out how to proceed with practicum programs. I was also unsure what my practicum fate would be. I for sure can now say I was one of the luckiest students because the Rakai practicum program was able to accommodate students remotely.

With that said, let’s talk about what I did!

The practicum started in early June. Along with me, there were two other Columbia Public Health students working on the same project. After completing the required orientations from the Office of Field Practice, we started our practicum work on a bioethics project. This specific project aims are to explore the knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and cognitive capacity of adolescents and parents regarding adolescent participation in biomedical and behavioral research. Each of us was assigned to one specific aim of the study, and we each had two mentors, one from Columbia University and one from RHSP ( Rakai, Uganda) Staff.

My specific project was looking at the abilities and cognitive capacities of adolescents and parents to provide informed consent and their ability to consent for research. This was done through semi-structured interviews that assess respondents’ understanding of the informed consent process in research. Through the guidance of my two wonderful mentors ( Dr.Phil Kreniske and Dr.Fred Nalugonda), I completed various research activities such as a scoping literature review, development of a codebook, analyzing and scoring quantitative data, and other general activities supporting project staff.

One of the things I enjoyed the most is reading the in-depth interviews of adolescent and adult participants and analyzing their responses with the team. In addition to evaluating whether the participant understood the consent process, I learned so much about the Rakai community, people’s way of life, and their overall understanding and approach to sexual health.

Taking the lead to develop a codebook from the beginning was also an experience of its own. I was glad I could use the skills I learned in my two qualitative research methods classes at Columbia and put it into practice. Before this practicum, my experience of conducting a scoping review or any structured literature review, in general, was very minimal. It was definitely a learning curve for me, but I got through it. I am now grateful for that experience, especially that I am using these skills to complete many other projects for my classes and my thesis.

Even remotely, I think this practicum had so much to offer. Besides these research activities, students had the opportunity to connect with different colleagues from Uganda (RHSP), Johns Hopkins University, and Washington University in St. Louis; and we were able to hear about their work through weekly presentations that were prepared just for practicum students. We also had a zoom-based cultural program called “taste of Uganda” which is an introduction to Ugandan people, culture, traditions, and history. The sessions included basic Luganda language training, special cooking lessons (we learned how to make Kabalega-banana pancakes and plantains), and a virtual tour of Ugandan cities and towns such as Kampala and Kalisizo. Although we couldn’t physically be there to do some of these activities, this was a great way to get us connected to the Ugandan tradition and culture.

My time with RHSP and the Rakai work did not end with the completion of the practicum. I am currently working as a research assistant for the SSTAR project at Columbia University. My current role includes conducting various administrative and research activities and I am also continuing my engagement with RHSP and the Bioethics project. SSTAR is a five-year NIH-funded research initiative exploring how structural factors, policies and programs, and social role transitions from adolescence to adulthood influence HIV acquisition among young people in Rakai, Uganda. I am also using this same data to complete my master's thesis. For my thesis, I am more deeply exploring adolescent health issues and expanding on the preliminary analyses I conducted over my summer practicum to turn it into a manuscript for publication.

Overall, I had a great time doing my practicum with RHSP, especially given the challenging circumstances. The entire team was welcoming and supportive of students. Whether remote or in-person, I am sure you will gain so much by working with this practicum program. Maybe one day we will all get to visit Uganda and RHSP and eat a homemade Kabalaga and Gonja – when circumstances allow us to do so!

For now, Mweraba!!