Maternal health internships give students hands-on experience

Onella Dawkins
Onella Dawkins

September 13, 2017— From assessing what motivates women in rural Zanzibar to give birth at a health facility rather than at home, to studying what fuels obesity rates among Tanzanian women before and during pregnancy, nine Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health students spent the summer in seven countries doing internships in maternal health.

They spoke about their experiences and shared research findings at the School on September 6 and 7, 2017.

The students’ internships were supported by travel grants from the Maternal Health Task Force, part of the School’s Women and Health Initiative.

Isabel Fulcher

Isabel Fulcher, a doctoral student in biostatistics, worked in a D-tree International program aimed at improving birth safety in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Despite having access to health facilities, over half of women in Zanzibar give birth at home with an unskilled attendant. Rates of maternal and neonatal mortality in Zanzibar remain high, and home births rates are higher compared with births at health facilities.

Last year, Fulcher worked with D-tree to help develop a mobile phone app to guide community health volunteers in conversations with pregnant women in their homes, with a focus on encouraging women to get pre- and postnatal care at a health facility and to save money toward delivering their child at a facility. This past summer, Fulcher expanded on that work by helping assess the effectiveness of the app.

She and her colleagues found that how much money the women saved was a key factor in their decision to deliver at a health facility. Women who had previously delivered at home were more likely to give birth at home for their next pregnancy. And women were more likely to deliver in a facility if they had been visited at home by a community worker close to the delivery date.

Onella Dawkins, a master’s degree student in epidemiology, worked with the Africa Academy of Public Health to study the prevalence and risk factors for obesity and overweight in women both before and during pregnancy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. About 40% of Tanzanian women of reproductive age are overweight or obese, putting both mothers and children at risk for a range of health problems, Dawkins said. She had expected to train workers to collect data, but when she arrived she found that they needed help developing a nutrition survey tool—so she switched gears, quickly familiarizing herself with nutrition information as well as popular local foods.

“It was a great experience. I learned about flexibility and how to make the most to be productive in a role I hadn’t planned on,” she said. “I stopped researchers in the hallway to ask questions. It was a lot of learning on the go.”

Other students participating in the 2017 Summer Internships in Maternal Health included Alexandra Earle, Estelle Gong, Jigyasa Sharma, Shiyi Zan, Mia Monique Blakstad, Kalin Stoval, and Kayla Rosenberg.

For more on the program: Summer Internships in Maternal Health

Marge Dwyer

photos: Sarah Sholes