In the midst of the everyday stress that exams, papers and classes bring us, it can be hard to appreciate everything that is happening on our campus. The week leading up to spring break quickly turned from a short sprint to an endless marathon as assignments piled up and exams brutally multiplied. At the end of the week before Spring Break, I was exhausted. I wanted to go home, lay on my bed and shamelessly watch three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Instead, I had to get on 15-hour long series of planes and taxis that would wind up taking me to Lima, Peru to do research with Duke’s Bass Connections program.
Our research is connected to a Duke biomedical engineering lab that engineered a new low-cost device to help bring down cervical cancer rates in Peru called the POCkeT (Point of Care Tampon) Colposcope. Our Spring Break trip to Lima heavily focused on conducting a form of research known as Global Value Chain (GVC) analysis, which utilizes field interviews from relevant stakeholders, government bodies, companies, laborers, etc. In the case of our research this Spring Break, we divided our time in hospitals, doctor’s offices, regulators, clinics, mobile van clinics and medical start-ups. Through using GVC analysis, our goal is to map how the POCkeT colposcope can be introduced and scaled in Peru to reach the most vulnerable populations.
The research itself brought up a series of important questions: How do you design a device in the United States to be used in an incredibly different environment with a completely different population? How do you go about understanding what can be a complicated (and fragmented) foreign healthcare system and introducing a new type of device?
Throughout my time in Lima, I found that there was often a jarring difference between the hotel I was served breakfast in and the overcrowded public hospitals I’d travel to. In the free public hospitals that were situated in Lima’s poorest districts, I was taken back by the rows of open beds with mothers who had just delivered babies or the long lines of patients waiting to be seen.
On the other hand, we saw the swanky private hospitals with patient lounges and the impressive public-private partnerships that brought private level care at public level prices. I learned that there are a wide range of systems in Peru and that as American researchers who invented a device to be used in “low-cost” settings we had to be thoughtful about respecting the diversity of the country and the setting in which our work was most needed.
Traveling abroad to a developing country to “help” is often seen as “voluntourism.” Voluntourism refers to a rising travel trend where Americans (and people from other countries) travel to the developing world to temporarily live in a community and work on local projects. Most of the criticism of voluntourism lies in questioning whether the communities are actually benefiting from the volunteer’s work or if their presence really only helps to benefit them by padding resumes and being intrusive vacationers. Our week long trip to Lima wasn’t a classic voluntourism trip, as our goal was to do research on Lima’s healthcare system instead of volunteer. However, I still think the conversation about what it means to be a thoughtful traveler and how to prioritize the communities you’re helping over yourself is worthwhile.
When I look back on my senior year of high school and my decision to spend four years at Duke, I could not be more grateful. I chose Duke simply because I liked the gothic architecture, reasonable weather and basketball. I am now realizing that the opportunities on our campus are unparalleled and that going to Duke opened doors that I didn’t even know existed when I chose to come here. I’m thankful that Duke has taught me how to be mindful about where I’m going and the impact of my actions. I’d encourage you, if you have the chance, to step out of your comfort zone and take advantage of Duke too.
Shruti Rao is a Trinity junior. Her column, "taming of the shru," runs on alternate Fridays.
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