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WISH Talks: Training & Empowerment

By: Joy Duer & Alexandria Da Ponte

This month, we will delve into the three main arms of our MacArthur 100&Change Top 100 proposal: The WISH Revolution: Women-Inspired Strategies for Health. This week, we will be focusing on the first arm: Training, Education and Empowerment.

Over the last few weeks of COVID-19, the United States has been forced to rapidly adjust to the changes of social distancing. We have been in constant contact with our WISH partners as we are presently shifting operational tasks in response to COVID-19-related resource paucity and safety considerations on both local and national levels in our initial launch countries for 100&Change: Peru and Kenya. Duke’s research operations have been pared down to essential tasks only, both to ensure the safety of personnel responding to the pandemic and to provide a safe environment for those with COVID-19 to receive life-saving treatment. Our international partners are already being forced to divert funds and resources from other parts of the health system, likely leading to peri- and post-pandemic surges in preventable diseases like cervical cancer.

With all of these changes and adaptations constantly evolving around us, it has become essential that we remember the mission behind WISH: keeping women at the center, our essential task. As we think about the changes to come to healthcare in a post-COVID-19 era, we are mindful of the importance to train, educate and empower women both at the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies and in at-risk communities worldwide.

Here are three ways we’re continuing our training, education, and empowerment efforts.

Locally, the Center trains candidates for a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, nearly 80% are female. When asked why she started the GWHT, Dr. Ramanujam reflected that she resonated with the idea of creating a place for women in engineering.

“When I started the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke in 2013, I wanted to bring together like-minded people with the goal of improving women’s lives globally while also bringing more women to the table. I found myself searching for a place to openly share some of my aspirations, experiences, and fears but as an engineer, I continually found myself met by the barrier of being a minority in the male dominated environment. I finally decided, if the environment does not exist, I would create it.

In addition to creating the environment where women areincluded in engineering, Dr. Ramanujam has taken it a step further and offers a class for Duke University undergraduate students called Women’s Health Technologies. The founding goal was to unite human-centered design, technology, and education with the goal of improving women’s lives across the globe. The effect was profound. “When I first began teaching this course six years ago, we had equal percentages of female and male students. Today, the class is predominantly female (>90%)… Through this class, my female students, both engineers and other majors, have become more outspoken and able to freely share their thoughts.”

A student who completed the course in its early days reflected “Nimmi’s class was one of only two STEM courses I took for my undergraduate degree (Biology) that was taught solely by a female professor. I finally saw someone who I identified with in a field that I desperately worked to be a part of. My eyes were opened to the possibilities of women in STEM as well as the concept of human-centered design. My entire approach to my studies, my non-academic pursuits, and my career in medicine was altered by that course. I felt that I mattered in male-dominated spaces and that I could have a voice. Most importantly, I gained the desire to see that every woman is able to share this feeling.”

On the global front, we are working closely with our WISH Revolution partner organizations to ensure the viability and sustainability of our model. It is at this moment that the importance of home-care diagnostics, strong community health systems, and woman-to-woman community is highlighted. We are working to develop educational and expressive material to share with women in our partner regions to foster women-to-women storytelling and empowerment communities.

Here in Durham, NC our GWHT team is refusing to allow the pandemic to stop our efforts to empower women globally. Due to COVID-19, we recognize that this is not the time for in-person interaction so the focus of our efforts is scaling up technology development and virtual training as well as creating a package for contact-free home delivery. Our WISH team is using this season of remote working, by dedicating extra time to seeking out funding, specifically to provide training to community health workers in order to distribute innovative technologies in Peru that bring screening and diagnostics into homes for testing.

GWHT graduate students keeping spirits high during a recent meeting. Photo courtesy of Megan Madonna.

Like most universities, Duke has transitioned most functions to online platforms. Our graduate students have been using this stressful time to empower each other and provide opportunities for self-care. Through events like weekly yoga and happy hours over Zoom, our graduate students and staff have maintained a strong sense of community!

Our undergraduate students attended a virtual check-in hour with Dr. Ramanujam last week, where they had the opportunity to share their experiences and feelings about adapting to online learning.

The students all expressed that through open forums like our check-in, they are better able to process the experience of being a student during the pandemic.

Regarding her experience with the unpredictable and at times unsure world we live in today, Dr. Ramanujam reflected “… being able to connect with relatable people in an unrelatable time is especially important…” We encourage all of our followers to reach out to those around you, check-in to see how they’re doing and to share how you’re doing. Never forget, “vulnerability can be our greatest asset.”



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