Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Belgian Experience Part 1

On the 9th June 2011, armed with my already-shelved summer clothes and an eager mind, I jetted off to the town of Antwerp, in Belgium, to attend a Qualitative and Mixed Methods Research course at the world-renowned Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). The Institute itself boasts an international cohort of students and professional researchers on a quest to respond to domestic and international needs in the field of tropical and import pathology and HIV/AIDS.
The course participants consisted of 14 Medical Doctors and Public Health professionals from all over the world; Swaziland, Nigeria, Cambodia, Philippines, Madagascar, Peru, and Belgium, to name a few. The main focus was to introduce the team to qualitative research methods, investigate ways in which our very quantized way of thinking can shift towards a mixed methods approach, as well as to equip the team with essential high-level research techniques that will enable each of us in our different research spheres to have the capacity to plan, conduct, analyze, report and publish qualitative research. The different cultures represented contributed to a great classroom dynamic, discussion and debate was always the order of the day, and the team was often eager to identify cultural difference that could present key strengths and challenges in conducting qualitative research in Public Health.
As part of the course, we were all assigned a mini research topic as practice in addition to the theory learnt in class. I investigated why almost 80% of people who accessed ITM’s HIV testing center were either Men who have sex with Men (MSM) or Sub-Saharan African Migrants (SAM). Apart from the fact that these social groups are inherently at a higher social risk of contracting HIV, what attracts them to this testing center, as opposed to testing at a GP or ordinary clinic? After conducting several in depth interviews, participant observations, and focus group discussions with these two groups, as well as various providers of testing services, I found that the main reasons why MSM and SAM chose this center related to issues of confidentiality, low cost and a preference for “specialist” services. I had a great time meeting and chatting with members from these various social groups!
In my spare time, I made sure I hop on the “tram” for a meager €1.20 with a map in hand, and went sightseeing. I spent much time at “The Meir”, one of the largest shopping streets in Europe. I also went on boat rides, sunbathed at a manmade beach, made new friends and tried out the dozens of restaurants lined along the streets, which all had one thing in common – Belgian waffles and chocolate! I can definitely say I had the experience of a lifetime. The research skills I learnt will be of great benefit to Research at FLAS and for INTEGRA. I have grown as a researcher and as a person, and I couldn’t have spent that month at any other place but the warm Antwerp!