Dr Jai Das has always believed that health education and public health share a close connection. This conviction has its roots in the “disheartening conditions” he’s witnessed in his hometown of Mithi in Tharparkar.
During visits, he recalls feeling frustrated at how a lack of knowledge of basic health practices around breast feeding, water sanitation and hygiene practices, coupled with a lack of will among local health officials, left people in the area exposed to preventable diseases
Dr Jai Das (standing second from left) during a field visit.
“Research in public health has the potential to change lives. Evidence and effective health awareness can empower communities to avoid known hazards and to adopt preventive practices that can boost their life expectancy and quality of life,” Dr Das states.
Dr Das is one of a team of researchers at Aga Khan University’s department of paediatrics and child health involved in studies assessing the effectiveness of interventions pertaining to maternal and child health. These include assessments of how simple interventions such as vaccinations, breastfeeding, supplementing food with micronutrients and the using chlorhexidine to prevent birth infections can address pressing healthcare concerns.
In this interview with e-News, Dr Das, now an assistant professor at AKU, explains how rewarding healthcare research can be and shares his views about a career in academia.
Q. Tell us about the research you’ve been involved in.
Our department’s focus is on mother and child health and is largely based on the major causes of maternal and child mortality.
This ranges from focused studies to assess the effectiveness of interventions against undernutrition and common infections, to evaluations of country’s health systems. This also extends to large-scale systematic reviews to assess where further research is needed and where evidence is sufficient to develop policy.
I have also had the privilege to work with my colleagues on various global initiatives. For example, we’ve worked with the World Health Organization to develop strategies to counter the threat of diarrhea and pneumonia, and to evaluate the benefits of nutrition supplements for undernourished populations.
Q. Which type of research do you consider the most rewarding?
Any research that is tied to contemporary healthcare priorities or international frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals is rewarding. All our work at the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health is developed along these lines.
But I feel our contributions to the comprehensive global evidence synthesis in the shape of several Lancet Series have been the most impactful in driving worldwide attention and action. We have been part of various Lancet series analysing childhood diarrhea and pneumonia, mother and child undernutrition, newborn and neonatal health as well as stillbirth prevention.
Such studies go a long way towards focusing policymakers’ attention on relevant problems which means that they have an impact that extends beyond knowledge generation and the testing of hypotheses.
Q. What qualities and skills are essential to being a good researcher?
It’s essential to have a firm grasp on methodology as you need to be able to design and evaluate studies and their findings. You also need to have a deep interest in current issues and priorities in public health.
Researchers need to be meticulous and determined as that is how you ensure that your work is academically sound and rigorous. Another quality is honesty as you must be open about the extent to which one’s findings can be applied and transparent about presenting one’s results.
The best researchers also have deep reserves of patience to cope with instances where data isn’t available or where one reaches a dead-end. Perseverance is key as there are no shortcuts to quality research and some projects can be very challenging for very long periods of time.
Q. What is the most enjoyable part of working in research?
Well, it’s never boring. Every day is different and every project requires a unique approach. I find applying different modes of analysis to be very satisfying as you’re always pushing yourself to learn more. It’s also very fulfilling when you see your findings being applied and being incorporated into policy and practice.
It’s also great when you get to work with and learn from team members and at the AKU I’ve been fortunate to work with great researchers such as Dr Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, Dr Sajid Soofi and Ms Rehana Salam.
There are other nice aspects to the job like travel, meeting prominent officials in public health and being recognised for your work. But if you have a passion for improving the lives of those around you, research is a great career choice.
Q. What are the different career options for researchers?
There are many options ranging from basic clinical research in laboratories to trials in the community and secondary research on available data to inform global policies. I’d encourage those looking for a career to look at both academic entities as well as implementation agencies.
I’d also encourage young researchers to focus on the major problems in public health and to find an area that truly engages you. That’s the crucial first step as only then can you identify places that will help you fulfill that vision.