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Population, Family and Reproductive Health

Funmilola OlaOlorun, PhD ’13, MBBS, MPH

Funmilola OlaOlorunGraduation Year: 2013

What memories do you have as a student here in the department?

When I was coming to Hopkins, I was looking forward to learning a lot from the faculty. I had heard and read so much about the quality of faculty at this number one School of Public Health. Their accomplishments and research prowess spoke volumes. They were scholars of international repute at the cutting edge of research in Public Health, both domestically and internationally.

What I did not know was that I could also learn so much from my colleagues! From orientation, to figuring out how best way to solve the problem sets in Biostats, to fleshing out my research ideas, to practicing for upcoming presentations, my colleagues were of unbelievable support! I had never heard about the concept of ‘labs’ after class until I got to Hopkins, but they made so much sense! They gave me a reason to read ahead of class (especially since I was accountable to my ‘table-mates’), and an opportunity to immediately use the information and concepts I had just been taught. My peers taught me to enjoy the process, to enjoy the journey. I learned so much from the people at my table in each of the different labs I was privileged to participate in…not just about how they understood the subject matter, but also about how they studied, and who they were. I remember being a teaching assistant in two of the classes I took the previous year in Women’s Health, and the beauty of “doing it all over again”. I remember thinking for the first time that debates can actually be a powerful way to learn. I remember how much many things made so much more sense hearing them the second time.

I remember the honor of having an office as a research assistant with the Gates Institute. I remember being treated like an equal, never as a subordinate. I remember being allowed to grow, to think, to make mistakes, to share my thoughts with people who listened so well they had so many questions that made me go back, and think again, and question my questions, as well as my answers, leading me on the way toward finding answers that were real, answers I could learn from. As a research assistant with the Gates Institute, I remember the opportunities for international travel to conduct training workshops and help in organizing conferences. I remember being surprised by the fact that it took coming to Hopkins for me to get to visit and know more about other African countries. I remember the opportunity to visit both peri-urban and urban sites in Malawi, and seeing first-hand the similarities and differences with my own native Nigeria. I remember a flight delay that allowed us to stay an extra 24 hours in Ethiopia, see the beauty of Addis Ababa, and visit a museum. I remember attending the International Conference on Family Planning in Senegal and seeing the excitement of the Youth regarding being part of the contraceptive discourse.

One word to sum up my experience at Hopkins? Priceless.

Did you consider public health during your initial training?

My medical degree was followed by a postgraduate fellowship in Community Medicine [Public Health], so I came to Hopkins as a Public Health physician.

What are some challenges and opportunities in the field of population and reproductive health?

Maternal mortality, though falling, remains high in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia. We know solutions that have worked. We need to get governments in the countries with the greatest burden to invest in the health of women and girls through improving access to family planning services, especially modern contraception; ensuring access to skilled attendants at birth; and providing basic and emergency obstetric care.

Women are more than mothers, with their reproductive lives being only a part of the whole. A big challenge in our world today is the lack of a widespread holistic view toward women’s health. It is not enough to ensure women have access to antenatal and other reproductive health care services without considering opportunities to improve their psycho-social wellbeing. We need governments that will continue to support equitable access to education, equity in hiring in the formal labor markets, equal pay for men and women, and family-friendly workplace options for women. Empowering women (and men) to start small businesses and become entrepreneurs, within the right business-friendly environment, providing on-the-job training for them to build their skills and grow their businesses, and providing loans with low interest where these are needed will go a long way in improving both the wealth and health of nations. Women (and men) have their own roles to play toward improving the health of women, and this will ultimately lead to improved health of children and men, given the caregiving role women tend to play in SSA and other parts of the world. Men, especially in SSA, can be part of the solution by involving their wives/partners more in household and reproductive decisions, and by helping them to seek opportunities to improve their health and financial literacy levels.

What advice would you give to current students interested in the field of global development, maternal and child health, and/or population?

While you are a student, seek out practice opportunities. If you are interested in domestic research, see if you can work with faculty who have projects in the U.S. If you are interested in international research, seek out a research assistantship with faculty who have international projects. The opportunities you will have as a student working on these projects will help you to better define your interests and assist you in planning for your future public health career. They may in fact define your career trajectory!

There are many problems in our world today. Decide early in your career which ones you want to tackle. Once you’ve made that decision, aim to tackle only one piece of the problem at a time. Find other people who share your passion. Aim to work with a multidisciplinary team. Start with a defined geography as contexts differ quite a bit. Learn everything you can about the problem you are interested in solving, and the contexts within which the problem exists. Apply what you have learned in one context to the other contexts and geographies you are interested in.

Do you have any advice you would give to current students in the department?

Dream, but dream big. Think, but think without a box. Ask, but only the right questions, as simple as they may seem. Act, but act smart. Go big or go home! You’re in the best place at the right time to begin to learn how in doing one thing right, you can be part of a chain of events that will change our world, one decision at a time. There’s so much to do to make a difference in the lives of the millions that need you, do one thing at a time, do each one well. Don’t work alone, work with groups of people from different backgrounds and with different kinds of expertise. Together, as a team you can use modern science and technology to tackle the ageless problems of avoidable deaths of women, girls, infants, and men and boys too!

Are there projects you are currently collaborating with the department?

I continue to work with faculty at the Gates Institute on the Performance Monitoring and Accountability 2020 (PMA2020) and PMA Agile projects. Through these collaborations, I have been able to benefit from a PMA Plus grant that is allowing me to spend protected time in Baltimore (August to October 2018), looking at data I have helped to collect in Nigeria. This is an opportunity for me to sit back and reflect on what it all means, and collaborate with faculty here on a number of manuscripts.