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Postgraduate Life

Postgraduate Life

News and views from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine's postgraduate community

My experience approaching a controversial topic for my Master of Public Health studies

Amal Alsuqaf
By Amal Alsuqaf, Master of Public Health student

As I reflect on my experience conducting my own project for the past few months, it has been nothing less than transformative.

Final-year students on the University of Edinburgh’s Master of Public Health (MPH) have an opportunity to plan and carry out a piece of work from our own situation. This Student-Led Individually Created Course (SLICC) offers an alternative to a traditional dissertation and allows us to integrate what we learned on our MPH courses and apply it to our own contexts.

In the final year of my MPH studies, I’ve continually challenged myself to approach each course from a researcher’s perspective, rather than simply as a student. However, the SLICC experience stood apart. It required me to work independently, take ownership of my topic selection, objectives, and learning trajectory, and diligently monitor my progress and personal growth.

Opting to delve into the health implications of abortion bans and restrictions on women in the USA, particularly in the wake of the 2022 overturning of the constitutional right to abortion, presented a daunting prospect. The topic was fresh and divisive, and elicited strong reactions from opposing factions. Moreover, as a foreigner in the country, I lacked comprehensive insight into the extensive history of debates, legislation and political tensions surrounding abortion, intertwined with complex issues of race and social disparity in the USA.

I dedicated myself to understanding the historical, social, cultural, and political dynamics that influence the healthcare decisions of Americans, especially regarding access to abortion services. Initially, I aimed to engage with healthcare professionals in states affected by abortion bans. However, concerns about legal repercussions, including potential prosecution and loss of licensure, as well as security risks, prevented me from pursuing this avenue. Additionally, navigating the university’s ethical approval process posed another significant obstacle.

Balancing my SLICC project with my responsibilities as a stay-at-home mom proved challenging. Taking an extended hiatus from my professional life to prioritise motherhood and pursue my MPH exacerbated feelings of limitation, occasional demotivation and diversion from my original objectives. Yet, what truly struck me was how confronting such a sensitive topic unearthed my deepest fears, biases, and insecurities, many of which I had long sought to conceal.

Growing up in a religious and conservative society that tabooed abortion, even under dire circumstances, instilled within me a profound sense of shame and guilt surrounding the topic. Moreover, delving into the literature on abortion bans stirred up suppressed emotions related to a past miscarriage, forcing me to reconcile conflicting sentiments of reverence for life and respect for autonomy and choice.

A tree in four different seasons.

A tree in four seasons. Images from nidan on Pixabay.

My SLICC journey compelled me to search within myself, challenging my own taboos, biases, and preconceptions while fostering humility, curiosity, and a commitment to continual learning and growth. I immersed myself in online courses on abortion in the USA and healthcare policy, delved into the history of racial and ethnic discrimination exacerbating the impact of abortion bans, engaged with diverse perspectives, including those advocating for the protection of unborn children, and used my reflective blogs as a tool to understand, heal and grow.

There’s an ancient Greek proverb that asserts that the only constant is change, and I hold the belief that the human mind experiences various phases akin to seasons, ultimately leading to self-awareness.

Maintaining an open mind throughout this process was undoubtedly challenging but served as a constant reminder to uphold a delicate balance of empathy, critical thinking, and evidence-based analysis. Cultivating these skills not only deepened my understanding of a topic of personal interest but also honed valuable skills essential for my professional development, and I couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance from my mentor, Afshan Dean.

I learned to face one of my greatest fears, verbal communication, I initially delivered a presentation to my colleagues and initiated a public blog dedicated to reproductive health matters, a platform that served as an ideal avenue to showcase my SLICC project and extend its reach through social media channels.

To fellow students contemplating embarking on a SLICC centred around a controversial or sensitive topic, I offer the following advice:

  • Reflect on your own biases and preconceptions regarding the topic, considering how they may influence your approach.
  • Invest time in thorough research to identify areas where your preconceptions may be challenged.
  • Explore different viewpoints and be prepared to address counterarguments.
  • Ground your arguments in evidence-based research.
  • Communicate your ideas clearly and respectfully.
  • Solicit feedback from peers and mentors.
  • Maintain an open-minded and empathetic stance throughout your exploration.

While the journey may seem daunting and at times overwhelming, the personal and professional growth it facilitates makes it undeniably worthwhile.

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