Hannah Gerdes Conducts Research Around the World Through Circumnavigator’s Grant

Hannah Gerdes-Icelandair

by Ara Friedman


Every year, The Circumnavigators Club Foundation sponsors a School of Foreign Service student for a 90-day summer research trip. One SFS Junior is awarded a $9,000 Raymond Dinsmore Fellowship by the Circumnavigators Foundation to undertake an around-the-world research project to explore an international problem or issue that contributes to understanding of world conditions. The 2015 Awardee of the Fellowship was Hannah Gerdes (SFS’16). She is a Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) major from Youngstown, Ohio.

Tell us about the your summer research experience. What inspired you to embark on this research? How did you pick your specific topic?

By the end of my freshman year at Georgetown, I was particularly interested in maternal and child health, and even had an inkling that I would like to study how people of different socioeconomic groups experience health care differently. Although I dreamed of studying, working, or volunteering in a health-related context abroad, I didn’t know whether I would be able to, considering my academic requirements.

During the fall semester of my junior year, I realized that although we hear a lot about postpartum depression, we hear far less about mental health during pregnancy. I wondered: Why weren’t we talking about this? A few months later, I found myself in an hour-long interview, extemporaneously and passionately explaining my interest in mental health during pregnancy to the selection committee for the 2015 Circumnavigators Club Foundation Raymond M. Dinsmore Study and Research Grant. After receiving the unbelievably good news [that Gerdes received the grant for 2015], I spent my spring semester connecting with host families and research contacts, submitting applications to International Review Boards in three different countries (all with extensive help from my faculty advisor, Professor Emily Mendenhall!), buying plane tickets, getting vaccinations, and, well, some school work on the side!

Finally, on May 14, I took my seat on the plane, en route to the geothermal pools of Iceland: the first of six countries that I would visit on my research trip around the world.

How did you pick which countries to research?

Hannah Gerdes-Sri Lanka

Eating coconut at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

I wanted to travel to a mixture of high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries, to countries with a wide variety of maternal mortality rates, and, for the sake of my research, [where] many people speak English. I was particularly interested in South Africa, due to both its history and present-day socioeconomic inequality, and Sri Lanka, due to its recent decline in maternal mortality. In addition, Professor Mendenhall put me in contact with researchers at the Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU) in Soweto, South Africa, and the Programme for Improving Mental healthcare (PRIME) in Bhopal, India, which made those obvious choices—working with and learning from local researchers, who deeply understand the cultural context, was more valuable than I could have ever imagined!

What did a typical day or week look like for you? Were you working with an organization to conduct your research? What did you learn?

After exploring Reykjavik and natural wonders such as Gullfoss, Geysir, and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, I spent two weeks conducting independent research in London, England. When I wasn’t traveling to or conducting qualitative interviews with health care providers in London, I was spontaneously exploring the city on foot, looking for coffee shops with free Wi-Fi to plan more interviews, or making dinner and watching weird documentaries with my housemates.

Then, I spent one month in Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa, where I both worked with the Developmental Pathways (DPHRU) to interview a cohort of women who had experienced gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) during pregnancy, and also

conducted interviews with various health care providers on my own. In addition to running my first half-marathon (in the Drakensberg Mountains), eating ostrich, and shark cage-diving, I got both a firsthand picture of maternal and mental health care in South Africa, and the unbeatable opportunity to conduct my own field research with such an accomplished research unit.

After that, I stopped in Kampala, Uganda, where, after hitchhiking with some Australian missionaries to get into the city, I had the opportunity to talk with healthcare providers and visit a prenatal clinic and psychiatry department in the local hospital.

Summiting the first of the Twin Peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa, on Day One of a two-day trail race!

Summiting the first of the Twin Peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa, on Day One of a two-day trail race!

I spent the next month with a research consortium called PRIME in Bhopal, India which strives to integrate mental health services into primary care by developing screening tools to identify people with mental disorders, establishing psychosocial and pharmacological interventions for those that need them, and liaising with government officials to scale up effective programs. I took an auto-rickshaw to the office each day, where I helped compile and edit a case study about PRIME itself, based on conversations with the researchers and written accounts of their work over the past year, and got a clearer picture of what it looks like to address global mental health, particularly in India. At the end of my time in India, I traveled by sleeper-class train to ride elephants in Jaipur, see the Taj Mahal in Agra, and meet Dr. Vikram Patel at the Public Health Foundation of India in Delhi.

Finally, I spent one week in Sri Lanka, talking with and shadowing health care providers, visiting the country’s largest psychiatric hospital, playing with my host family’s two-year-old daughter, taking road trips to waterfalls, temples, and tea estates, and frolicking on the beach (almost every day!).

What I had been reading about out of personal interest ended up becoming the center of my academic life at University. I hope that our research will add a new level of understanding to the current work on how women with gestational diabetes conceptualize self-care during and after pregnancy.

Hannah Gerdes-India

Hannah says goodbye to her “incredible, intelligent” coworkers from Bhopal, India.

Yet, there’s still so much out there to learn and understand. By sponsoring this project, the School of Foreign Service and the Circumnavigators Club Foundation not only allowed me to experience other cultures for three months; they gave me a better understanding of several different economic, social, and health care systems around the world, and a clearer picture of what it could look like to contribute to better-quality, more accessible health care through both medicine and global health research.

What activities are you involved with on campus?

Resident Assistant: This year, I’m living with an awesome group of people on the fourth floor of the newly renovated Former Jesuit Residence. Come check it out!

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: This semester, some of us are exploring the gospel of Matthew over lunch each Saturday, on the fourth floor of the Former Jesuit Residence. I’ve also participated in retreats, conferences, and InterVarsity’s Urban Plunge Spring Break in Washington, DC (twice)!

Cross Country/Track Coach for Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School: I help lead and time workouts for the team—which means keeping track of more than 80 high school girls!

Back on My Feet: Back on My Feet aims to give those experiencing homelessness a sense of self-sufficiency–to change the way they see themselves–through running. At 5:20 AM on Wednesday mornings, a small group of Georgetown students meet up to run with a great group of guys at Clean and Sober Streets, near Capitol Hill.

Marimba: I love mallet percussion…it’s my ambition to actually start practicing again!

At the British Museum, during one of many afternoons walking around London, England without a smartphone or a plan.

At the British Museum, during one of many afternoons walking around London, England without a smartphone or a plan.

What made you decide to come to SFS?

Rudolf Virchow, the nineteenth-century German physician sometimes referred to as “the father of public health” wrote that “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale. The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” My interest in medicine is rooted in a deeper desire to use what I have to serve the world’s poor. I chose to transfer from the College into the School of Foreign Service, and major in Science, Technology and International Affairs with a concentration in Global Health, because it would allow me to understand health, well-being, and inequality not only through the lens of the natural sciences, but also through the lens of social sciences like history, anthropology, economics, and ethics.

What is your favorite part of being at Georgetown?

Georgetown students, faculty, and staff have challenged and deepened my faith, prompted me to really consider what it means to use what I’ve been given for others, and made me laugh until my face hurts. Although it didn’t happen immediately, I’ve found something that I absolutely love to study, and my closest friends, here at Georgetown. I couldn’t be more grateful.