Here’s a good lesson for a researcher to learn early: Not everything always goes according to plan.
Azmain Taz, ’16, learned this firsthand in her hometown, Dhaka, Bangladesh, when she returned there this summer intending to study the critical link between children’s interaction with parents and their capacity to recover from diarrheal diseases.
Such diseases are typically an inconvenience for parents and children in developed nations. In a megacity like Dhaka, which lacks basic clean water and sewage systems for a majority of its 12 million or so residents, diarrhea can be deadly. Taz had seen this herself during a gap year between high school and Richmond, when she had landed a volunteer position with Dr. Jena D. Hamadani at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh.
“I was thinking of going into health as a career, maybe be a doctor, so I wanted to know what it looks like on the inside,” she says.
What she discovered was that children’s recovery was often hampered for a surprising reason: Their mothers were barely talking to and playing with them. She also learned that researchers had a name for what the children lacked: psychosocial interaction.
Taz would come to understand that the reasons for the children’s lack of psychosocial stimulation are very complex. The mothers she saw were often girls themselves — impoverished, uneducated, married as they began their teenage years, and just trying to survive. But for their children, the lack of stimulation meant very real, very negative consequences for their physical health.
After Taz finished her gap year and enrolled at Richmond as a chemistry major, she remained curious about that surprising link. In spring 2013, she secured a Burhans Civic Fellowship to return to Dhaka to research and better understand the connection between psychosocial interaction and health outcomes at the ICDDRB. Research plan in hand, she left for Bangladesh still awaiting approval from an institutional review board in Dhaka. It wouldn’t come until her summer was nearly up.
Adaptability became another good research lesson as Taz made sure that her time was not lost, merely diverted. She dove deeper into the scientific literature on psychosocial stimulation. She underwent training to learn how to assess children’s development, how to take physical measurements of sick, often squirming toddlers, and how to train mothers to provide higher levels of psychosocial stimulation using materials available to them.
“They collect the water bottles to make shakers. They use cardboard boxes and cut them up to make picture books or puzzles, things like that,” she says. “It’s cheap and more practical. They don’t need money to have these toys. They can use the things they have at home.”
It wasn’t the summer Taz expected, but it deepened her commitment to addressing this particular issue among the many facing mothers and children in her country. Though she is not sure precisely when, she plans to return to the clinic and follow through on her research now that she has the necessary approvals in hand.
“You cannot get demotivated by the big picture. The big picture is always bad,” she says. “You have to focus on what you can do because every human being is precious. Every life matters.”