Tina Jiwatram:Collaborative, Formative Research

Read about Tina Jiwatram’s involvement in Malaysia-based HIV research…

Collaborative, Formative Research

By: Tina Jiwatram, PhD Candidate, Columbia School of Social Work

At the outset of summer, I had envisioned engaging in individual data analysis and writing, based on an existing Malaysia-based HIV research project I have been involved with, while beginning some preliminary discussions with our partners at the University of Malaya about a new study concept. In particular, we wanted to collectively think through how to best learn about the HIV risk behaviors among sex workers and what kind of intervention may be most feasible and appropriate. As we began our discussions via Skype (about what we already did and did not know), it became quite clear that, if we were going to make any real headway in accomplishing our goals, we needed to capitalize on the energy, availability, and momentum of the team. And so began a very educational, interactive, and highly collaborative summer, as I shifted attention to the needs of the new project.

As a summer SYLFF Fellow, I was quite not sure how this “shift” would work. I was (unfortunately) not going to be able to travel to Malaysia, and yet was about to coordinate and engage in formative research work with several faculty at Columbia University, our partners at the University of Malaya, and several of their partners at the Malaysian AIDS Council. Up until that point, I had only been involved in projects that were already off the ground. Thus, it all felt a bit daunting, as I knew a new project required building rapport, scheduling calls at convenient times for a large group, a connection that could hold all of us, well-organized, structured, and yet flexible agendas, multiple iterations of any and all documents, time for translation (written and verbal), two Institutional Review Boards, time for community reviews, training sessions, and ongoing excitement and commitment from a large group of busy people throughout everything! However, had it not been for the opportunity to participate, lead, and be led, I would not have thought it possible to have what turned out to be a very smooth process among 15 people, representing different groups and perspectives.

With the incredible support and dedication of a tremendously dynamic team made up of faculty, researchers, community representatives, outreach workers, and CBO staff, I was able to organize a series of regular Skype calls and email exchanges throughout the summer. Together, we discussed, drafted, and finalized a series of focus group questions scheduled to be deployed among 48 female and transgender sex workers in Malaysia. Further, we co-developed the focus group protocol, screener forms, and consent forms, all of which were vetted by the team, which included representatives from the female and trans-female sex worker community. Additionally, under the supervision of a faculty member and staff at the CU Institutional Review Board, I was able to lead the process for approval by the Columbia IRB and assisted, where possible, in the process for approval by the University of Malaya IRB. Following a huge-learning curve about all the pieces involved in conceptualizing and designing formative research work and gaining IRB approval from both institutions, the summer ended with my assisting faculty and staff in the design and facilitation of a two-session Skype training for the focus group facilitators, which was met with great success. The entire team is now ready and eagerly awaiting the launch of the first (of six) focus groups with women and transwomen from the sex work community, so we may move forward in analyzing the data collected, designing an intervention, and writing a grant to test the feasibility of a HIV risk reduction program for sex workers in Malaysia.

In all, it was a summer filled with incredible learning experiences, a deeper understanding of the early stages in collaborative, international social work research, and new-found professional relationships. It also deepened my understanding of one of the most-at-risk populations for HIV transmission and offered an opportunity to engage with a dynamic team I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to work with, had it not been for the generosity of the Tokyo Foundation and Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund.

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