Under the shade of looming palm trees in the Solomon Islands, Rachel Mather speaks to TEPHINET about her research in gender and field epidemiology.
Rachel is a program manager for Field Epidemiology in Action (FEiA), a program funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), where she supports Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETP) in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea through training, material development, project management tasks and gender equity work. She is doing all of this while working on her PhD at the National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Her doctoral research focuses on the intersection of epidemiology training and gender equity.
Her interest in this particular intersection came as a byproduct of traveling to Papua New Guinea to support the delivery of FETPs with FEiA. While helping to implement these programs, Rachel started to wonder how the experiences of epidemiologists during professional training may vary based upon gender.
“It just got me thinking about, what considerations do participants have when they leave their homes and their usual place of work, and what sort of features in their lives do they have to organize around professional training?” she says. “And for me, the most important question on top of all of that was: how are these experiences shaped by gender roles?”
Rachel learned from other women in training that there were certain considerations that female epidemiologists had to think about that their male counterparts did not. After her conversations and her realization that the literature on gendered experiences in field epidemiology training had huge gaps, she decided to tackle this particular intersection for her doctoral research.
Her research is still in its early stages, but was able to be informed by anan interactive learning session that Rachel held during the 11th TEPHINET Global Scientific Conference in September 2022. This hands-on workshop engaged participants to share what they felt was important to capture in a gender analysis of FETPs. Rachel has transcribed and interpreted the data collected and plans toshare her analysis with the workshop participants to hone key findings and next steps .
Throughout our conversation, Rachel emphasized the importance of using participant-driven data. During the September conference, she felt validated in her research interest as she listened to female participants share their experiences. Subsequently, she made sure that her research followed the participatory action research model so that the same people who are impacted by gendered differences in field epidemiology training can be the ones who lead where the research goes.
“It’s trying to make sure that as many people as possible are driving in the framework of that research,” she explains. “And it's not just being driven by my perspective as a researcher, but sort of by the experiences of the people who are living their lives.”
Within this participant-driven model, Rachel is looking beyond just the experiences of women for her research. She aims to understand gendered experiences as a whole, including the experiences of nonbinary epidemiologists as well as men. She hopes that encompassing all experiences may better help highlight what the differences are and how gaps can be addressed.
While her research is not yet at the point where she can make concrete recommendations for more inclusive field epidemiology training models, Rachel already has some ideas of where things could improve. Her vision of more equitable and empowering models include more programs actively pushing for female enrollment and graduation by offering benefits like parental leave, part-time enrollment, and childcare support, and making accommodations for disability.
“I'd love to see programs that proactively support their trainees as field epis to investigate issues of gender equity and social inclusion,” she adds.
Rachel hopes her research will help contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and empowerment by its eventual conclusion in 2026. In the long term, she hopes to conduct a gender analysis to inform how women's full and effective participation and access to decision making can be enhanced within FETP. She also noted that she feels it is important to work with current leaders in the FETP community to develop frameworks that support safeguarding and prioritizing gender equality and empowerment.
In the meantime, Rachel expressed how rewarding this work has been. Despite what she describes as an underrepresentation of female and nonbinary leaders in epidemiology, she has hope that equity and representative leadership will come, and that her research will shed some light on how to achieve inclusivity.
“We can work together and have our voices and perspectives heard so that when it comes to leadership, we're doing that in a way that is right for our lives and sees our values in the center of that experience,” she said. “So I think women deserve equity, and the benefits of more representative leadership will trickle right down to the communities that we serve.”