Sarah Meyer Profile
Sarah Meyer (Australia-at-Large & Linacre, 2004) is an Assistant Professor in the Forced Migration and Health Program, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, and was named Research Director for AfriChild, a research center on children’s well-being based in Kampala, Uganda in January 2015. She was previously based at the Thailand-Burma border and recently moved to Kampala to start her position with AfriChild. Sarah holds a PhD in International Health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, a MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford and a B.A in History and Politics from Monash University, Australia.
Rhodes Project: What is your favourite thing to do in Thailand?
Sarah Meyer: I enjoy biking around the town I live in and looking at what’s going on – there are open air markets, things going on in the street on a day-to-day level that you don’t usually see in a Western country. In general, it’s great to be somewhere you can have a nice weekend away in a rural setting, see beautiful mountains and countryside. I recently found a lovely road to run on, early in the morning before it’s too hot, which winds around next to rice paddies and open fields. Obviously, the food here is great as well!
Rhodes Project: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Sarah Meyer: The most enduring goal was that I wanted to be was a vet because I really loved animals. Then I realised that I would have to put down animals and that did not appeal to me at all! Once I had to make the decision between science and humanities, I was more drawn to politics, literature and history. I thought I might want to be a social worker for a couple of years. Maybe I still want to be one … it has shifted and changed with what has interested me.
Rhodes Project: What was the first job you held?
Sarah Meyer: I worked over Christmas in a big shopping centre at a shop called Crabtree and Evelyn, where I was selling people Christmas gifts like lavender hand lotion and bath salts and things like that. It was very instrumental though, because I was just trying to earn money for a few weeks to fund a backpacking trip in Vietnam. It was actually kind of fun and entertaining watching all these men buying lavender lotions for their girlfriends!
Rhodes Project: What motivated your interest in studying refugee populations?
Sarah Meyer: When I was in undergrad, I had started volunteering with refugee populations in Melbourne. There has been and still are a lot of issues, debates and terrible policies in relation to refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. While I was doing my undergraduate degree, there were a lot of asylum seekers who had been in detention for a number of years and then had been let into the community on temporary visas. There was a programme through my university to volunteer to teach them English. I was teaching English to these young Afghan men and had started doing some reading and thinking about these issues. I realised that the majority of refugee populations are still in low-income developing countries, so while the issues with refugees and asylum seekers in Western countries are very important, I wanted to also look at was some of the root causes and the contexts in which these people were still in large scale refugee camps. It’s a huge disappointment to me – a tragedy, actually – that I still read about the policies enacted by the Australian Government, which keep getting worse and worse. When I was volunteering, I had students who had gone on hunger strikes in detention, who endured incredible trauma after coming to Australia seeking safe haven from war. The human impact of these policies is unimaginable.
Another factor is that my grandparents on both sides of my family were refugees from Europe. My grandparents came to Australia from Germany and Poland in the late 1930s and 1940s. Just seeing them being a part of a minority refugee community, when Australia was welcoming and they were able to make their lives and they were able to send my parents to school and university and so on, was an influence on my thinking and interest in this area.
Rhodes Project: What do you currently work on?
Sarah Meyer: I finished my PhD in International Health at Johns Hopkins University earlier this year. My research was on mental health, migration and trafficking. The town that I’m living in is right on the Burma-Thailand border and many people come here from Burma either as migrants or refugees. My research looked at some of the mental health impacts; I was part of a project that had a qualitative component and a large-scale quantitative survey and I analysed that data for my dissertation. After (and during) the PhD I started working with international organizations and, more recently, through Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, on similar topics. In the past year, I have worked in Ethiopia and Rwanda, on projects with the UNHCR (looking at child protection issues, using public health research methodologies to see what does and doesn’t work in child protection) and with the International Rescue Committee (assessing programs for adolescent girls in humanitarian settings).
Rhodes Project: How can academic research better be used for community/grassroots development?
Sarah Meyer: In general, I sometimes have the concern that academia talks the talk and doesn’t always make the connection – making the research useful and impactful for community organizations, making sure research leads to tangible change for vulnerable people. I think one connection is the actual research process. The research that I have been doing has been in collaboration with a local organization. We trained and hired and worked with local research assistants. Working with local translators and research managers and data collectors and actually giving them support and allowing them to develop new skills helps to build capacity. A second aspect, which is trickier and which is something that the academic field that I am in really needs to work on, is communicating research findings. Part of the difficulty is that there are different imperatives. When I’m writing up my research, there are the academic imperatives of getting published and having it go to a peer-reviewed journal; this is not necessarily directly helpful to local community groups, and the way you write for the academic audience compared to for local community groups or policymakers is obviously very different.
In an academic piece, you’d write about your odds ratios, your logistic regression or the way that you weighted your variables and that’s just not relevant in a community setting. I do want to work with academics and within an academic institution; that is a priority. But, in some ways, the problem of communication of research, and research not translating to tangible changes for vulnerable communities – it is in-built in the way public-health academic institutions work. It is endemic in grant applications and the kind of work that is valued for getting tenure. But I think as an individual researcher, I can make that a priority and part of my decision to be based in Thailand was to get a deeper understanding of what community groups are doing and how to communicate the findings of my research.
I think the other issue is funding. Public health research gets funding from government agencies and foundations and all of those actors have their own agendas. If you’re applying for a grant, then you have to fit your research within the priorities of the organization. In a lot of ways, we are constrained in what we say – for example, what I’d like to research here is occupational health risks for migrant workers in factories but if that is no one’s funding priority, then it’s going to be difficult to get it off the ground. You’ll then have to frame it or shift it in ways according to what the research priorities are. The field of public health funding for researchers has really opened up in many ways (especially with the Gates Foundation and various different funding agencies) but there are still certain priorities that are funded by those actors.
Rhodes Project: Are there any life lessons that your experience working with NGOs and communities has taught you?
Sarah Meyer: Patience, for sure. Researchers often have a particular timeline, saying for example we are going to do 30 interviews in a day and so on. But you can’t control for everything in this kind of a setting. During the survey I was managing here, there were police crackdowns on migrants and we had to halt the survey to ensure we were not putting the interviewers or migrants at risk. Those are things where you have to take the lead from local organizations and it is important to work with them, listen to them and realize that things aren’t necessarily going to be quick. When you push for that kind of a timeline, you tend to alienate people and make things more difficult.
Rhodes Project: Is there anybody in your field who inspires you?
Sarah Meyer: I think everyone in the field of public health would swear by Paul Farmer; I am inspired by his work and the work Partners in Health does because of their very clear connection to social justice and the use of a rights-based approach. What we see in global health is not just neutral – it’s not just indicators and facts and problems to be solved. He takes a very human approach to these issues. More specifically in the field of mental health, Vikram Patel is doing some really incredible research and bridging community organizations in India with a global movement for mental health and really framing mental health as a part of public health. What he has done in collaboration with other researchers has really shifted the field and brought attention to mental health to the fore. What he’s doing is advocacy, policy and research work and on all three accounts he’s very rigorous and committed.
Rhodes Project: What has been a memorable event that has happened in the last year?
Sarah Meyer: On the personal front, I got married, which was amazing! We have been living far away from family and friends for a while, and so it was wonderful to have an opportunity to celebrate together on our wedding weekend. There have been a lot of changes in the past year - I finished my PhD and have started to plan a move to Kampala. It’s been a big year!
Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy?
Sarah Meyer: It’s a combination of experiences- whether it’s great weather, being outdoors or spending time with friends and family. I really like the sense of completion with different projects or moving ahead in my work – that brings a lot of joy. People who know me would also know that my happiness is also often tied to food - I enjoy a good meal, and thinking about the next exciting thing to eat or cook brings me a lot of joy!
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