My research project was with Professor Kohler on his Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health (MLSFH) project. MLFSH, established since 1998, is one of the few long-standing publicly-available longitudinal study in sub-Saharan African countries. Since 1998, MLSFH has been collecting data on the health of its respondents. When Malawi was facing the HIV epidemic in the late 90’s and 2000s, the study was mainly focused on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies, social networks and risk behaviors. As HIV’s prevalence has been decreasing, and the population has been aging, this year’s study has focused on mental health, HIV/AIDS, and aging in high-risk disease prevalence population.
For the project, I traveled to Malawi to work on the project. MLSFH collaborates with a local organization, Invest in Knowledge (IKI), to implement the project. IKI recruits local fieldworkers to collect the data. I worked with a group of other graduate Penn students from economics and population studies department. Our role is training and directing supervisors, who directly direct local interviewers in the fields. We also do data quality check on the questionnaires collected and general data management.
Our work mainly focuses on collecting data on health, particularly on mental health and HIV/AIDS. I have learnt a few things on the process of data collection and applied research. For example, although the questionnaire is comprehensively organized, the information might not be conveyed correctly when translating to local languages, or there might be understanding difficulties when training local interviewers. A lot of other variables might affect the quality and quantity of data: interviewers may not understand question properly while collecting data, application such as Redcap may not work effectively in the rural villages, respondents may refuse or may have migrated. Normally, at Penn while taking classes on research or population health classes, I would not be able to imagine or understand these small details and difficulty of collecting data are.
This opportunity has given me the chance to start learning how applied research works. The research topic was new for me. For decades, researches on African have been focused on population growth, infectious disease, and the younger population. Nonetheless, in the past few years is that, there has been high growth of aging population which people are not aware of, and not well studied fact. In addition, mental health concerns have been increasing for a population that has grown and is aging in high disease prevalence and malnutrition, and stressful poverty conditions. Our research was helpful to inform national policies that would support the elderly population. In conclusion, my work with MLSFH research project has made me appreciate the importance of academia and understand the difficulties of research and data collection.