Did I mention that I’m a biology major?

Technically, I’m also an economics major. But biology had always come first in the list of academic interests, right below learning how to perfect the chocolate chip cookie. Any research I have has always been done in a lab, whether at a bench or animal facility or computer station. Before this summer, I had no real experience working with people in a research setting. I was so excited for that opportunity, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me.

We spent the last two days surveying and taking blood samples from 151 randomly selected female migrant workers in two of the factory units at Shahi. One of the other interns, Amy, and I combined our projects to address malnutrition and anemia. We designed a three-part health intervention in hopes of figuring out a sustainable solution for these problems: de-worming tablets, daily iron tablets, and a daily food supplement (most likely fruit). To measure effectiveness, we planned on measuring hemoglobin levels as well as giving a physical and mental health self-assessment before and after the intervention. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?


The list of what we thought were female migrant workers turned out to contain both male and female workers. This created a lot of confusion and frustration on both sides. We had to work with the HR team at the units to call workers away from production to collect blood samples for the hemoglobin test, and the time wasted sending back guy after guy that could have been used for sewing made tensions high. High production demands make it difficult for people to step away from work for anything, even their health.

If I’m sick, I can ask to take the day off. I can wake up, reach for my phone, send a quick email or text, and go straight back to sleep. I don’t have to drag myself to work and try to make it through the day. I don’t have to sit at my cubicle with the knowledge that the dispensary is a stone’s throw away with the help that I need but that if I go there, I might be deemed unfit to work and lose my job. Stories of girls who were sent home due to poor health scares newcomers, enough that they will sometimes lie to the doctor during the initial check-up. Even if I do go to the dispensary and they recommend that I go to the hospital, I don’t have to choose between my health and an entire day’s salary because a hospital visit is so far away that it’d take an entire day.

We are taught that our health should be the most important thing, and I know that I forget that when I’m at Penn, but this is a completely different level.

Many of the girls were afraid of needles and took a lot of explaining and coaxing and comforting. Hell, I’m afraid of needles even when I’m fully aware of what’s going on. One of the HR people named Doris was great at making the girls laugh and talking them through the process. The language barrier is difficult. In more than one way. We can’t console the girls as well when we want to, and I wonder how much is actually being explained to them. Not that Doris would purposely withold information from them, but I also wouldn’t rule out a “oh they’ll be fine” attitude.

The people who were taking the blood samples were from the nearby ESI hospital. The girl who took most of the blood samples had a lot of trouble and would have to prick the girls multiple times before getting the appropriate vein. ESI, or Employees’ State Insurance, is a government scheme that covers workers who earn under 15,000 Rs monthly. According to an article I read from the New England Journal of Medicine, public health services used to be the norm in India and rather quite good but unfortunately has declined since the privatization of the sector. We visited a hospital a few weeks ago. It was crowded, so crowded that there was a mass of people who had to wait outside the reception room to be called in. Outside meant a dirt road and crooked brick walls on which to sit in the sun while they waited. I remember watching a couple ravens land on the sewer in the road, watching the hoard outside intently as if they expected something to happen. I never liked ravens.

I do like rats though. After working with them for awhile, they grow on you a bit. I think the most difficult part of doing this kind of research was learning how to interact with people in an experimental setting. I know how to make awkward small talk and how to make a speech in front of judging eyes and even how to sit there and not say anything at all when someone needs an ear or shoulder or heart, but I didn’t know what to do in this situation. I didn’t know how much was being explained or how much needed explaining. There are ethics when it comes to animal research, but human research is particularly delicate. We couldn’t promise that we’d be able to help them with the research. I’m grateful that I had this experience because I learned so much, but I just wonder how much we’ll be able to accomplish with what we find, if we find anything at all.

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