From Assam's hinterland to Oxford

From Assam's hinterland to Oxford

My journey from Assam's heartland to Oxford's hallowed halls has been marked by resilience, determination, and an unwavering commitment to making a difference.

From Assam's hinterland to Oxford From Assam's hinterland to Oxford

Born and raised in a lower-middle-class family in the Barak Valley region of Assam, my life has been deeply rooted in the vibrant culture and navigating the socio-economic challenges of being a northeastern with a Bengali origin. 

I went to a semi-private school with a monthly fee of $2 which became the stepping stone to my academic expedition, eventually leading me to the prestigious University of Oxford to pursue my dream course MSC International Health and Tropical Medicine.

I grew up in the small township of Karimganj, nestled in Assam—one of India's most captivating yet underdeveloped regions, particularly in terms of healthcare infrastructure. This disparity struck home when, at the tender age of five, my younger sister succumbed to a cardiac ailment. 

The heart-wrenching reality was that there were no adequate healthcare facilities available in the state. My family, hailing from a low-income background, couldn't afford to seek treatment elsewhere, resulting in the tragic loss of my sister at the age of three.

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This devastating experience left an everlasting mark on me and my life, prompting a relentless quest to understand and address the persistent healthcare inequalities in the region. I couldn't fathom why such disparities persisted, where the privileged could access world-class medical care, while others, like my family, were left with no viable options but to helplessly watch their loved ones suffer. 

The tragedy of my sister's untimely death made me question the structure and system in place and also pushed me to make a difference in the healthcare system, not just in Assam but across the globe, wherever inequalities persist. It was this journey that inspired me to become a public health advocate, committed to eradicating the systemic issues perpetuating healthcare inequity.

I completed my Engineering in Computer Science and soon after, I went ahead to join Infosys Ltd. After working for a few months, I realised that I wanted to do something different, be with people on the ground, and understand real grassroots problems. This led to me joining the Gandhi Fellowship program in rural Gujarat. During the Gandhi Fellowship program, as a part of the curriculum, we had to live with a family in the community and understand their lives as an insider. During my stay with the family, I realised that adolescent girls dropped out of school as soon as they started menstruating. To address this issue, I started a campaign called Happy Periods where I worked with adolescent girls, their mothers, school teachers and community health workers. Many of my friends from the fellowship program joined me eventually and we could reach more than 30,000 adolescent girls across the nine blocks of Surat district. This immersion changed my life and it was my first stint in public health. 
Post this, I have worked extensively in adolescent health with organisations like Tata Trusts and the Population Foundation of India. 

These experiences allowed me to work in diverse roles like strategy development, partnership, communications, and stakeholder management. Having a limited academic understanding of health systems, I realised that I wanted to deep dive into academia and understand health from a more scientific and technical perspective. This led to my application at the University of Oxford for the MSc International Health and Tropical Medicine Program.

Application and getting through Oxford were only the first few steps. I knew that in no way I could move forward with my studies if I couldn’t secure a full scholarship that would cover my tuition fees and also provide me with a stipend. When I gave up all my hopes of securing a scholarship and I packed my bags to move bag to Assam for a job, on 19th of July, my scholarship came through. It was a full scholarship with a very generous stipend that was granted to me by the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford and funded by Exxon Mobil. Thus started my journey of becoming an ExxonMobil Global Health scholar at the University of Oxford.

With its centuries-old tradition of academic excellence, Oxford University became a crucible of transformation. The intellectual discourse, world-renowned faculty, and the opportunity to engage with peers from across the globe were unparalleled. My academic pursuits at Oxford were shaped by exploration, intellectual growth, and inculcating the core values and passion for equity and kindness.

Furthermore, my academic pursuits took me beyond India and the UK. For the first time, I travelled to Kenya for my research placement to work on ethics of Human Infection Trials for malaria vaccines. Who thought a girl from Karimganj, trained in Engineering will be one day working on such an important project, that too on Human Infection Trials.

During this program, I embarked on a transformative research placement with KEMRI-Wellcome Trust in Kilifi, Kenya. Here, I had the privilege to be embedded in the ethics team, where I developed my dissertation. This is the only quantitative study from across Low and Middle-Income Countries that challenges the prevailing hypothesis that financial incentives are the primary motivators for participation, and has far-reaching implications. Not only does it have the potential to open doors for medical research and funding in LMICs, but it also has the potential to inform policy and regulations surrounding human infection studies in these regions. This experience enriched my academic understanding of global health equity and underscored the importance of contextual medical research, especially in LMICs.

As I look ahead to the future, I am excited about the prospect of continuing my mission to bridge healthcare inequalities. My journey from Assam's heartland to Oxford's hallowed halls has been marked by resilience, determination, and an unwavering commitment to making a difference. The values and traditions instilled in me during my upbringing in Assam continue to guide my path. My aim is to contribute to the realisation of healthcare as a fundamental right accessible to all, ensuring that everyone has equitable access to  healthcare services irrespective of caste, religion, gender, race, economic status, or where they are born. 

I want to champion healthcare equity and bring about lasting change in healthcare systems worldwide holding the values of equity and kindness very close to my heart.

Edited By: Atiqul Habib
Published On: Sep 19, 2023