Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Redwan Bin Abdul Baten, originally from Bangladesh, left his career as a dentist to pursue his PhD in health services and policy at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. His work in resource-poor rural areas of Bangladesh inspired him to further his education in the field of public health with an eye towards improving rural communities at the policy level. While busy with academics, research, and leadership roles on campus, Redwan recently took time to share a few of his University of Iowa experiences. Read more below.

Image of Redwan Bin Abdul Baten

How did you select the University of Iowa as the location to pursue your PhD?

My interest was in health economics, and the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Iowa had some world-class faculty who were doing exciting work on health economics issues. I was very interested to get involved in relevant projects and have been very lucky to work with my advisor, Professor George Wehby, a leading health economist. I was also interested in doing a deep dive in rural health issues. The University of Iowa College of Public Health is one of the few hubs of rural health research around the world. Professor Keith Mueller, who directs the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis, is a leading expert on rural health issues and I have had the privilege of working with him for the past few years as well. All these factors prompted me to apply for a PhD program at Iowa.

Before coming to Iowa you worked as an assistant dental surgeon at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh. Can you tell us more about your experience?

Yes, I am a dentist by training. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, grew up in Saudi Arabia, then went back to Bangladesh for high school. After dental school, I joined the public healthcare system of Bangladesh and served as a dentist for three years in very rural areas of Bangladesh.  

What prompted you to leave your career in Bangladesh to pursue your PhD through the University of Iowa College of Public Health?

Well, the experience of working in rural areas in resource-poor settings and working directly with people led me towards the field of public health. I was naturally attracted to health policy and economics issues. By that time, I had a good idea about how the health system of Bangladesh worked, and how policy was being formulated. Rather than taking care of individual patients, I felt that I could contribute more towards improving the lives of many others if I worked in the policy sphere.

What is your involvement with the UI Graduate & Professional Student Government (GPSG)?

I joined GPSG as its health and safety chair at the worst possible moment! We were at the peak of a global pandemic, after all. I mean, you must take pity on the poor fellow who signed up for the health and safety chair position at such a moment. Jokes aside, I am grateful that I was able to utilize my public health training in that role. As my first task, I was part of a campus-wide mental health committee and shared with them graduate student perspectives on mental health and the pandemic.  I was able to assemble a multidisciplinary ‘Data Team’, comprised of doctoral students from different departments across campus. The idea was that as researchers, we can contribute towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by doing what we do best, which is ‘research’. We did the ‘COVID-19 survey’ that looked at a range of topics including the impacts of racial justice issues, federal regulations related to international students, political unrest, and of course the pandemic on the general and mental health of students. Through the survey, we tried to understand how the students were doing during the pandemic and how they felt about the university’s response to the pandemic. Since we had a large and skilled team, we were able to analyze the survey data in both quantitative and qualitative sections. Working with incredible researchers, each of whom brought an incredible set of skills and experiences, was an awesome and humbling experience.  

You have served as the graduate co-chair of the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB). Can you tell us about this role?

The tasks I did at ISAB can be categorized into two big buckets – advocacy and activism. However, advocacy was difficult to do during the first few weeks of my tenure. I overcame those obstacles through hard work – reading up on advocacy, its forms, talking with people, observing successful advocates on campus, etc. At ISAB, we tried to create an atmosphere of teamwork. Every board member had significant freedom in choosing their desired projects. We held several brainstorming sessions at the beginning of our tenure, made a short list of necessary/desired projects, and finally settled on the projects that each of us wanted to do. For the rest of the year, board members continued to work on their preferred projects. At the same time, ISAB board members represented international students at various committees across campus and advocated for relevant issues. The leadership team of ISAB was involved in several other advocacy efforts, some of which involved shared-governance meetings, meetings with different administrators, meeting with city council officials, etc. Our advocacy efforts led to the creation of constituency liaison positions for international students at GPSG and UISG. Overall, we came a long way this year in terms of international student voices being heard at the student government level.

Can you tell us about your role serving as President of the Bangladeshi Students Association (BSA)?

Yes of course. When I came to Iowa in 2017, there were a few Bangladeshi students on campus, but we were not organized. I proposed and helped begin this organization with an aim to organize students from Bangladesh. We wanted to use this platform to serve incoming international students and to create a social support system for all of us here. International students face a lot of difficulties including leaving friends, family, and social support systems in their home country and they must rebuild these networks in their destination countries. BSA has been trying to contribute to this arena by providing services to incoming students, arranging events to celebrate national or religious events, organizing tours, providing meal support to members who are ill, organizing fundraisers for people in need, participating in sports events, and representing Bangladesh and its culture at the university level. To keep the culture of Bangladesh alive, BSA also focuses on family events. For example, if a member of BSA gets married, we will welcome the new couple by holding a reception for them. We also provide support to families who are expecting, and function as a social support network for the mothers. Prior to the pandemic, we also had a lot of parties with tons and tons of food, where we combined food of Bangladesh and the U.S. We also invite friends from the U.S. and other countries to our events so that they can also get a taste of our culture. We held the first ever ‘Bangladeshi Night’ in 2019, where we presented elements of our culture. With all these activities, we try to create a home away from home here in Iowa City.   

Have your experiences with ISAB impacted your involvement in the College of Public Health?

Yes. This is one of the positive things that came out of the visa-related crisis international students faced last year. The international students at the College of Public Health (CPH) organized themselves during that time. To build support for international students, we reached out to different levels of the college administration. Dean Edith Parker, along with all faculty, staff, and students supported our efforts during that time. Actually, it was Dean Parker who had proposed the creation of a sustainable body for international students at CPH. Incidentally, I was serving at ISAB during that time and was also heavily involved with international student efforts at CPH. So, I was able to share my experiences into the development of the Public Health International Student Advisory Board (PHISAB). All credit for this goes to Dean Parker and the wonderfully energetic staff and international students of CPH! Everyone really stepped up when needed.

What are your research interests?

It’s a long list! I am interested in a lot of things. There is just so much interesting stuff out there and I want to learn about all of it! A few research interests are – health economics, access to care, student health, global health, rural health, mental health, telehealth, and long-term care.

What do you plan to do after you complete your PhD?

I wish to continue doing research. I am also interested in teaching or mentoring students. Also, I want to continue my work in advocacy and activism in one form or the other. Hopefully, I can continue doing these things and earn a living at the same time!

You have been in Iowa City for a few years now. How are you finding it?

Iowa City is very nice, and my experience here has been quite good. The best spot on campus is the College of Public Health building. But I love to spend time at the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) also. I just love to have a seat at the IMU and enjoy the buzz and activities happening all around me. Student life is an awesome time in our lives, it is a time to learn, enjoy, and cherish for the rest of our lives. I just love to get the vibe and energy from fellow students, who are so full of hope, ideas, energy, and try to recharge myself for another day of research, advocacy, and activism.