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Shafkat Meraj

Class of 2023

PURA Recipient 

Shafkat Meraj, class of 2023 and a double major in Public Health Studies and Natural Sciences, has been named a PURA (Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award) recipient for his 2022 research project entitled “Scoping Review: Investigating the Political & Bureaucratic Factors Shaping Children’s Care in LMICs.”

The PURA program, established in 1993 with a generous endowment by the Hodson Trust, supports Hopkins undergraduate students as they engage in independent research and scholarly and creative projects.

To pursue this research, Shafkat is working under the mentorship of BDP Professor Jeremy Shiffman and Professor Yusra Shawar. We asked Shafkat about his research and how the project evolved.

Could you briefly describe the research you are doing as a PURA recipient?

Every day, families are disrupted across the world due to a variety of reasons and factors, and as a result, millions of children are without parental care. In many low and middle-income countries (LMICs), few mechanisms exist to provide sufficient care, residential placements, and support and monitoring for foster families, adoption families, or kinship care families. The well-being of orphans and vulnerable children is dependent upon the national children’s care systems. Thus, my research aims to identify political, bureaucratic, and economic factors shaping the effectiveness and strength of national care systems in LMICs to provide a comprehensive policy framework and manuscript of findings to inform fellow researchers, government agencies, and other influential actors involved in the childcare system worldwide. In addition to looking at LMICs broadly to create the framework, I plan to look closely at the childcare policies in Cambodia, Uganda, and Zambia. 

Could you explain how you got interested in this specific research topic and project?

As a Bangladeshi-born American having lived in the West Coast, South, and Northeast, I’ve always been attracted to the differences between cultures, geographic areas, and between people. While growing up, I witnessed differences across my different communities such lack of certain aspects of built environment, limited healthcare options, and limited state funding in education. Upon seeing these differences, I have been motivated to be an advocate to help eliminate disparities in such communities through research, medicine and clinical work, and/or policy work, and this research project provided me a great outlet to pursue my interests.  After being introduced to the study of pediatric health global health practices in both a classroom setting and an external professional setting at Hopkins, I’ve become heavily interested in exploring how different sovereign nations implement governmental policy for their populace, especially for refugees, and how NGOs, grassroots local initiatives, and the general community all contribute to strengthening the overall health of that nation.

Could you explain the role your research mentors have played on your growth as a student? How has this project evolved over time?

I have been working as a research assistant for this project since the end of Spring 2021. My research I have been working as a research assistant for this project since the end of Spring 2021. My research mentors, Professors Shiffman, Shawar, and Koon, have really taken me under their wing and have guided me every single step of the day, allowing me to learn and make mistakes and use those mistakes as learning opportunities. My weekly meetings were very interactive sessions where the professors would show me how to analyze research articles and we would discuss our findings by looking closely at the nuances of policies, childcare systems, and outside factors. My mentors really allowed me to develop, allowing me to work closely with the literature, and my findings were used to guide our process and next steps. My mentors have shown great faith in me and continue to encourage me to be an active voice in all our meetings and international meetings with our research collaborators. The sheer trust my mentors have in me has allowed me to become confident in my analytical and reasoning skills, especially when creating draft frameworks and tables depicting emerging themes and trends.    

When doing novel research, there is no straightforward path and when doing qualitative empirical public health research, your research work and tasks are driven and influenced by the process. The literature reviews and existing research has forced us to adapt and change our process along the way, so while the end goal remains pretty similar from the start, our methodology and perceptions of it have changed quite a bit. For example, new factors have come up in our literature where we are now accounting for a more comprehensive framework, and the overlapping themes raise very interesting questions; that is the beauty of research. Many a time, you will face roadblocks and through those difficult, thought-provoking dilemmas, you become more knowledgeable, and then you know your research is valuable as others are looking for the same answers that you are looking to uncover and explain.

How has the Public Health Studies major prepared you to do your research?

I have had ample opportunity to be exposed to research and skill building through the variety of courses and opportunities offered through the Public Health Studies Major: whether it be examining case studies in Public Biostats, learning how to write research articles in Fundamentals of Health Policy & Management, or getting hands-on experience from my Applied Experience, my coursework has allowed me to be a more critical thinker, have a broader perspective on the Social Determinants of Health, and refine important skills needed for independent research. Through the Applied Experience, I worked as a Patient Advocate and Triage Coordinator at the Harriet Lane Clinic for Hopkins Community Connection where I witnessed many of the obstacles Baltimore families face on a daily basis. I was able to do clinical research involving pediatric patients, and this experience has allowed me to understand the human aspects of my current research, keeping me motivated.

In class, in the lab, or in real-world patient settings, my experiences through the Public Health Studies major have allowed me to cultivate my research skills and use the foundational principles from these same skills in my every day life and in my extracurricular activities as well, including my work with Johns Hopkins Model United Nations Conference (JHUMUNC).

Any advice for students interested in applying to the PURA Program?

For prospective PURA applicants, be passionate about your research and make it be shown. Think deeply about your novel research and really highlight not only the importance that your research will have in your respective field of study but how the research sparks your interests and passions. When writing your PURA proposal, make sure to be thorough and descriptive regarding the background, methodology, and intended results and significance of the research. When reading your proposal and you find yourself questioning yourself regarding a portion, make sure to fill in any knowledge gaps. Your research proposal can be as great as you want, but it depends on your effort, so start preparing as early as possible, and reach out to your research mentors for help as they will be the ones mentoring you throughout the process. 

Shafkat’s story was also featured on the Hub