Meghan Cook: a dedicated public health researcher

Originally from Sydney, Meghan Cook has always been fascinated by the thoughts of moving abroad to expand life experiences and learn about foreign cultures. In June 2018, she made a decision to move to Hanoi, Vietnam, after accepting a placement position under the Australian Volunteers International program, joining Center for Public Health and Environment Research (CENPHER) as a Research Officer.

A Master’s graduate of Development Studies and Global Health, Meghan is part of the collective effort spurring a better understanding on a number of emerging global public health issues.

Moving from Sydney to Hanoi where she needs to make various adjustments including embracing the organised chaos, Meghan shares with Advance her first international work experience.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

 Can you describe your role and what you do?

I’m a Research Officer at the Center for Public Health and Environment Research (CENPHER) based in the Hanoi University of Public Health. The role is a placement through the Australian Volunteers International program, which is run in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Currently, I’m working on using research conducted by CENPHER and its partners to write journal articles and contribute to ongoing public health initiatives. This research spans a number of global issues including food safety, antibiotic resistance and antibiotics as a form of pollution in the natural environment.

What made you move to Hanoi?

I was born and raised in Australia, but from a young age my Dad filled my head with all his stories of living and working overseas. I really want to experience life in as many different contexts as I can to learn from other cultures. I moved to Hanoi for this role, as the position at CENPHER was exactly what I was looking for, but I couldn’t have been luckier in term of location. Hanoi is a bustling, vibrant city that has such an amazing soul. It’s a city that’s beautiful and alive with a unique mix of artists, musicians, diplomats and foodies. Infrastructure is seemingly constructed overnight and local businesses are popping up to innovate just as fast. But there’s still this unshakeably laid back feeling that is such an endearing characteristic that I see in Vietnamese people.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced during the beginning of your life in Hanoi?

In the cab from the airport you’re immediately introduced to the blaring of horns and flow of motorbikes that’s seen across Vietnam. Coming from Australia, you have to readjust your expectations of traffic and when it’s safe to cross the road. It’s not the stop/start kind of congestion you see in our cities, and that can be hard to wrap your head around. But once you get used to the ebb and flow you come to see the traffic as moving like schools of fish. You just have to find your rhythm in this system and remember the golden rule – don’t step backwards. The other big challenge is knowing where to find things. In Australia you can just pop down to major supermarkets or shopping centres for all your needs. In Hanoi there are few shopping centres, similar outlets are often grouped together and traditional produce markets are far more popular than supermarkets. It seems trivial, but at the start it’s so interesting to navigate and Google rarely helps. You need towels but you are on ‘furniture street’, you feel like you’re close but then you round the corner and you’re on the street full of music stores. Want never ending ice cream choices? There’s a street for that, you just have to find it.

What’s the most rewarding aspect working in a STEM-related role?

Working on global issues and trying to bring non-scientists into the scientific discourse. I feel like the greatest challenges facing humanity over the next century demand scientific literacy. So, I personally find it really rewarding to know that I’m doing my part to contribute to dialogue around issues such as antibiotic resistance. I think resistance to antimicrobials, more broadly, is a problem comparable to climate change but attracts a fraction of the attention in popular media. As such, I always try and write and present in a way that’s accessible to people from backgrounds other than science. I’ve had some great science teachers, but I’ve also learned invaluable skills from mentors in other disciplines. To really tackle medical and environmental challenges going forward, we need the contribution of other professionals including anthropologists, gender specialists and economists, as well as the general public. So, the more I can do to distil scientific research down into easily digestible content for people of all backgrounds, the more I feel like I’m helping make an impact.

In your opinion, what impact does the Australian Volunteer program bring to Vietnam?

From what I’ve seen, it’s such a mutual exchange. The volunteers here bring their skills and knowledge to help build capacity in their field. We work alongside our Vietnamese colleagues and do our best to use different perspectives and experience to enhance local projects. But Vietnamese norms and viewpoints also challenge our perspectives, giving us a new lens to look through. It broadens our scope of understanding, building professional and social links that provide ongoing benefits to both countries.

What do you miss most about Australia?

For one, how blue the sky is all the time. Any picture taken of the Australian sky on a decent day looks perfect. I also miss Australian humour. Vietnamese people love a good laugh and are some of the nicest people in the world. But hurling insults and making jokes at your mate’s expense are a special form of affection in Australia. I don’t know what that says about us, but I do miss it.