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March 16, 2006



Shaida Bel Hamdounia

Chemistry major Shadia Bel Hamdounia '06 will spend next year studying birthing practices in Denmark, India and South Africa, thanks to a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The prestigious grant is awarded annually to about 50 graduating seniors nationwide to support independent study and travel outside the United States.

Bel Hamdounia, who has long aspired to a career in medicine and public health, sees perinatal care as an index of women's and children's empowerment in a given community. "How different communities have employed their resources to support different birthing practices and standards ultimately reveals the underlying value placed on women and children's rights, health, safety and education," she says in her fellowship proposal.

The three countries where she has chosen to study have widely divergent approaches to birthing practices and infant-mortality rates ranging from 0.4 percent to 6.1 percent, Bel Hamdounia says. In each setting, she will observe clinical practices, shadow midwives and interview mothers about their satisfaction with the care they receive.

"In Denmark, a small population with a high gross domestic product has resulted in a socialized health-care system that supports a wide variety of birthing techniques. With more than one billion people spread over urban and rural areas, India relies on both public and private care. South Africa, with its vast area and colonial history, serves as a good middle ground, while also revealing how AIDS impacts maternal and infant health," Bel Hamdounia says of the countries she will visit.

Bel Hamdounia says that her interest in health care and inequities in access to it are a product of her childhood in Morocco. "The disparities in education, wealth, living standards and consequently, quality of health care received were flagrantly apparent there."

It was not until she began studying at Bryn Mawr, however, that she was able to pursue her interest on a practical level. "As a girl in Morocco, I did not have the freedom or the opportunities to shadow doctors or volunteer in a clinical setting," she says. "At Bryn Mawr, finally I was given the liberty to explore. Above all I wanted to end the pattern of letting life happen to me and start making it happen for myself."

She certainly appears to have taken the bull by the horns. For four years, she volunteered with Best Buddies, a group that offers friendship and support to adults with mental and physical disabilities. As a sophomore, she won a grant that allowed her to spend a month in China. She traveled through Guizhou, China's poorest province, teaching English to more than 70 children. Dealing with the ailments of both children and fellow volunteers in her party introduced her to Chinese traditional medicine and gave her a glimpse of the overcrowded, underfunded hospitals doctors and patients must contend with in developing countries.

Last summer, she had a chance to contrast the situation in China with the state-of-the-art technology and care available at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked as a volunteer. At the same time, she was doing advanced research in the laboratory of Professor of Chemistry Sharon Burgmayer.

Her experiences at Bryn Mawr, she says, have honed skills she will need as a Watson Fellow.

"I feel really fortunate to be given this opportunity and am very excited about the coming year," Bel Hamdounia says. "I know that my own passion toward maternal and infant health will serve as the best guarantee of a fruitful and fulfilling experience."


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