Category Archives: Work

Standing Together

An incredible insightful, honest and touching blog from Robin Heyden, education consultant in California, about sexual harassment in the digital era. Bravo! Find more on Twitter #ripplesofdoubt

Stepping Stones


The recent uproar in the science blogging community has gripped my attention and held it there.  There is so much to reflect on here; so much for all of us to learn and apply. Let me begin this post with a brief recap.

Scientific American has an impressive blog network – scientists who regularly blog about their work, sharing ideas, lines of inquiry, and research with the larger science community. Bora Zivkovic is the Blogs Editor for Scientific American. I’ve never met him but have heard of him. A very charismatic guy, high energy, talented – someone who really captured and leveraged the power of online communities for doing good in science. In addition to the blogging community he built an extremely popular and successful conference, ScienceOnline, designed to …”cultivate the way science is conducted, shared, and communicated online.”

Well, the uproar started about two weeks ago with a post…

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Health and research

Ibrahim has a problem. The bright young doctor from Mali is doing research on sexual health of adolescents in a big French city but finds his work obstructed by the local government. Ibrahim has been forbidden to ask his research subjects about their sexual life. High rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections give the city a bad rep and the government deems it better to hush things up.

I met Ibrahim at the World Health Organization in Geneva at the annual workshop on sexual and reproductive health organized by the organization I work for, the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All participants were from countries facing huge challenges in this respect: lack of care for pregnant women and newborns, few family planning services, unsafe abortions, high rates of sexually transmitted infections and a general lack of sexual health.

The workshop brought together a group of health professionals committed to improving the situation in their country and offered them a platform to discuss some of their many challenges. Where do you find teenagers to discuss sexual health in a country where school attendance is low? Is it ethical to teach community workers to administer contraceptive injections in a region where there’s a lack of nurses and doctors? To what extent are projects fighting female genital mutilation in one country useful for another country with a different social setting?

Particularly exasperating for the workshop’s participants is sabotage of their research by the government. Doctor S. is studying child wishes of HIV infected people in Iran. Her government refuses to acknowledge there’s such a thing as HIV and, if there is, then those infected are drug users so they’re not supposed to want children. As a consequence, Doctor S. keeps a low profile for the safety of her research subjects and herself.

So doctor S. could not to be in the group picture we took of all the workshop participants, lecturers and organizers. Ibrahim could: he will soon return to Mali. France will lose a smart doctor and the opportunity to improve the health of a particularly vulnerable group of people.

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Working (out) in Ethiopia

“No problem!” My Ethiopian colleague smiled encouragingly. He had just welcomed me to the medical centre of Gondar University, in the north of Ethiopia, where I was to give a training. Then he showed me the computer room I was expected to use. I looked at the dodgy PCs and felt slightly concerned. The training’s e-learning tools were developed in the UK with the best intentions but not quite the same system requirements as in Africa. “What if we get a blackout?” I asked him. “We have a generator,” my colleague replied. “No problem!”

I work for the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research, a non-profit organization focusing on sexual and reproductive health. My colleagues and I provide health professionals in developing countries with trainings and help them conduct and publish their research. We often work together with other organizations and institutions. In Ethiopia, I represented my NGO as well as Oxford University. I was expected to gather health professionals, facilitate a digital training on a certain complication of pregnancy and reward the participants with a certificate.

There proved to be a few challenges. More people showed up than had inscribed for the trainings so there were not enough PCs available. Internet slowed down or halted completely. Plan B was to hand out CDs with the course material. But many computers lacked the software required for the training’s complicated graphs. Or the CD was not compatible with the brand-new Macintosh computers that had been donated by a well-wisher. Or passwords to allow updates were missing. Wireless keyboards and mice that didn’t match proved another problem. During my visit to Ethiopia, I became accustomed to running around in hot, stuffy computer rooms, explaining the course here, pointing out the proper side of a CD there and updating software everywhere. As soon as I had everything up and running, a blackout would mess things up. And generators never worked.

After the last training I sank to the floor. My Ethiopian colleague stooped over me. “That went really well,” he said casually. I nodded, panting and wiping the sweat of my brow. He shook his head. “Crazy Dutch girl.”

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Work ethics

The website Why work? is a platform for the creation of ‘livable alternatives to wage slavery’. It doesn’t propose sitting around drinking Pina Coladas all day: it’s more about being pro-leisure and against current ideas about what is productive and valuable. As I haven’t had a steady job in the past year, I had the chance to reconsider mainstream opinions about work ethics.

After moving house a year ago, Spouse went back to work and so did I. I published three academic articles and wrote two chapters for a book. I edited a children’s book and wrote another one. I started campaigning for Greenpeace and took part in many actions. When I wasn’t running up and down Geneva’s busiest shopping street dressed as a gorilla to protect the rainforest, I took care of our pets and most of the household – something for which Spouse, with her high-pressure job that takes her abroad half of the year, simply has no time.

Despite my productivity, some friends and family summed up my status quo as “not doing anything”. After all, I did not have a nine-to-five job in an office. “It must be nice being on a break,” someone responded apprehensively after I told about a course in project management I’d taken. People asked me if I wasn’t bored without a job and whether I felt bad “living off my partner”.

The first thing people ask after your name, is what you do. I never noticed until last year. Not to be able to give a simple answer, a job description and a company name, was sometimes uncomfortable – and not just for me. In our work-obsessed culture, a steady job makes up a considerable part of our identity. “You’ve jumped the system,” a friend said. “And that makes people nervous”.

Last week I started a new job. Not because I was bored with my previous activities, but because it seemed like a rare opportunity. “My prayer has been answered,” a family member wrote. Others expressed their happiness that I was no longer “at loose ends”. I have less time now to protect the rainforest but who cares?! I’ve returned to wage slavery.

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