Belainesh Nigeda, OMS III, started her research as a first-year medical student with support from the Rural and Urban Scholars Pathways program and mentors. Her research focuses on the presence of doulas during birth — with hopes of helping Black women have healthier birth outcomes. Read her entire interview about what makes research rewarding and her advice to students here.
What is the most unique research experience you have had?
I would definitely have to say that this project is the most unique research experience that I have had. When I first came up with the idea of the study, it was during my first semester of medical school (Fall 2020), and we had no idea how long the pandemic would last. At the time, there had been no studies about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the birthing experiences of Black women who used doulas. Giving birth during a pandemic is a unique experience, and to be able to hear the moms share their birth story with me was amazing and in some ways disheartening to hear that they did not get the birth that they wanted or deserved. Many of the moms felt like telling their story was therapeutic, which was an unexpected positive of doing this research. Getting to meet the moms virtually that I interviewed was a very unique experience to me. As a Black female medical student interested in OB/GYN, this project will impact the way that I practice medicine. I am a huge advocate for doulas and feel very passionate about educating medical students/professionals and patients about them. We do not receive any education about doulas in medical school, and I have found that many of my peers do not know what they are. Going into medical school, I was always interested in the role of doulas in Black women's birth and to be able to research this during an unprecedented time like COVID, was very unique.
Would you describe your experience as an RUSP student and as a researcher?
My experiences in RUSP have been invaluable. Through the workshops, clinical jazz sessions, and my scholarly work, I have so many tools that I can use throughout my medical education and career. To be able to do original research as a first-year medical student has been tough but rewarding because I have learned so much. Without RUSP, I don't think I would have met my amazing mentors, Dr. Sharon Casapulla and Dr. Sarah Rubin, who have taught me so much. Dr. Casapulla taught me how to complete an IRB, helped me to develop my project, has taught me in great detail the art of qualitative research, and connected me with many resources to improve my research experience. I got connected to Dr. Rubin through my RUSP research project as well. She was very instrumental in helping to develop my project, sharing resources to help increase my learning on the topic of Black maternal health and doulas, and providing us with her research expertise. I am super thankful for them both and do not think that I would have developed such a great rapport with them if it wasn't for RUSP.
What makes being a researcher rewarding for you?
Doing this research has been so rewarding for so many reasons and it truly keeps me going. In undergrad, I researched mushrooms in a genetics lab, and although I am thankful for my research mentor for allowing me to join his lab, I was not passionate about this research.
Knowing that I can make a difference in the way that Black women receive care during birth is very fulfilling to me. I also love the impact that this research has had on the research participants. Everybody has a birth story and many women have never told their birth story or had time to truly reflect on their experiences. I take joy in sharing their stories, especially the positive so that we can help more Black women to have less traumatic and more happy and healthy births. And as I stated earlier, I really loved how sharing their birth story felt therapeutic to some of the mothers. I love that they felt heard, and many would express thanks for the research that I am doing because it is needed.
Also, I think it's especially rewarding to see what you learn from your research study. For example, in my study, we learned that the physical presence of a doula does matter, so much so that Black moms had happier birth experiences and experienced less racism. Doulas were not even considered essential workers during the pandemic, so to me that is huge and can definitely impact how we look at birth workers.
Why is the research you conduct important?
This research helps to save Black mothers' lives, and it speaks to the power of the presence of a doula during birth. Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die a pregnancy related death compared to white woman. When we first learned about COVID, we saw that Black people were disproportionately affected by this disease, not because of race, but because of systemic racism perpetuating health disparities. The goal of my study was to not only learn about the impact of COVID on the birth experiences of Black women who used a doula, but to learn how we can help more Black women to have happier and healthier births.
How did you become involved in research? What advice do you have for students who want to get involved in research?
I became involved in research through the RUSP program. I sent my mentor, Dr. Sharon Casapulla, a message inquiring about researching Black women who gave birth during the pandemic and doulas. I did not even have a solid research question at that point, but she took me under her wing and was (and still is) very instrumental in the development of the project. I would encourage students who want to research to find a topic that they are passionate about and then to seek out a research mentor who is also passionate about that topic, or even mentorship. As a medical student, I would say it is a completely different workload to do original research versus joining a senior faculty's research project. I think that is why everyone tells you to choose something you love because there may be times where you will want to give up, but the passion you have for the topic/population you are studying will keep you going.