My name is Angela, and to justify my recent absence from most forms of social communication, here is what I’ve been up to:
For the past six weeks, I have been volunteering and conducting independent research in Chennai, India.

I landed in this opportunity through an organization called Unite for Sight (UFS for short). UFS helps fundraise money to support local eye clinics in India, Ghana, and Honduras to provide free services to their low-income clientele, but the NGO also allows western individuals to volunteer on site of these clinics. I actually discovered UFS through Google after looking for international medical service opportunities. I’m personally very interested in global public health, and the opportunity meshed perfectly with my interests. So I put in some hefty work to get accepted and have the trip sponsored by SMU grants (shout out to the Maguire Ethics Center, the Mayer Fellowship, and the Dedman Internship Porgram!). I departed on the first of July for a month and then some.

So what exactly did I do there? I worked Mondays through Saturdays for about 5-6 hours a day helping out at public outreach camps predominantly. These public outreaches took place at various locations across the city. They were organized by local businesses, schools, or random clinics, and me and a team of optometrists would show up with reading glasses, optometry lens kits, and empty prescriptions. As a volunteer, I did three main tasks: I helped conduct visual acuity tests (where patients would try and read a chart with decreasing letter size), I helped grind glasses, and I read prescriptions to distribute reading glasses.

Here is a demonstration of how I grinded the glasses. You literally had to pop out the glass from the frame and then mold the prescription glass to the original shape. It’s not difficult at all thanks to modern machinery.

My roommates demonstrate how an autorefractor test is done. Autorefractors are used to get an estimate of a patient’s visual defect for writing a prescription.

In addition to my volunteer work, I also am conducting research on perceptions and awareness of cataracts in Chennai. During the public outreaches, I would interview patients with the help of a translator in hopes that the results from my questions would illustrate places that public health education could target. Cataracts are hands down the leading cause of blindness in India, and it’s a condition that can actually be corrected for free with subsidized surgery [1]. For being the leading causes of blindness, I was surprised by how many of the people I interviewed had never heard of cataracts before. I became curious about whether this trend carries to areas where cataracts aren’t the leading cause of blindness, such as in America.

But from all my time in India, here are some pointers that might be helpful for those pursuing international volunteer work or research:

  1. Apply to all the grants. SMU has a plethora available, and your chances of getting a couple increase exponentially with the amount of effort you put into developing your project proposal. Look into possible places/NGOs you want to do work with as soon as you can, and get cranking on the literature review to make yourself competitive for those grants.
  2. Make sure your volunteer work is substantial. I looked at a ton of medical-related service opportunities, and I personally was incredibly off-put by any “volun-tourism” sounding efforts. Look critically into the NGO you may work with and see if they are just trying to make the experience great, or if they have long-term plans for their efforts with foreign volunteers.
  3. Get IRB approval done early. Oh my god. I wasn’t IRB approved until the second week that I was in India. This was pretty stressful, and I highly recommend you contact research compliance directly (Dr. Austin Baldwin) if you’re having delays in communication.
  4. Align your priorities. By this, I mean ask yourself honestly whether you want this opportunity for the right reasons. If you’re there for a vacation, there’s plenty of other places to do so while “boosting” your resume. I feel like it is critical that if you decide to spend time in a developing country, you both immerse yourself into the culture and work, as well as live a simple life.

For now, that’s my reflection of my time in India for the past 2 months. I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to go, and I have been on the move since.

[1] Angra, S.K., Murthy, G.V., Gupta, S.K., & Angra, V. (1997, October) Cataract related blindness in India & its social implications.