Alison Swartz

MHHA: Who are you?

AS: My name is Alison Swartz and I am a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I am currently a visiting scholar in Epidemiology at Brown University. I think of myself as a social scientist working at the intersections of medical anthropology and public health… But also as a lover of plants and sea-swims!

MHHA: In what part of the world do you work?

AS: I work mainly in Cape Town (UCT). Most of my fieldwork has also been in Cape Town and surrounds in the neighbourhood of Town Two, Khayelitsha, but more recently in Gugulethu. At the moment I am based in Providence, Rhode Island where I am visiting Brown University.

MHHA: What is your area of interest or expertise?

AS: I have mainly worked with young people in Khayelitsha navigating the (often difficult) process of accessing a more ‘adult’ form of identity. I have looked at the ways that sexual partnerships and teenage pregnancy have played a role in their lives, in a context where HIV is highly prevalent. In previous work I have worked with community health workers in the South African context.

MHHA: Do you have research/practitioner partners?

AS: I work with several academic institutions on various projects (including Brown University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Queen Margaret University, University of Stellenbosch and University of KwazuluNatal). We also work with Sonke Gender Justice and a fairly new but dynamic collective of community-based organisations in Gugulethu called the Movement for Change and Social Justice (MCSJ).

MHHA: Who funds your work?

AS: My work is predominantly funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA.

MHHA: Can you please tell our readers what (about your work) makes your smile?

AS: I love working with colleagues and students - hearing their ideas and sharing mine as well. I am very grateful that, in my work and fieldwork, people are generally exceptionally generous which certain keeps me smiling. Truly interdisciplinary collaborations, although they can be difficult to negotiate at times, tend to make me smile—in excitement, confusion and joy at the fact that many of the worlds’ problems are complex and thus better tackled with multiple inputs from a range of perspectives.

MHHA: The interdisciplinary work you mention can be tricky to navigate. What are some challenges of your work?

AS: Part of what is challenging is the fact that there are very few “hard” funded positions at universities or research institutions for people who work in this space. This means that people are often looking for funding and writing grants, which doesn’t always line-up easily with the processes of writing and thinking!

MHHA: This is such an important point, and one that many practitioners can relate to. Yet this has not stopped your team from continuing this amazing work. What are three positive things you and your team have achieved in the last year?

AS: I am really excited about the fact that 6 of my MPH students graduated last year. My boss and mentor also received another grant from the NIH which is allowing us all to keep training PhD students and postdocs. The Movement for Change and Social Justice also hosted a range of events including a very well attended march in support of National Health Insurance (NHI).

MHHA: What advice would you give to a mentee aspiring to join your field?

AS: Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, however silly, inadequate or junior you feel. We can all learn from each other…And don’t underestimate the multiple and different ways to measure worth. In academia, we tend to focus on particular markers of ‘success’ (like publications) but there are so many other ways to engage and make a positive contribution.

MHHA: More mentees can definitely take strength from this advice. Thank you! So what do you hope to be doing in 5 years? Where do you hope to you be?

AS: My biggest hope is that I will be doing work that continues to make me smile in the ways that most of my work has done thus far. I hope to finally write my PhD into a book. I hope to see more students graduate (including PhDs!) and keep doing exciting projects in the world.

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