PhD candidate in population health uses documentary filmmaking as a tool for advocacy
Posted on Friday, May 8, 2020
by Chonglu Huang
When Nicole Bergen arrived in Ethiopia to work on her doctoral thesis in maternal health, her equipment list included some unconventional items: lights, tripods, and cinematography cameras.
Bergen, a student in uOttawa’s multi-faculty PhD program in Population Health, had come to Africa to participate in a maternal and child health research initiative, created by the University of Ottawa and Jimma University in Ethiopia.
Thanks to a scholarship from uOttawa’s Alex Trebek Innovation and Challenge Fund, she was able to hire Ottawa-based filmmaker Nicholas Castel to shoot a documentary about the project.
“With this project, I had the opportunity to do field work and be in Ethiopia for six months to truly collaborate with researchers at Jimma and get to know the real context,” said Bergen. “I wanted to showcase the knowledge gained from this work on the ground as another contribution to global health capacity building.”
Guided by co-supervisors Dr. Ronald Labonté and Dr. Manisha Kulkarni from the School of Epidemiology and Public Health, Bergen helped implement two health interventions in rural Ethiopia as part of the Safe Motherhood Research Project. The interventions included a team of students from faculties across the University of Ottawa, including medicine, and were funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Global Affairs Canada.
The first intervention involved educating community members about maternal health.
“We offered a series of community workshops in collaboration with Jimma University to teach women and health care providers about maternal health including how to spot the signs of a dangerous pregnancy,” explained Bergen.
In the second intervention, researchers helped upgrade maternity waiting homes for pregnant women in rural communities.
“One of the barriers that women face there is from living two-to-three hour walk from any clinic or skilled care provider, so the maternity waiting homes offer a place for pregnant women to live just before their delivery dates so that they can access adequate care.”
As a student in the multi-faculty PhD program in Population Health, Bergen is able to approach her research from an interdisciplinary perspective, aligning health policy research and development in an increasingly connected world.
“I really like the intersectionality of my program,” says Bergen. “It offers not just one way of thinking about a problem, but draws from different perspectives, knowledge and scholarship.”
In addition to filming the documentary, Bergen and Castel took some camera equipment with them to donate to Jimma University and shared knowledge on how to use videography in research projects. Many local Ethiopians were then able to contribute to the 10-day filming process as camera crew.
Last summer, Bergen premiered her official documentary, “Journeys In Motherhood: The Safe Motherhood Research Project.” And in October 2019, she had the privilege of sharing her research with Alex Trebek himself when he visited the University of Ottawa.
Bergen has since held viewings for her documentary at several workshops, conferences and community events. She hopes to continue to share this important work with thought leaders, policymakers and health ministers to advocate for maternal and child health research in under-resourced settings.
“My overarching interest in health equity is to look beyond just the point of care to where people live; to examine their social and economic contexts, and bring those perspectives into improving their health care system,” said Bergen.