Written by Kathy Huang

Very few experiences have been as personally rewarding, professionally engaging and overall transformative as my QES experience at the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE). Boarding the plane, I was hesitant, anxious and unsure of what to expect when I landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. When I first arrived, I never thought that I would be so heartbroken to leave my new home a mere 90 days later.

Professional Learnings:

Looking back at my time at ACE, to say that I’ve learned a lot is a gross understatement. For the first time, I learned about how evidence maps are used as a knowledge repository. In the health sphere, databases serve as the main knowledge repositories for evidence synthesis. However, I’ve learned that one-stop shops for pre-appraised systematic reviews in the social sector, and particularly the environmental field, are scarce. Thus, my internship at ACE challenged my previous assumption that other fields draw from similar research sources as in the health field. Ultimately, this experience taught me that different fields of research are not prioritized or resourced the same.

Moreover, I’ve gained insights into how research evidence can be embedded within government departments. At ACE, I worked on a project co-developing a rapid response service with the National Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. I learned very quickly just how massive of an undertaking it is to build any sort of relevant and timely service. The idea behind a rapid response program is quite simple: deliver the right knowledge to the right people at the right time. However, I learned quickly that there are many nuances and multi-faceted issues a research team must consider in order to develop and implement such a program. For example, I the time needed to gain inputs from many different stakeholders on which dates to search articles for (from 2000? 2010?), to the logistical constraints of scheduling meetings between highly important government and academic colleagues. Even in my short time at ACE, I’ve learned that neither Rome, nor a rapid response program, are built in a day.

Additionally, I had the opportunity to join a writing retreat in October 2018. There, I was inspired by the strong, trusting relationships I saw between academic and government colleagues. Through collective brainstorming sessions and productive meetings, I witnessed firsthand how senior leadership can be compassionate, competent and truly human-focused. Being at the beginning stages of my career, it is so special to see how closely government and academics can work across sectors to accomplish a common goal. My QES experience has set a high standard of professionalism and generosity that I now know is possible in a work environment, something I’ll look for as I move forward in my educational journey.

While at ACE, I interacted with researchers from a diverse range of backgrounds: philosophy, economics, anthropology, and international development. In my health sciences experience, oftentimes my learning environment has been comprised of fairly homogenous educational backgrounds. Thus, I loved being able to learn how researchers from different disciplines approached evidence work through different lenses. I also found it quite comforting to know that no matter what field you work in, there are researchers across the board who share in the collective vision of building a better world – one evidence synthesis at a time.

Personal Learnings

South Africa has a heartbreaking history. I felt the country’s young post-apartheid democracy through the many discussions of race in nearly all my interactions. I did not realize how much I would need to embrace my own heritage. Having grown up in suburban Ontario, being “Chinese” was no more important to my identity than having green as my favourite colour or chicken nuggets as my favourite meal. However, I often found myself needing to explain why I did not have a Chinese accent and my narrative in being a Canadian citizen. I felt deep compassion and sadness that something I felt was so trivial (skin colour) was such a salient component of my interactions. However, through the many discussions of my heritage, I found empowerment in owning my history, something I had never felt in the past.

The key tenets I used as my true north compass were to always be: 1) curious, 2) compassionate and 3) as open to every learning opportunity as possible. I walked away from every conversation having learned something new. Coming into my QES journey, I only had a surface-level understanding of South Africa’s history, never having heard of words like “state capture” or “load shedding.” However, with each conversation, I learned to be more comfortable with my lack of awareness and use it as an opportunity to grow. Additionally, I learned just how many “rights” are really luxuries: hot water, central heating/air conditioning, access to Wi-Fi and constant electricity. Despite these challenges, I was in awe of the resiliency and spirit I experienced while in the country. Canadians may be polite, but South Africans are openly warm to a degree that puts us to shame. When I was asked, “how are you?” the person actually wanted to know my answer!

Overall, my QES experience has taught me that despite parallel realities between life in suburban Hamilton and urban Johannesburg, we are all human and more similar than we are different. I am incredibly humbled to have had the opportunity to represent MHF abroad. On a final note, I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to my South African family for embracing me with an infinite amount of kindness, gratitude and generosity. To Ruth, Carina, Sunet, Yvonne, Laurenz, Siziwe, Natalie, Likhwa, Zafeer, Promise, Nkululeko, Charity, Precious and Christa, I am eternally indebted to my ACE team for instrumentally making my time in South Africa so memorable.