In this section, Dr. Sastry shares insights about how to cultivate and manage relations with partner organizations for the course.
Outreach for Projects
The success of this course is dependent on finding good projects and partner organizations. One of my strategies is to contact people who I know are network nodes. For instance, I found the assistant to two people who give a lot of talks. I gave her a one-page notice about the course that had our URL on it, and I just said, “Every time they give a talk, put that slide in there.” And she did! So for a while, these two–one of them is President of the World Bank, and the other is at Partners in Health–had this slide in their decks for that summer. I thought that was clever, and made quite a few connections that way.
I try to find MIT alumni across the world and identify some who are natural networkers. I found an MIT alumnus in Bangalore, and he sent me projects in Delhi, and Mumbai, and Hyderabad. And three of the Hyderabad ones became projects in the course.
If I can scrape together enough money for airfare, I send a student during the summer to visit sites and find projects for me. Some of my colleagues and I will talk to folks, visit them, or even do Skype calls. If I get the chance to go to a conference somewhere, I add a few days before and after to scout for projects. At a conference, there are sure to be a few people who know lots of other people. I find them, write down their names and numbers, and call those people right away. I have gone to some places cold, like with only one appointment, but that is a bit stressful. I did that in Nairobi once, and though it was hard, it worked; I now have great contacts in Kenya.
When we plan projects, we want to have more projects than student teams so that students can choose to work in an area of interest. This also means, inevitably, that some of our partners will be disappointed, and that is something I take very seriously because they put work into this. I think very carefully about how many excess projects I want to have, how I will manage that disappointment, what it will mean for unselected partners, and our relationship, and so on. This is one of the hardest parts of running a class like this.
I realize what I have created is a very high-touch course with many steps and interactions, and I think that is different. Some other project-based courses are more hands-off for the instructor, where the students and the hosts sort out everything, and that has its benefits too. I just do not think we can do that easily in GlobalHealth Lab because every year we try to partner with organizations that we have never worked or liaised with before. This means that we actually have to do quite a lot of development, and invest a lot of our own time and funds in each project. I appreciate that I get the chance to be involved in every project and visit so many of the sites.
We have some partners that might apply every year, but we may be selective about when we work with them. For example, we might choose to do three out of the five project ideas that they have put forth over the years. If we decide not to go ahead with a partner’s project, I try to find some other link to MIT that I can develop for the partners. Could I introduce them to a student group that does development? Could I introduce them to folks at the Media Lab or D-Lab? Sometimes I connect them to the Harvard School of Public Health or the Harvard Kennedy School of Government if it fits their scenario.
Typical Background of Partner Organizations
A lot of our partner organizations include managers and leaders who are also clinicians. While these organizations are often very big and successful, it is not a domain where there are many professional managers. Doctors think about the world in a certain way; for instance, I find that doctors and clinicians often think of evidence as a randomized, controlled trial. That is evidence to them, and they may not know about all the different ways that social science builds evidence. It is not all double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. But we can build research in many different ways such as through interviews. Part of my role is to inject thinking about the social sciences and social science research methods into the dialogue between the students and clinicians.