In her senior year, Sonia Alam is still conducting research that she originally began for a paper that she handed in three years ago.
For her first-year seminar in public health, Alam wrote a paper comparing the AIDS epidemic in Thailand to that of Malaysia. Now, Alam, a sociology major, is doing her senior honors project on the institutionalization of AIDS in Malaysia, and she points to the paper she wrote for her first-year seminar as the origin of her interest in the subject.
During her sophomore year, Alam spoke with her adviser about continuing her study of AIDS, and she received a reading list.
In October of her junior year, Alam applied for and received a grant from the Freeman Foundation to travel to Malaysia for seven weeks during the following summer. While there, she would study the institutionalization of AIDS. She chose Malaysia because it was a feasible destination, in the sense that she had relatives living there, and she would be able to conduct interviews in English.
In order to prepare for her research in Malaysia, Alam completed an independent study during the spring of her junior year in which she examined the response of the government and the general public to AIDS in Malaysia.
"I spent a semester understanding that process," she says.
As part of her independent study, Alam found and contacted people that she would be able to interview during her stay in Malaysia. She was able to identify these people by reviewing Malaysian consensus reports on sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and AIDS epidemiology, which listed their participants.
Finally, after three years of studying AIDS and public health, Alam left for Kuala Lumpur, Mayalsia's capital, in June. For the next seven weeks, Alam resided with her cousin and his family in the city.
"It's an interesting, really diverse country, and you really see that in the city," she says.
Each week, Alam would conduct one or two interviews with physicians, staff, and directors from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and administrative health government officials, all of whom spoke English. In all, she conducted 12 interviews, and she says that they were all extremely welcoming to her.
"They really did want to speak to me," she says.
Of the 12 people interviewed, Alam had contacted six before her arrival to Malaysia. She found the remaining six through a snowball sample?asking each interviewee if he or she knew anybody else that would be helpful for her to contact.
"I met some amazing people," she says.
In the interviews, Alam asked about how the government was responding to the AIDS epidemic, and how the NGOs and the government interact. Among other things, Alam sought to understand how service, control, and prevention are organized, how this organization has changed since the onset of the epidemic, and how AIDS is being institutionalized in Malaysia.
Two of these interviewees were HIV positive, and all of them, Alam says, were "well-versed in understanding how to respond adequately and appropriately to HIV [and] AIDS anywhere, and especially in Malaysia."
And in Malaysia, AIDS is in the early stages of spreading. In fact, its prevalence rate of .4 per 100,000 is lower than the United States' rate of .6 per 100,000.
"It is important to examine the countries where it is spreading, but not up to that level yet," she says.
In August, Alam returned to Bowdoin before classes to transcribe her interviews. Since then, she has been coding them by five themes: the accuracy of statistics, the urban/rural divide in service, control and prevention, the evaluation of government response, the stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS, and the visibility or invisibility of AIDS. Within these themes, she has also created sub-themes to build a deeper understanding of how the larger themes are played out.
Alam plans to finish the introduction and methodology for her project this semester, and she will continue to work on it through the spring. She anticipates enrolling in graduate school in the fall of 2008 to study international disease control and prevention.