Tuba Agartan

Alda Alumni: Tuba Agartan 

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Tuba is an associate professor of health policy and management at Providence College and a recent Takemi Fellow at the T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health. After growing up in Turkey, she moved to Binghamton to pursue her PhD, and now lives in Providence with her husband and their two daughters. In October, she attended the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Solvathon in Berlin, where she participated in her first Alda Center training.

What inspired your interest in health policy?

How do we promote and encourage human wellbeing? This was the fundamental question that led me to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology. Turkey carried out a major health care reform back in 2003 and it seemed like a good case study to explore in my dissertation. At the time, there were very few studies which examined the reforms in Turkey from a historical institutionalist perspective.

What impact do you hope your research will have?

In the policy field, we often discuss the “evidence-policy gap,” which highlights the limits of our impact on policy making. Yes, there are barriers between scientific research and its use by policymakers, but I hope my work helps unpack the political dynamics of policymaking and demonstrates the important implications of reforms for access and quality and for human resources. Second, given the rise of populist rhetoric in many countries, I’d like to highlight the need for creation of governance mechanisms that encourage participation of civil society groups and fundamentally challenge the authoritarian and populist tendencies of some governments.

How do communication and storytelling fit into your work?
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Policy process is a lot more complex than national governments passing laws and rolling out programs. We need to understand the dynamic nature of the process and work with policy actors to develop solutions that all parties support. Can we effectively collaborate with local practitioners and community groups in identifying specific issues and developing recommendations and methods of measuring success? To do this, we need to embrace mutual learning and shy away from asserting authority based on our training. Stories are an effective way to learn from individual experiences, draw broad principles or lessons, and share them with others.

The Alda Center is holding a series of online workshops called Making Your Case to Congress. What advice would you give to STEM professionals communicating to government officials?

Rather than complaining about how policymakers don’t understand scientific evidence or base their decisions on other factors, STEM professionals could reflect on the complexity of the policy process and their role in designing, implementing, and evaluating specific policies. Focusing on the hierarchy of evidence does not leave much room for different types of knowledge or the importance of local experience. Not enough attention is paid to mutual learning and developing solutions with the practitioners and community members who experience the problems firsthand and implement the solutions in their own contexts.

What was your experience with the Alda Center training in Berlin like?

The training was amazing. Our instructors were able to gain our trust very quickly and got us to engage deeply in the activities. Looking back at the week-long experience, I’m amazed how different exercises and assignments added up and prepared us for the group project at the end of the training.

What was your favorite part of the workshop?
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My favorite part was the group project. I learned so much about myself and how I can work with others more effectively. My group was able to identify each other’s strengths, assign tasks accordingly, and work through our disagreements. When we got on stage to present, we felt connected as a group and committed to our project. I’m still in touch with some team members and would love to see and work with them again! I don’t think our team was special either; the other teams also worked effectively and developed excellent presentations. I think it was the training! 

How have you translated what you learned into your work?

One lesson I remember very clearly is “listening”. As researchers, we are so used to focusing on what we know and often do not listen carefully. In the classroom and at conferences, I pay more attention to my posture, my tone of voice, and, most importantly, to listening. In my classes, I incorporate stories about people who had troubles with medical bills, drug prices, or stigma, and often remind myself to be present. As a teacher, I believe in group projects, but after this training I think I need to provide more guidance so that my students can experience what I experienced in Berlin.

*Photos courtesy of Justin James Muir*

Read more Alda Alumni profiles here.