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How Regular Hiking Trips Are Shaping My Ph.D. Experience

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I grew up in India, a country bordered by the mighty Himalayas on its northern border. As a child, I went to the mountains during vacations, with my family. I looked at the snow-capped mountains from a distance, with deep admiration, fear, and humility. Climbing mountains sounded scary and dangerous to me.

In 2015, my graduate studies took me to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the US. It wasn’t an easy move. Uprooting yourself from your home country, family and friends for an unknown soil, culture and people is not easy. However, I started forging new connections and began trying new things.

Around then, I met a fellow student in my program who went on to become my biggest partner in crime (read hikes). It was one unique friendship, and it survived despite his slow southern drawl and my terribly fast-paced Indian accent, but more about that later.

Soon after my move, it was time for nature’s transition as well, as fall season was around the corner. My friend invited me for a hike to the Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia. I grew up with the music of John Denver, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity of seeing the ‘Blue ridge mountains, Shenandoah river’ from his song, ‘Country Roads’.  The scenic skyline mesmerised me. I was still scared and uncomfortable with some parts of the trails, but I was glad that I was trying to get out of my comfort zone.

Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park, VA

Once I came back, I started taking more interest in parks around me, in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was surprised to learn that North Carolina has 41 State Parks and recreational areas. As I started hitting the parks and began to hike along the trails, the natural diversity and the unique conservation efforts in the face of challenges that impact the environment, fascinated me.

This was an eye-opener for me and broadened my horizon as a member of the society and as a scientist. Having studied hard sciences my whole life, I finally had an opportunity to see science at the intersection of society and the environment. I was learning on the trail. My teachers were my fellow hikers, park rangers, and of course, nature!

Going out in grad-school is easier said than done. I work in a lab where my research involves cells and animals. That means I can’t take a whole weekend off most of the time. Further, Ph.D. is not a nine-to-five job. To balance between my work and my hikes, I had to be much better at time management. I had little time to rest as I was often spending one of the days during the weekend driving for five to six hours and hiking. This was also physically demanding. However, the mental peace I got by going out in the wild, compensated for all of the efforts I had to put.

As I went on to more hikes, I found similarities in hiking and pursuing a Ph.D. In both cases, you know that you have a long hike ahead, and you have to pace yourself, working steadily, while staying focused on the goal.

Often, in research, you do not get immediate results. You fail again and again, and more than often, there aren’t any short-term wins to push you forward. I remember I once took the Looking Glass Rock trail with my friend, and I was a bit frustrated, as it wasn’t particularly a pretty hike and I was almost on the verge of questioning my friend’s choice. As I reached the summit, I was greeted with one of the most magnificent views of the Appalachians.

I realised something that day. Sometimes the vista you see once you complete the trail makes it worth working for it. The same satisfaction drives our daily grind in academia. Well, nature can teach you a lesson or two!

Looking Glass Rock Summit, Pisgah National Forest near Asheville, NC

In the last couple of years, I have seen a lot. As I hiked from the coast, through the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Sandhills to the mountains of North Carolina, I had hit 32 out of its 41 state parks (at the time of writing) and more outside the park system.

I have experienced the gorgeous fall in North Carolina and I followed it from the mountains to the Carolina Bay.  I have seen some of the extraordinary swamps in eastern North Carolina. To be honest, I was unimpressed with swamps, and I would deeply regret if I didn’t give them a try. In the end, I was enchanted by the mystic swamps and the rich ecology they have to offer. Hiking humbled me by teaching me the power of keeping an open mind.

Goose Creek State Park, NC
Singletary Lake State Park, Carolina Bay, NC

What makes me want to go out? My friends ask me why do I keep accommodating hikes on my schedule on a regular basis? Am I trying to escape reality and social interactions by sticking to nature? No, I’m not. I am a social person to the core of my heart, who likes basic social activities as much as my other friends enjoy.

But hiking gives me a peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment as I set myself a goal and work towards it. I get to meet kind and compassionate people who help me become a better person. As I hike, I learn more and more about the history and ecology of the place, and it provides me a sense of belonging. As John Muir said, going out, is really going in.

Longleaf Pines in Carvers Creek State Park, NC 

As I look back at the last two years, I can definitely see how hiking helped me survive in gradschool. The trails motivated and energised me, and gave me something to look forward to, as I went on to do my daily grind. It reminded me that the most amazing outcomes come after the most strenuous hikes. The journey so far has been wonderful, naturally!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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