The journey continues: Reflections on my first term at Oxford

After many months of preparation, my Oxford dream has finally become a reality. The Michaelmas term ended in a whirlwind of activity, exactly as it began. Several days ago, I hurriedly submitted a final summative essay for Core I: Foundations to the Examination Schools prior to returning home to America for a brief holiday respite before the Hilary term. While at home, I reflected upon experiences that significantly affected me during the term.

Dorkina at the Sheldonian Theatre
Dorkina takes a brief respite to tour the top of the Sheldonian Theatre. The Radcliffe Camera and Bodleian Libraries are visible in the distance.

I was profoundly moved by a visit to Bletchley Park, the site of The Imitation Game. The movie loosely recounted the story of Alan Turing, his “Turing Bombe,” and the team of code breakers who helped secure Allied victory during World War II (WWII) by intercepting and decoding secret enemy messages. Despite a few departures from the true story of events at Bletchley Park, valuable and timely recurrent themes emerged that reminded me of the “Five Key Skills of the MPP”:

  1. Be open to innovation and new challenges, and learn how to meet new challenges
  2. Pay close attention to evidence
  3. Be a sharp analyst
  4. Have outstanding communication skills
  5. Work well with peers

After practicing these principles during the first term, I noticed a significant improvement in my professional growth as a policymaker.

Be open to innovation and new challenges, and learn how to meet new challenges

“I know it’s not ordinary, but who ever loved ordinary?” Joan Clarke, The Imitation Game

The Bletchley Park team fought to be extraordinary by embracing innovation and overcoming numerous barriers, both cultural and logistical, to save lives during WWII. These barriers included – as described in Christopher Grey’s book Decoding Organization: Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies – a lack of resources necessary to successfully decode enemy messages. Likewise, I embraced challenges of returning to school after spending years in the workforce; successfully managing the MPP workload; working and interacting with younger classmates; and broadening my international perspective. What considerably ameliorated my transition was the ease of accessibility of resources, academic support, and personal support from the Blavatnik School of Government, my college, and BSG classmates. I was also reassured in knowing that we were ALL conquering new challenges together – most notably, the move to the new BSG building. While we waited to move to the new building, we were privileged and very fortunate to attend classes in several beautiful Oxford sites, including the Sheldonian Theatre, Examination Schools, Oxford Town Hall, and the T.S. Eliot Theatre at Merton College – just across from the breathtaking Botanic Garden. Experiencing the beauty of Oxford in an up-close, meaningful, and personal way made me truly feel part of this rich history and tradition. Yet, the opening of the new BSG building was also symbolic of the importance of breaking new ground and charting new territory. This meant not just thinking innovatively about my own policymaking goals in medicine, government, and the sciences, but of how to become a policymaking trailblazer with broad and meaningful impact for the people I will serve.

Pay close attention to evidence

“Are you paying attention? Good. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.” Alan Turing, The Imitation Game

Policymakers are frequently called upon to solve difficult problems confronted by governments. Early in the course, we were asked to evaluate the public health response to the Ebola crisis of 2014. As a team, we examined epidemiologic surveillance of previous Ebola outbreaks, the efficacy of infection and transmission control, and treatment. I relied upon my own career experience in medicine and as a scientist to work with a team of classmates to accomplish this task. We incorporated key tenets such as evaluating evidence, identifying authoritative information sources, evidence-based medicine and/or science, hypothesis-driven research, clinical and/or experimental trials with appropriate and adequate controls, and discerning and rejecting quackery and questionable research. Although we will cover these concepts more thoroughly in the Hilary term, all were important principles we considered in the Ebola public health response in the Health Policy Challenge in Michaelmas. The experience also taught me that simply gathering evidence is not enough. Effective policymakers must accurately interpret and communicate data and statistics in a culturally relevant and sensitive way. This is vitally important for transcending cultural barriers, educating, and building trust and alliances with community members to fight disease outbreaks. I found all of these to be important skills for policymakers.

Be sharp analysts

“I like solving problems, Commander, and Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.” Alan Turing, The Imitation Game

Using evidence from the previous Ebola outbreaks, we analyzed decision-making processes within the context of public health outbreaks. Specifically, we evaluated the utility of an International Health Systems fund for low and middle-income countries to help them respond to both chronic and urgent health situations. World-class health economists, health care researchers, and government officials including Winnie Yip, David Heymann, and Nachiket Mor, guided us through the finer aspects of policy making in health care delivery systems. We discussed what worked, what didn’t work, and how these healthcare systems could be bolstered with stronger policy initiatives. Even though I had previously worked on Ebola during my time as a health policy advisor on Capitol Hill, approaching the issue from an international team perspective considerably strengthened and broadened my analysis skills.

Have outstanding communication skills

Observing evidence and analyzing data have little impact on policymaking without strong communication skills. Alan Turing and his team were aware of the importance of outstanding communication skills when they posted an eloquent, yet effective letter to Sir Winston Churchill, respectfully requesting support for their work. The MPP offers many opportunities to refine policy communication skills through regular oral presentations, written exercises, and special events. One memorable assignment was a staged debate in which we all played the parts of journalists, policy advisors (on topics such as healthcare reform, school vouchers, student loans, and nutritional standards in public schools), or presidential candidates, Democratic or Republican. I used carefully crafted messaging as a policy advisor to help our “President” communicate convincing economic policy initiatives and objectives for healthcare reform.

Other avenues for polishing communications skills in the MPP included sessions with negotiation expert Deepak Malhotra, communications expert Simon Bucknall and journalist John McDermott. Dean’s Forums featuring dignitaries such as Queen Noor of Jordan and panel discussions with acclaimed journalists such as Bill Emmott offered wonderful opportunities in which I learned from world-renowned policymakers and leaders who have mastered the art of effective communication in their work to advance policy agendas both in their home countries and abroad.

Working well with peers

“You’re going to need all the help you can get, and they are not going to help you if they do not like you.” Joan Clarke, The Imitation Game

As Turing needed his colleagues’ support to break Enigma, productive working relationships with colleagues are an essential part of policymaking (and the MPP, too!). Getting to know my classmates both through class exercises (a group work policy challenge assignment in technology, the Health Policy Challenge, and small group work in both Foundations and Economics), class discussions, and informally through social events (e.g. ethnic lunches, pancake breakfasts, game nights, pub outings), formal dinners, and numerous other activities around Oxford is a highlight of the course. My classmates have taught me about issues that directly impact them both at home and abroad, such as unrest in Syria, elections in Myanmar, Islamophobia in France and around the world, migrants in the European Union, post-colonial justice, women and children’s rights and safety in India and Pakistan, and a host of other topics. The experience has significantly broadened my international perspective, allowed me to understand how diverse experiences shape policymaking on a global scale, and strengthened my policymaking skills repertoire in this area. Most importantly, I feel as if I am a better person for being a part of this experience.

Final thoughts

Overall, I am happy and blessed to be a part of the MPP at BSG. I have embraced my Oxford reality and integrated my life and work with that of the Oxford experience and tradition. I am reminded that while it is important to always remember my history and origins in medicine and the sciences, it is equally important to think of innovative ways to impact the future in meaningful ways in the same fields from a policy perspective and, like Turing, build a legacy. The Blavatnik School of Government’s openness to innovation and meeting new challenges, close attention to evidence, strong analysis, outstanding communication skills; and strong peer work all represent solid building blocks I will continue to use to create and implement policy in my future career.

Dorkina Myrick is currently studying for an MPP. She is a National Institutes of Health-trained physician-scientist and former Congressional staffer who works in health and biomedical research policy.

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