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Three-time Scholarship recipient using research to make a difference in the Maldives

Posted: 7 March 2024

Maldives, Alumni, Impact,

Studying in Australia had always been a childhood dream for Dr Raheema Abdul Raheem, and that dream came true not just once but three times.

Hearing about the positive experiences of friends who pursued their education in Australia motivated Raheema to apply for an Australian Development Cooperation Scholarship in 1994 to undertake a Bachelor of Health Sciences at Flinders University. After receiving this Scholarship, Raheema travelled to South Australia in 1995 to commence her studies.

Given that the Maldives was not as developed in the early 1990s, Raheema was in awe of the environment and infrastructure in Australia. She was mesmerised by the ATMs, vending machines and the diversity of food available at supermarkets.

Following her return to the Maldives, Raheema joined the Maldives National University, then known as the Maldives College of Higher Education (MCHE), as a Tutor / Assistant Lecturer. After working there for two years, Raheema received an Australian Development Scholarship to pursue a Master of Public Health at Curtin University in 2002. During her master’s program, Raheema published a thesis on ‘The Infant Feeding Practices of Mothers in the Maldives’.

After completing her master’s degree and returning home in 2005, Raheema rejoined MCHE and in 2008 she was appointed as the Head of the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at MCHE. Her responsibilities included the development of new programs and the day-to-day management of the department. It was at this juncture that Raheema explored the option of pursuing a PhD. She applied for and received an Australia Leadership Award to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health at Curtin University. Her doctoral research focused on ‘A Cohort Study of Postnatal Depression, Infant Feeding Patterns, and Infant Growth in Malé, the Maldives’.

After spending a total of 12 years in education in Australia, Raheema fondly recalls her time in the country, during which she not only gained academic knowledge and acquired a wealth of skills in life sciences, public health and research, but also developed personally and learnt to be more tolerant and accommodating of others.

Raheema delivering a speech at the Maldives National University (MNU). Photo credits: MNU

Following the completion of her PhD, Raheema joined the Institute for Research and Innovation at Villa College, where she worked as an Associate Dean (Research) / Research Associate from 2014 to 2015 and as the Director of Research from 2015 to 2016. During her tenure, Raheema led all research projects, including ERASMUS, and enhanced the research culture through workshops, research groups and conferences. She developed research and data collection tools, analysed data, wrote up reports, coordinated postgraduate supervision, and sought research funding, collaborating with all the faculties.

Reflecting on her Australia Awards experiences, Raheema says, “Australia Awards has played a crucial role in helping me gain valuable knowledge and establish vital connections, including with United Nations agencies. These interactions have contributed significantly to the development of the Maldives, particularly in conducting research. The program not only improved my skills but also granted me access to a network of professionals and resources, empowering me to make meaningful contributions to the progress of my home country.”

Raheema is a prolific researcher, having published over 20 journal articles and more than 15 conference publications. Leveraging the networks and linkages she formed during her time in Australia, she has co-authored journal articles and collaborated in organising conferences. Joint publications from her networks, such as the Asia-Pacific Academic Consortium for Public Health Nutrition Group, include ‘Infant Feeding Guidelines for the Asia Pacific Region’ and ‘Guidelines for Complementary Feeding of Infants in the Asia Pacific Region’.

Demonstrating how linkages from Raheema’s time in Australia have endured, Professor Colin Binns from the School of Public Health, Curtin University, also visited the Maldives as a keynote speaker for the 2019 Theveli conference, the largest conference in the Maldives, which was organised under Raheema’s supervision. Professor Binns conducted several capacity-building workshops, including research publication and postgraduate student supervision in the Maldives.

Raheema (centre) with a group of Australia Awards alumni at MNU.

Currently, Raheema serves as the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) at the Maldives National University, having previously served as the university’s Dean of Research from September 2016 to December 2023. In that role, she oversaw and led research and development activities. During this period, she held the position of Vice-Chair of the University Ethics Committee, acted as the Chief Editor of the Maldives National Journal of Research, and actively participated in various committees, including the Steering Committee of Zero Leprosy, Maldives Technical Advisory Group for Immunisation, Academic Senate and the Maldives National University Finance Committee.

In her previous capacity, Raheema also taught courses such as Foundations of Public Health, Research Methods, Biostatistics, Public Health Nutrition, Health Promotion, and the prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Raheema participated in the Australia Awards – South and West Asia Regional Alumni Workshop in 2015 and played a key role in launching the Maldivian chapter of the Australia Awards Women in Leadership Network in May 2018.

Speaking of her future plans, Raheema says, “My goal is to instil and promote a research culture in the Maldives, emphasising the importance of conducting cutting-edge research. This will help generate valuable insights, serving as a foundation for evidence-based decision-making on a national scale. By fostering a culture of research, we can contribute substantively to informed policy decisions and overall progress of the university and the country.”

Despite having her eye firmly on the future, Raheema has not lost sight of her childhood dream and the many benefits its fulfilment has brought her.

“As a three-time recipient of an Australia Awards Scholarship, I can never thank Australia and Australia Awards enough.” she says. “The skills, knowledge and linkages I gained through my Scholarships have supported me in making a difference in the Maldives, and I believe there is still much more that can be done using the Australian networks.”