(My in the Old Walled City in Lahore, Pakistan. Credit: Blair Read)

In June, My Seppo joined GOV/LAB. By July, she was in Pakistan.

My (pronounced “mew”) joined GOV/LAB after working for the MIT Political Science Department for two years where she supported multiple professors, including GOV/LAB Faculty Director Lily Tsai. When the opportunity arose to work on a GOV/LAB project from start to finish piloting a new project in Pakistan, My jumped on the chance.

Research in Pakistan

Pale, blonde, Finnish people are rare in Pakistan, as are Muay Thai fighters and people who wear pink winter jackets with frilly shoulder pads and snarky political patches. My, being all those things, would naturally stick out on the streets of Lahore, but fortunately, this wouldn’t be her first time navigating an unfamiliar environment. Growing up in Finland and New York City and spending time in Burma and Sierra Leone helps with that. As does having a mother who works in international development and brings you along on her work trips.

On one such trip to Tajikistan, My had her first clash with differing societal expectations. While My’s mother and a Tajik colleague were hard at work, their children were left to entertain themselves. While My wanted to join her brother and the colleague’s son, wrestling and playing tag, the colleague’s daughter thought it best for them to start cleaning the house instead. My begun to realize that Tajikistan wasn’t going to be like New York City.

My with Iqra and Muqaddas, two local research assistants in Lahore, Pakistan.

Neither would Pakistan.

In a country with security concerns and traditional gender norms, My had to adapt. Sleeves got longer and tattoos covered, but My found she couldn’t quite move the way she was used to. She relied on local partners for guidance and avoided traveling alone, but My’s unfamiliarity with the environment concerned her the most.

“The way I assess my safety — if I know the context — is to have a baseline of what to expect. Then, any unexpected changes or deviations from that baseline could be a threat. For example, if someone walks into a restaurant with a trench coat, I know to be alarmed. But you have to know the context well enough to establish a baseline. In Pakistan, I didn’t have that.”

Instead of relying on potentially inaccurate stereotypes or hiding in your room all day, My highlights the importance of preparing before take-off and seeking local knowledge when traveling. With the right preparation**, she did not allow security concerns to mar an enriching and productive learning experience.

Comparative Studies

Comparing experiences across contexts is important to My’s approach to research. After living in four continents, My is no stranger to new cultures and political systems. Engaging with others in many different contexts has enabled her to identify themes and problems that transcend cultures and geographies. For example, the governments in Finland, the U.S., and Myanmar all struggle with competing narratives of whom the countries belong to, challenging claims to citizenship, competition over resource allocation, and tensions over rights of minority groups.

My’s passion for comparative studies is reflected in GOV/LAB’s work: the Mystery Shopper projects in Tanzania and Kenya (and now, Pakistan) being a prime example where we ask a fundamental question, “Do citizens have access to useful information?” The aim is to look at how different political systems, norms, and laws affect citizens’ access to information, and inform our understanding of the effects of laws promoting transparency and access to information. My’s experience with the Tanzania project — data cleaning and analysis and familiarizing herself with the purpose of the research — informed her research process in Pakistan.

Learning from Graduate Students

In addition to drawing on her personal experiences, My hopes to learn from the experiences of the graduate students at GOV/LAB. As an aspiring graduate student, My takes inspiration from the the doctoral students in the lab.

“It is truly a sacrifice and a dedication to do a PhD, and to be able to work with them and understand how passionate they are about something is pretty awesome and incredibly inspiring. Given the workplace culture that people are suddenly realizing ‘might not treat women well,’ it’s really nice to have a female boss.”

After collaborating with My on previous projects and seeing her dedication first-hand, we knew she’d fit right in; GOV/LAB is glad to have her as part of our research team.

** A special thank you to Todd Holmes, MIT’s Program Manager for International Safety and Security, for his support preparing for this and many other GOV/LAB trips into the field.