Over the summer, COEH students travelled from the slums of Nairobi to the Yi communities of Chengdu conducting hands-on field research. While navigating foreign territory, the students collaborated with international study teams, built relationships with locals and practiced scientific methods essential to their discipline. Universally, they returned home with a deeper understanding of public health issues at a global level.
With funding from the Global Public Health’s Summer Fellowship Program, Jennifer Wang travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, home to some of the largest slums in East Africa. Her research is centered in Mathare, a collection of slum villages housing up to 500,000 residents located five kilometers from Nairobi’s city center.
With guidance from her academic advisor, Jason Corburn, an associate professor of Community Health and Human Development and City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, Wang collected quantitative and qualitative data on food security and health in the Mathare settlement as part of a community-based slum planning and upgrading process led by Corburn and local partners. Her goal is to characterize the experience of food insecurity and the potential impacts of climate change on this highly vulnerable population.
“The reality of food insecurity and the deplorable living environment in Nairobi’s slums were a shock to me, as were the resourcefulness and resilience of the slum communities in the face of so many ongoing and acute hardships,” says Wang.
Collaborators on the project include the University of Nairobi and Muungano Support Trust, a local non-governmental organization. Wang also received funding from the UC Berkeley Chapter of Sigma Xi’s Grants-in-Aid-for-Research.
MPH student Mai Fung took an important step toward her goal of helping China and other countries eliminate schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease that infects about 207 million in the developing world. Contracted through water containing schistosome cercaria, the disease can lead to stunted mental and physical development in children and damage to the bladder, kidneys and liver if left untreated.
Fung spent her summer in Chengdu collaborating with researchers at the Sichuan Institute for Parasitic Diseases. Earlier, she had designed a protocol for S. japonicum fecal PCR (polymerase chain reaction) diagnosis. With funding from the Center for Global Public Health’s Summer Fellowship Program, she field tested the protocol in Chengdu and assessed the feasibility of low-cost molecular diagnostics like PCR for schistosomiasis screening.
“What I valued most about my experience was that I was able to collaborate with researchers from another country and gain a better understanding of a disease that is not endemic in the United States,” says Fung.
“It was personally rewarding because my family is originally from Chengdu, but I had never been to China,” adds Fung. “I was able to explore my roots and integrate myself into the culture in a way that would never have been possible with a quick visit.”
Qianyi Li’s research examines the spread of schistosomiasis from a different lens. An MS student in Global Health and Environment, Li travelled to China’s Sichuan Province to explore the social and cultural factors that modify the transmission of the disease in Yi communities. Her research was supported by her academic supervisor, professor emeritus and previous COEH Director Robert Spear from Environmental Health Sciences, and alumni Song Liang, assistant professor of EHS at Ohio State University.
Despite inroads to eradicate schistosomiasis in China, studies in Puge and Zhaojue counties have found that human infections and re-infections in Yi communities to be much higher than others in the same region. Investigating the root causes of the disparity, Li designed questionnaires based on previous findings and information she collected using in-person interviews and focus groups. She then hired and trained six local college students to conduct the survey over the summer months.
“My experience has enhanced my interest in the social factors that influence people's well-being,” says Li. She says her trip to China drove home the importance of social context to global health professionals. Li’s research skills were also put to the test. “Be willing to make adjustments in the field,” Li advises. “And check your results as soon as you get them ― even when you are still at the study site ― to make sure you get data of quality.”
In July, Jenna Hua went to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, to conduct field work investigating the influence of the environment on childhood obesity and metabolic risk. She developed a tool beforehand to assess China’s changing food environment in collaboration with Edmund Seto from the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and May Wang from Community Health Sciences at UCLA. The trip allowed her to field-test the instrument with the help of four public health students from Kunming Medical University.
“Given the rapid development of obesity rates in China, it is a natural laboratory for studying how development and the built environment influence health,” says Hua, who was funded by a grant from the California Center for Population Research at UCLA.
In Kunming, she became acquainted with government and public agencies and developed data contacts. Her experience also taught her the logistics of collecting quality and timely field data. “I learned what instruments are essential and in what setting, and how to approach study subjects,” says Hua. “These lessons will go into the protocols I will be developing for the next round of data collection.”
In August 2011, PhD candidate Charlotte Smith travelled to La Molina, Peru, to present her research findings at an international conference on water resources and the environment held at Universidad Nacional Agraria. Each year, thousands of children die of diarrheal related disease after consuming E. coli-contaminated water. “There are six pathotypes of diarrheagenic E. coli. Except for the Enterohemmorhagic E. coli 0157:H7, very little is known about the microbial ecology of the diarrheagenic E. coli serotypes,” explains Smith.
Her study, using Confocal Scanning Laser Microscopy in combination with viability assays, showed that survival within the protozoa Tetrahymena is not unique to enterohemorrhagic E. coli, but that all E. coli strains can survive digestion by protozoa that are common in aquatic environments. “The conference enhanced my understanding of water supply and treatment issues on a global level,” notes Smith.
David Holstius went to Haiti to deploy a new mobile phone application he developed to monitor the safety of drinking water in a country overwhelmed by a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010.
Led by NGO Deep Springs International, the program distributes a sodium hypochlorite water disinfectant in communities reliant on contaminated well water in an effort to combat cholera and other diseases. Following the quake, Haiti experienced a massive cholera outbreak with 473,649 cases as of October 2011.
Holstius, a PhD candidate, spent time in Léogâne, Haiti, near the epicenter of the quake, before flying to Cap-Haïtien along the country’s north coast. He conducted focus groups with technicians using the phone application and gathered intelligence for the next round of software development.
“Conditions in Haiti are a powerful motivator for anyone working in global health,” says Holstius. “I witnessed incredible work by Haitians and NGOs collaborating to stem the cholera epidemic, ensure access to safe water and eradicate diseases of poverty throughout the country. There's nothing I can say that can adequately describe the necessity of these efforts.”
Find this article and others online at http://coeh.berkeley.edu/bridges