Solutions that Heal the World

South Africa suffers a runaway AIDS epidemic. Ugandan women die of breast cancer at alarming rates. Now, first year students address these and other health-related issues through team projects in Heal the World, one of WPI's Great Problems Seminars.

Launched in 2007, the Great Problems Seminars prepare first year students for the university’s project-driven curriculum and serve as an introduction to university-level research. Students take problem solving out of the textbook and into the real world by focusing on themes of global importance, including societal problems and human needs. Supported by a grant from Eric Hahn ’80 and the Hahn Family Trust, GPS is the result of a university initiative to enhance the first year experience, enabling students to begin working on solutions to real-world issues and problems from their very first day on campus.

Heal the World (HTW), which has been offered since 2008, is co-taught by Jill Rulfs, associate professor and associate department head of biology and biotechnology, and Helen Vassallo, professor of management. Together, they seamlessly combine biology, business management, and good research practices while inviting students, in teams of four or five, to explore any health topic they choose for their project. "There are a range of projects—they’re not cookie cutter," Rulfs says. The goal, she adds, is to identify not only an issue, but a feasible approach, too. "It's not only 'What's the problem?' but ‘What’s the action plan?'"

Jill Rulfs talks with students from Power the World, one of the Great Problems Seminars, during GPS project presentation day. Rulfs co-teaches Heal the World.

AIDS Prevention in the Aftermath of Denial

In one such project from this year, students addressed HIV/ AIDS prevention in South Africa, where the government had denied, until 2006, that the HIV virus causes AIDS. A tragic example of the cost of mismanaging a biological threat, this colossal error has resulted in some of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world (approximately 5.4 million of its 47 million citizens).

A group of WPI students, including Xavier Miller '13, was drawn to this staggering problem. "I chose HTW because there are so many preventable health problems, and even though we were just freshmen, we could help solve them," says Miller, a chemical engineering major.

Since it would not be financially feasible to produce and distribute enough medicine for all of the AIDS victims in South Africa, the students chose instead to educate noninfected individuals so they can avoid exposure to HIV. The students’ educational campaign would target middle school children, ages 13 to 15, because their research showed that the percentage of HIV infection jumps among individuals ages 17 to 23 years. "We wanted to reach the kids before they were likely to be exposed to HIV," explains Miller.

The team focused on Cape Town for their project. The metropolitan area has school systems, public Internet access, and a WPI project center, which opens the possibility of a follow-up IQP in a couple years. The team would teach children the facts about the number of people with HIV/AIDS in their community, debunk myths (e.g., casual contact can spread HIV), and spread the word about how to avoid exposure to the disease. South African AIDS patients would speak at middle schools about their experiences with the disease. A website the team designed would disseminate educational information and allow online scheduling of speakers.

Bringing Mammograms to Ugandans

Another of the projects also addressed a major problem: breast cancer deaths in Uganda. Autumn Silke '13 worked on the student team that confronted this issue. "I wanted to take HTW," says Silke, "because it would help me develop my group discussion and presentation skills, and give me the chance to learn about important issues." A biology and biotechnology major, Silke also picked up key project management skills. "The seminar broadened my abilities to assess team members' strengths, so we could each decide which aspects of the project we'd focus on and research."

The students chose the Uganda project because of the profound differences they found in breast cancer survival rates there, compared to the United States. In Uganda only 45 percent of breast cancer patients survive beyond five years, versus 81 percent in this country. Seeking reasons for that stark discrepancy led the students to discover that fully 95 percent of Ugandan women with breast cancer have reached stage 4 at their first diagnosis. In the United States, that statistic is just 15 percent. At the heart of the problem lies a startling lack of resources. Uganda, with its population of 31 million, has only one oncologist and two mammography units, versus the 10,400 oncologists and nearly 13,000 mammography machines in the United States.

The students were determined to find a way to boost the survival odds for Ugandan women who develop breast cancer. Since many of the nation’s citizens live in remote rural areas, the team’s strategy centered on a mammography van that could bring this lifesaving technology to women. As they continued to research their idea’s feasibility, the students discovered that Yale University has launched such a project in Uganda—proof positive that their idea would work. Better yet, the van could serve triple duty: transport women needing treatment back to the clinic (at no charge), and carry educational brochures about self-exams. Fundraising could build a fleet of vans.

Rulfs and Vassallo, looking back on their first two years teaching the HTW seminar, say they find their work especially rewarding, particularly when they see students become inspired by their projects. "It's wonderful for these kids to find that passion," Vassallo says.

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Last modified: July 13, 2010 13:59:02