Anthropology, engineering students collaborate on global health issues in Uganda

Team photo of students and faculty involved in Uganda global health projectDisposal of medical waste is not the most glamorous issue in global health, yet the risk it poses to health workers, community members, and the environment is significant in resource-poor locations around the world. At rural health clinics in Uganda, for example, medical waste—from wrappers to used needles—is often thrown in a pile behind the building and set on fire every once in a while.

“Medical waste management is a complex process that intersects with other health problems. The complexity of the system poses challenges that are difficult for under-resourced health systems to manage fully and safely. No one approach will address the entire issue,” Andrew Rollins, professor of biomedical engineering and medicine, said.

Recently, 10 Case Western Reserve University anthropology and engineering students traveled to Uganda to work alongside 11 biomedical engineering students from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Together the teams of students are working on finding solutions to gaps in medical waste management as well as vaccine cold-chain preservation and designing a better pediatric pulse oximeter for low-resource environments.

The students are participating in a course, approximately three years in the making, titled “Interdisciplinary Solutions to Global Health Problems.” The course is a collaboration between Rollins and Janet McGrath, professor of anthropology.

The course builds upon the Uganda-Case Western Reserve University Research Collaboration, which began in 1988. The collaboration initially focused on HIV and tuberculosis research but now includes collaborators from across the university. The course is the first to bring medical anthropology and engineering students and faculty together to address global health problems.

Students in the course, which offers optional travel to Uganda, are addressing these three health issues in collaboration with Makerere University students and faculty. Rollins and McGrath said students from both disciplines work well together. Working with the students from Makerere University has allowed them to gain more valuable insight into health problems, as viewed by their peers in Uganda.

“They learned as much from the Ugandan students as they learned from the fieldwork,” Rollins said. “In fact, they probably learned more from the Ugandan students.”

And by collaborating across disciplines, the Case Western Reserve students learned from each other as well.

“Working with the engineers was truly a unique process,” said Danika Baskar, an anthropology student and a member of the Global Health Design Collaboration organization on campus, which works closely with the class. “We are normally used to communicating with students and faculty who are familiar with our own disciplines. Working with the engineers made me realize that we truly have a lot to learn from each other and that the more we interact, the better we are able to contribute to each others’ work.”

After working together in the classroom, the differences in approach became even more pronounced when the students traveled to field sites in Uganda. When shown the room where the vaccine cooler and the portable carriers are kept, students jumped into action—some whipping out tape measures and others asking the workers questions about how they use the equipment and challenges they encounter in doing their work.

After all, the anthropology students are used to conducting detailed research in social settings and investigating how individuals seek and receive care, while engineering students are used to evaluating and designing technical solutions to local needs.

“When we’re talking about complex issues in global health, the literature in global health is littered with examples of so-called solutions that have been proposed that haven’t succeeded, and they haven’t succeeded for complex reasons,” McGrath said. “As anthropologists, we aren’t trained to design and test technological solutions to the needs we see. For this reason, a collaboration between social scientists and engineers has a clear benefit to global health.”

Having only recently returned from the trip, the students are ready to get working on their ideas.

“They witnessed first-hand all of the unmet needs we’ve been telling them about theoretically,” Rollins said. “Right now, they’re bursting with ideas for solutions, and that is a step in the design process.”

Even with so many ideas ready to be put into action, it will likely take years before solutions to these global health problems are achieved in full—meaning the current class of students will just see a glimpse of the full project.

Each semester, a new group of students will continue working toward solutions. “Within an academic structure, you’re not necessarily going to end up with the right solution to medical waste management in a semester, but it’s bigger than that,” McGrath said.

Rollins and McGrath report they already have inquiries from students interested in participating next year. “We see it as a long-term effort,” said McGrath.