group picture of students from CWRU and  Makerere University

CWRU students and faculty with Makerere University engineering students and faculty. Photo by W. Reichart.

During spring break, Case Western Reserve University students and faculty traveled to Uganda to work with Ugandan colleagues in the social sciences and engineering on two global health projects. The project is part of an initiative linking Case Western Reserve students with biomedical engineering students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Led by Andrew Rollins, professor of biomedical engineering, and Janet McGrath, professor of anthropology, the initiative, an offshoot of the Uganda-Case Western Reserve University Research Collaboration that began in 1988, brings medical anthropology and engineering students and faculty together to address global health problems.

Rollins and McGrath are developing a cross-school course called “Interdisciplinary Solutions to Global Health Problems” that will prepare students interested in global health work to better understand the process of design and implementation of global health technologies and programs. This course will be offered initially in Spring 2016 and students will have the option to travel to Uganda during spring break.

This spring break trip helped lay the foundation for the new course. The curriculum initiative is supported by a Faculty Seed Grant from the Center for International Affairs. Expenses for the pilot spring break trip were awarded from the Case School of Engineering Joel Schwartz (CIT ’64; GRS ’66, electrical engineering and applied physics) Dean’s Initiative Fund, which allowed both Case Western Reserve and Ugandan students to travel to various sites in Uganda.

The student teams in Cleveland and Kampala are now working on two projects in response to expressed needs in Uganda. One project is to design a vaccine carrier or storage cooler to preserve the cold chain for vaccines during community outreach. This project is the offshoot of an earlier project in Malawi. The second project seeks to improve the process of medical waste disposal at health centers, where hazardous medical waste may be thrown into an open pit without proper disposal.

Student members of the Case Western Reserve chapter of Engineering World Health (EWH) are working on the two projects. Four team members from the university traveled to Uganda: juniors Barry Goldberg (biomedical engineering), Dean Pontius (computer engineering), Sydney Stark (Anthropology) and sophomore Daniel Varghai (biomedical engineering). In Kampala, six Ugandan biomedical engineering students representing the Ugandan teams visited the field site in Luwero District: Collins Ainomujuni, Catherine Namayega, Martha Seba Tusabe, Florence Kiiza, Mariam Nanfuma and Wilson Wasswa.

The teams visited Luwero district to assess the context of vaccine delivery and waste management. The area was hard hit during the years of war and unrest in Uganda in the 1970s and early 1980s and then experienced the devastation of HIV/AIDS in the following years. The teams visited several types of health centers and traveled to a rural outpost where a vaccine outreach worker delivered health education and vaccines to women with young children.

Visiting the health centers allowed the students to observe how vaccines are stored and delivered in this remote setting, which often means no electricity to run refrigerators needed to maintain the vaccine cold chain. Goldberg, a member of the vaccine project team, noted, “Clinics without access to the electrical grid were all supplied with a gas-powered cooler for their vaccines. However, they almost never had gas to run the cooler, so the cooler would sit unused in the corner while the vaccines were stored at the nearest clinic with power.”

Varghai, who worked on the medical waste team, said, “The most striking aspects of our research in Luwero was the enormity of variation between health centers in terms of resources and practices. The differences we noticed were manifest in the ways in which these individual health centers solved their unique problems and dealt with their shortages. … Luwero was a place of dire improvisation. People made due with what they had, and what they had was often frighteningly little.”

Rollins and McGrath are working closely with biomedical engineering instructors at Makerere: Henry Kuwumulo, Robert Ssekitoleko and William Reichert (from Duke University, who is spending a sabbatical year at Makerere). The Uganda team also includes CWRU alumnus David Kaawa-Mafigiri from the School of Social Sciences at Makerere University. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at CWRU.

“International opportunities such as this one are critical for the future success of our students,” Rollins added. “As the Case School of Engineering continues to forge partnerships with outstanding academic and industrial institutions across the globe, our alumni network is instrumental in our plans. Giving access to our students to global programs like this one gives them an edge as they move into leadership positions in the careers. For this reason, we especially want to thank Case alum Joel Schwartz for his generous support of global programs.”