Giving life to the problem - students spend semester break in Ghana

2/14/2012 12:11:00 PM

A team of 20 graduate students and faculty got quite a bit of sun this past semester break – but in quite the unconventional way.

As part of a trip organized through the Global Health Initiative (GHI) at the University of Illinois, the group--which included five students and a faculty member from the College of Engineering--took a two week trip to Ghana in January to tour and observe the country’s health care system.

Greg Damhorst, a PhD student in bioengineering, was one of the student leaders of the trip and a key organizer for the Global Health Initiative.

“The idea is that we could take students and faculty from different disciplines and bring them to a resource-limited setting to look at health care and then we would be able to have a dialogue during that experience,” Damhorst said.

Students observed workers in diagnostic lab.
Students observed workers in diagnostic lab.
The journey to Ghana originated when Damhorst and the Global Health Initiative received a $15,000 Focal Point Grant from the Graduate College after a proposal was submitted last spring. Damhorst and the GHI spent last semester recruiting students and additional funding for the trip.

Leading a group that consisted of engineers and a variety of disciplines that included chemistry, sociology and veterinary medicine, Damhorst recognized the importance of having the diversity in academic backgrounds and perspectives. 
“You take engineers there, and we’ll look at the technology around these resources and how the system works, but you’re not necessarily going to notice other aspects you’re not trained to see,” “Damhorst said. “We also need to see how culture and environment affect medicine and how health care is delivered.”

"The visit was a great opportunity for us to meet with technicians, researchers, and doctors confronting diseases that aren't commonly encountered in the U.S.," said Erich Lidstone, a bioengineering graduate student and trainee of the NSF-funded Cellular and Molecular Mechanics and Bionanotechnology (CMMB) IGERT. "Because of that--because the challenges are different and because the scale of the problem is vastly different--healthcare strategies such as those employed at home will not be effective unless they are modified to meet the needs of the people living in Central Region and throughout Ghana."

Hospital ward
Hospital ward
The group toured and observed Ghana’s tiered health care system, which included basic community clinics, local health centers and district health centers.

“We spent a day at each one, going through the different  departments and just observing and asking questions,” Damhorst said. “We got a sense of what are the different  factors in what we would consider a resource limited setting.”

"At the same time, we have an opportunity to learn from our collaborators about where it's possible to reduce waste and conserve resources," Lidstone added. "These are themes that will come to inform the U.S. approach to healthcare, increasing efficiency and sustainability."

Damhorst’s research for his PhD degree focuses on developing devices for HIV/AIDS diagnostics, and he got the chance see first-hand the potential impact of his work.

“No matter what level you are at with your research, this kind of trip makes you understand the context of what you’re researching and what you’re developing for,” Damhorst said.
As Damhorst researches how to best develop HIV/AIDS diagnostic devices here on campus, halfway around the world from the people who need it the most, the second-year student in the UIUC Medical Scholars Program got to see first-hand what kind of characteristics the devices must have in order to best fit the needs of countries like Ghana.

“It’s going to have to be pretty inexpensive or these clinics can’t afford it,” Damhorst said. “It’s going to have to be battery powered because these clinics lose power every other day. The reusable components are going to have to be extremely cheap because the things that we go through hundreds of on campus every day, they are reusing day after day at the clinics there.”

Damhorst said all the students, not just engineers, were able to take away helpful observations that pertained to their specific studies and research.
“That was the situation we were trying to create,” Damhorst said. “What it really did was reinforce and give life to the first paragraph in the research paper that says this many people are affected by AIDS. It put a setting to it, and it put faces to it.”
“It adds depth to the work I am doing,” Damhorst added. “Going there, it didn’t give me a new idea for me to try to attack HIV. But understanding the application and significance is a piece of it.”

Writer: Jay Lee, Engineering Communications Office.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.