By Julie Engebretson
Baylor University prehealth students are gaining insight into the causes and treatment of diseases that affect 1.3 billion people in the world’s poorest countries –– thanks to an innovative summer learning experience at the National School of Tropical Medicine (NSTM) in Houston.
Conditions such as Hookworm Disease, Chagas Disease or the better-known West Nile, Ebola and Zika Viruses are known as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), and their victims include an estimated 12 million Americans. When it comes to developing vaccines against NTDs, “Big Pharma” (the world’s largest, multinational for-profit pharmaceutical companies) has so far shown only limited interest because of the modest profit potential.
These realities are of particular interest to many Baylor students from Arts & Sciences and other academic units looking to marry their healthcare career aspirations with a personal commitment to worldwide leadership and service.
A Desire to Serve
“Back in 2011, when I and a group of scientists from George Washington University founded the National School of Tropical Medicine (NSTM) at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), it was students from Baylor University in Waco who’d heard about us and started contacting us,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the NSTM. “[The Baylor students] emailed and called us, telling us about their Christian commitment to working overseas in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia, and they wanted an intellectual framework upon which to base what they were seeing and experiencing overseas.”
Deeply moved by the students’ energy and earnestness, Hotez and several colleagues at BCM, together with Dr. Richard Sanker, director of prehealth science studies at Baylor University, began building a program that would accommodate mission-oriented undergraduate students. Launched in 2013, the NSTM Summer Institute provides an intensive two-week primer for Baylor undergraduates on global health and the field of tropical medicine held on the BCM campus in Houston.
“We convey a massive amount of information during the two weeks and every day is pretty packed,” Hotez said. “It’s didactic lectures, it’s group discussions and — something that’s very unique — we’ve built a teaching laboratory for them, so they actually see firsthand what these organisms look like in the lab. They’re able to see these disease pathogens that are present in the world’s poorest countries.”
After Baylor undergraduates apply to attend the Institute, the Office of Prehealth Studies selects almost two dozen applicants each summer. Generous funding by the College of Arts & Sciences pays about half of the expenses for each student. If they need housing during their two-week stay, rooms are made available at Rice University near the BCM campus.
“Every year [the Summer Institute] is very popular — not only with Baylor students but with BCM faculty,” Hotez said. “Our faculty feel very energized by the Baylor students who are so committed to global problems. And [Baylor students] couldn’t be more delightful.”
Among other emphases, the two-week program shows students how tropical diseases fit into a greater framework of modern 21st century forces including climate change, the shifting nature of poverty, urbanization, human migration and transportation.
“We would spend the mornings in the classroom learning about specific tropical diseases, how they are detected, why they are prominent in certain areas, and why — even though there may be a cure—the diseases are still rampant,” DeLeon said. “A whole network of doctors and researchers was at our disposal to answer questions, or for one-on-one meetings. The afternoons were reserved for field trips and time in the lab, testing blood and stool samples for disease. We learned how to test for disease without fancy equipment. The instructors wanted us to understand the concept that when you go out in the field, you aren’t always going to have access to the best equipment. Sometimes the only things you may have to use are what you can take with you on a plane.”
After learning that one-seventh of the earth’s total population suffers from a host of diseases that fuel a generational cycle of poverty, students such as DeLeon often feel an overwhelming sense of injustice. They’re also challenged by the complex, multidisciplinary nature of global health.
“[Following the Summer Institute], Baylor students who were thinking they were going to be pre-med and focus purely on the sciences now recognize that there’s a whole other world out there that is influencing disease patterns,” Hotez said. “And they take an interest in different disciplines. For instance, when we’re talking about developing vaccines for different tropical diseases, the science is the easy part. The hard part is coming up with the right business model for how you’re going to produce these vaccines for the world.”
After DeLeon’s experiences at the Institute, she is inspired to pursue a career in tropical medicine.
“I never would have imagined myself becoming interested in tropical medicine before the Institute, but I would like to become a physician who specializes in tropical medicine,” she said. “I would then like to either work for the Centers for Disease Control, or help start clinics in rural areas and train physicians and healthcare providers to treat the diseases that afflict their community.”