A group of graduate students at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health have gone beyond their scholarly obligations to help improve the world.
Starting in 2018, members of the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center, a graduate program at the school, learned of a pressing need in Sierra Leone, its citizens were exposed to a startling volume of environmental toxins.
Polluted air and water from everyday practices like cooking, vehicle emissions and mining were causing significant public health issues.
Additionally, pollution exposure stemmed from unregulated hazardous waste dumps that are burned to create space for agriculture, resulting in uptake of a myriad of toxic compounds into food sources.
Upon learning of this, Rachel Wilson, a student of the center, and a few of her fellow students took it upon themselves to do something.
They created a curriculum to teach college students in Sierra Leone general toxicology principles, while establishing awareness to relevant human health and environmental concerns and basic environmental monitoring skills.
“It is really remarkable to hear how excited people are to learn about toxicology,” Wilson said. “It is certainly a humbling experience, knowing that we have the expertise and the means to develop a course that can really change people’s lives.”
After first learning about the problem from Alhaji Njai, a postdoctoral graduate of the center, and a fellow in the school of veterinary medicine at UW, during a student seminar, Wilson saw an opportunity to utilize the skills she gained from a 2017 year-long teaching fellowship through the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement at UW to develop the curriculum.
After a round of email recruitment, Wilson and her fellow students began meeting outside of the classroom to brainstorm. Nine students ended up participating, which is about 25 percent of the entire center’s program.
“At this point, we were not really sure what exactly the project would entail, other than asking each volunteer to develop or be involved in the development of this course,” she said.
With the group established, they began meeting with Njai and Chris Bradfield, Wilson’s advisor, to identify themes for the curriculum. As a fortunate circumstance, each of the students who volunteered had taken classes that helped each of them address a certain theme of the curriculum.
The curriculum is focused squarely on making the education locally relevant by utilizing case studies and examples, according to a paper the students published on the curriculum. It also includes lectures accompanied by active learning activities such as local and global case studies, worksheets, primary literature articles and field trips that are outlined in detailed instructions to a local facilitator.
The curriculum’s development took about eight months, and the first teachable units were submitted to Njai in October 2018.
Hard work pays off
With the curriculum developed, it was time to implement the work they had done.
The students worked with Njai, though his Madison-based non-profit Project 1808, which addresses the quality of education as a tool for sustainable community development in Sierra Leone following 20 years of war and conflict in the west African country, according to its website.
The project’s formation came out of the personal efforts of Njai, who is a survivor of Sierra Leone’ war, to support family and friends back home while he was pursuing post-doctoral research at UW.
The course has made an impact on those who have taken the course, according to Alhaji Njai , associate professor of biological sciences and microbiology at the University of Sierra Leone, who teaches the course in Sierra Leone.
“The toxicology course has sparked a strong interest among undergraduate and graduate students to the point that the university is now to looking to formalize it in the curriculum of the Pure and Applied Science Faculty and the Medical School at University of Sierra Leone,” he said.
In its first year, the toxicology course drew 50 students from the University of Sierra Leone, 30 students of newly formed Koinadugu College, and 40 professionals from industry, government and civil society, indicating there is community-wide interest and recognition that this subject warrants attention, according the summary paper.
Though Njai is teaching the first round of materials in Sierra Leone, the curriculum program continues to develop, Wilson said.
The toxicology center students are planning to add more modules to the curriculum, so a larger series of materials can be taught in various contexts, like introductory classes and more advanced classes as part of a certificate program to members of the EPA equivalent in Sierra Leone.
In addition to Wilson, fellow students, Morgan Walcheck and Fola Arowolo, were critical to the effort’s success. The three of them are currently planning a week long certificate course that will be taught in Sierra Leone to students, government officials and industry leaders.
They are also in the process of developing an assessment that can be used to measure the extent of student learning and help guide the UW students on how to improve the course, Wilson said.
A team effort in more ways than one
The success of these students shows the environment that allowed Wilson and her colleagues to flourish is systemic, according to Chad Vezina, Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center director.
“I am proud that our graduate program, the School of Medicine and Public Health and the UW-Madison Graduate School are united in the quest to provide a flexible but challenging education that develops confidence and cultivates every trainee’s unique skills,” he said.
A strong educational foundation is critical to student’s success, Vezina said. But, the students involved with Project 1808 have something special.
“Our Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program offers a sound curriculum, but it is only a launching pad,” he said. “Our trainees provide the rocket power; they are fiercely determined to move the world forward and there is no limit to what they can accomplish.”
Njai teaches students in Sierra Leone the basic principles of toxicology through his non-profit organization 1808. The curriculum was developed by students at the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
Through his non-profit organization in Madison, Project 1808, Alhaji Njai, a postdoctoral graduate of the Molecular and Environment Toxicology Center at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and a fellow in the school of veterinary medicine at UW, worked with UW students to implement a curriculum in Sierra Leone to teach college students general toxicology principles.
Students from the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center developed a curriculum to teach college students in Sierra Leone general toxicology principles. Top row, from left: Rachel Wilson, Alhaji N’Jai, and Amarilys González Vázquez; bottom row, from left: Morgan Walcheck, Fola Arowolo and Sam Thomas. Molly Morgan, Ben Sanchez-Sedillo, Jeremiah Yee, and Mele Avilla, who are students in the program, also helped with the curriculum project.
Article by Andrew A. Hellpap, SMPH Media Relations.