Foreign fieldwork sometimes requires seat-of-the-pants skills beyond drawing blood or crafting a health survey. During assignments that took them to Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia last summer, students learned, as medical student Vivek Murthy put it, “who you need to know to get things done.” Good communication is also important, Murthy found when he asked villagers in India to participate in a study of iron-deficiency anemia among teenagers. As part of the study he requested matchbook-sized stool samples. “That information got lost,” Murthy said. “We went to one school and found students bringing in bags of stool. In another, we had students bringing in stools that you sit on.”

Murthy and 14 other students traveled under the auspices of the Wilbur Downs International Health Travel Fellowship Program. They presented findings from their investigations in October at the annual fall symposium and poster session of the Committee on International Health.

For 31 years, students in medicine, nursing, public health and the Physician Associate Program have received Downs grants for studies abroad. Topics presented in October included the use of female condoms in Kenya, the involvement of Egyptian men in reproductive health decisions, interventions in South Africa to reduce vertical transmission of HIV, women’s health in Mexico City and the impact of sanitary sewage disposal on children’s malnutrition in Kosovo.

Erik Hett learned to improvise in Kenya when a sudden electrical failure sent him scurrying in search of a generator to power his centrifuge. Without power, hours of work dissecting and preparing tsetse flies for analysis would be lost. Hett, a student in public health, hoped to determine whether the Wolbachia bacterium could kill the tsetse fly before the fly grew old enough to transmit the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. (His faculty advisor was Scott O’Neill. See related story, To the vector go the spoils) Hett and co-worker Rhoel Dinglasan, a doctoral candidate in public health and previous Downs fellow, finally found a working electrical generator in a local hair salon and, despite language barriers and quizzical looks from patrons, secured permission to plug in their centrifuge.

The two trapped their flies in the bush, where they learned another lesson not taught in school. “The flies tried to follow the buffaloes,” Hett said, “so we had to make sure the traps were close to the buffaloes.”

Murthy, who enjoyed collaborating with health workers in India, including doctors and nurses, said it was important to weigh his priorities and needs against those of the local population. “It is always a struggle to find a balance between them,” he said. “Listening to the local people was a critical part to making this successful.”