Sept. 24, 2018

UCalgary partnership in Ethiopia creates global citizens

Cumming School of Medicine students and faculty share ideas and learn lessons about global health

What originally started 16 years ago as a small workshop on parasitic diseases taught by the Faculty of Science’s Dr. Lashitew Gedamu, PhD, has now evolved into an annual tour of Ethiopia for a team of experts and students with the Global Health and International Partnerships Unit at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

During their trip, the team facilitates workshops to teach Ethiopian students and researchers skills and techniques that will assist them in their research, as well as provide University of Calgary students an opportunity to gain a hands-on learning experience in the field of global health.

This past summer, the team included Guido van Marle, James Wasmuth, Dylan Pillai, James Cheaveau, Stephen Pollo, Alya Heirali, Ruth Legese, Kaylee Rich, and John Gilleard (below, from left). They set off for a two-week trip to lead workshops in bioinformatics and molecular biology at the University of Addis Ababa and Jimma University in Ethiopia. The group also visited health centres in rural areas to learn about the struggles facing scientists and health-care workers.

“The unique challenge in Ethiopia is the lack of resources,” says Dr. Guido van Marle, PhD, director of international partnerships and an associate professor at the CSM. “There may be long wait times, suppliers may charge extra, or there may be import and export regulations that can be limiting.”

In his workshop — attended by postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and laboratory technicians — van Marle taught participants how to create a type of reagent commonly used in molecular biology in order to save costs and avoid long delivery times.

The 2018 One Health Ethiopia team, from left, includes: Guido van Marle, James Wasmuth, Dylan Pillai, James Cheaveau, Stephen Pollo, Alya Heirali, Ruth Legese, Kaylee Rich, and John Gilleard.

The 2018 One Health Ethiopia team.

Lashitew Gedamu

“What we do is teach them about the mechanics behind the process. Once you understand how it works, you can re-create it and adapt it to your situation,” he says. “It might be a little more hands-on work but it’s absolutely possible.”

With the high occurrence of infectious diseases in both humans and animals in Africa, bioinformatics and molecular biology are highly requested workshop topics. The training session covers everything from the basic concepts to advanced subjects.

“Biotechnology and biomedical research can be applied to multiple challenges, such as crop protection or diagnostics,” says van Marle. “Through bioinformatics, you can gather data about how bugs evolve in Ethiopia, for example. Do they become more drug resistant or pathogenic? Is there a unique disease in your country that you can design a specific vaccine for?”

The team of 10 from UCalgary includes Alya Heirali, a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases who has participated in the program twice. Heirali says she most cherished the opportunity to connect with other graduate students about their research.

“It really humbles you because you realize you have everything you need,” she says. “The Internet there isn’t great, and lab conditions aren’t state-of-the-art. They may not have all the resources and technology but they are so passionate about their science.”

Heirali says she hopes to apply the lessons she learned from her global health experience here in Canada. She’s now working on a project focused on Indigenous health and Indigenous awareness.

At Jimma University, the team facilitated a workshop in bioinformatics and continues to build further research collaboratons with the university in Ethiopia. Pictured here: Kaylee Rich, Stephen Pollo, Alya Heirali, Lashitew Gedamu, Guido van Marle and John Gilleard.

At Jimma University, the team continues to build further research collaboratons with the university.

Lashitew Gedamu

“For me, it doesn’t stop here. I learned about some of the problems of the Indigenous people that I could relate to. For example, the racism they face in the health-care system, and that really hurt me. I realized there are problems at home that need to be dealt with, too,” she says. “This experience is an eye-opener for students. It shows you that there’s potential for you to do small things that may have a big impact.”

Van Marle adds the aim of program is also to develop cultural competency. Students complete course work prior to the trip to prepare their mindset for working in different cultures. Many participants in the program continue to keep in touch with students and faculty in Ethiopia.

“If we want to create global citizens, you really have to go, see it and be part of it,” he says. “This face-to-face, hands-on connection and sharing of knowledge creates a better understanding of each other. It’s an equitable partnership.”

The workshops were funded with support of the Cumming School of Medicine Community Engagement – Local & Global Unit,  the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, the Host Parasite Interaction Network, the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Intracellular Infectious Diseases (PT-CIIDs) Initiative (Vice President Research Grant), Campus Alberta Grant for International Learning (CAGFIL) and the University of Calgary International Study Travel Grant.

Guido van Marle is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases; co-director of Biomedical Sciences with the Bachelor of Health Sciences program; and a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.