Rice wins $2.2M for undergrad global health program

HHMI program asks students to solve real problems

HOUSTON Rice University's plans to offer undergraduate students with more real-world design challenges got a major boost today from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which awarded the university $2.2 million to develop a four-year biomedical training program that will challenge Rice's students to solve healthcare problems in the developing world. The program, Beyond Traditional Borders, is designed to help students reach beyond traditional geographic and disciplinary boundaries in addressing these challenges.

"Rice students are extremely dedicated and focused, and this program is designed to tap their enthusiasm and encourage them to solve problems that affect the health and well-being of millions of impoverished people," said bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, leader of the new program. Together with Dr. Michele Follen of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Richards-Kortum pioneered the concept for the Beyond Traditional Borders in a course she has taught since 2001 called Bioengineering and World Health, which was developed with support from the HHMI Professor Program.

Richards-Kortum, the chair of Rice's Department of Bioengineering and the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering, said her class last year worked directly with physicians at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, which operates pediatric AIDS clinics throughout Africa and Eastern Europe.

"The problems we're asked to solve require more than just innovative technology, they require a great deal of thought about the cultural, economic and social realities that doctors face every day in the developing world," Richards-Kortum said. "For example, some African children with AIDS need anti-retroviral drugs that must be refrigerated, yet they live in villages without electricity and in some cases they live so far from a clinic that they must take home a 30-day supply every time they see the doctor.

"The technical part of the problem comes in designing a cheap, portable, power-stingy refrigeration system, but AIDS still carries a social stigma in much of Africa, so it's equally important that the system be discrete or families might not use it," Richards-Kortum said. "It's a real eye-opener for our students to learn that they can solve every technical issue and still fail if they ignore the social elements of the problem."

Sallie Keller-McNulty, dean of Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering, said Beyond Traditional Borders is one element of a school-wide initiative to bolster the engineering design experience with more real-world challenges.

"Industrial leaders are keen to see engineering programs that turn out graduates who are better prepared to solve problems, and real-world engineering problems always involve more than a set of technical solutions," Keller-McNulty said. "This program and others will help us better prepare our graduates to be leaders in solving the complex problems humanity will face this century."

Richards-Kortum said the first course in Beyond Traditional Borders will be offered to incoming freshmen this fall. It will introduce students to the challenges -- both technical and societal -- of delivering improved health in developing countries. The course will be offered to science and engineering students as well as students from humanities, social sciences and public policy.

"Introductory engineering courses are too often inaccessible to humanities and social science students because the material isn't presented within a meaningful context," Richards-Kortum said. "Studies have shown that non-science majors tend to engage with scientific curricula when you show how the science affects people and you challenge the students to use the science to improve people's lives. Some studies have shown that this is particularly true with segments of the population that are historically underserved in engineering like women and underrepresented minorities and we hope to attract more of those students to this course."

Following the freshman course, students will be divided into two tracks for their sophomore and junior years. Both tracks will include courses in biotechnology and bioengineering methods, but the science and engineering track will contain more technical material. The groups will come back together as seniors for a capstone design course, where they will be divided into multidisciplinary teams and asked to solve real international health problems.

The program will also include outreach programs for middle and high school students, as well as a mentoring program to train junior faculty and future science and engineering faculty to teach from an integrated, inquiry-based curriculum.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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