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Students Build on Science, Policy Class to Address Calcutta Problem

SPI Students in Calcutta

From left, Joseph Mekhail (C'13), Noah Levinson, director of Calcutta Kids, Meghan O'Hearn (C'12) and a local project coordinator on the last day of the Georgetown students' research project in India.

May 3, 2012 – After completing a science and policy class, three Georgetown students traveled on their own to Calcutta, India, this spring to conduct research on mother and health provider views of diarrheal disease.

Working with Calcutta Kids, a community-based health organization for children and mothers, Meghan O’Hearn (C’12), Meghan O’Reilly (C’13) and Joseph Mekhail (C’13) performed research on caretakers’ perceptions of and reactions to diarrheal disease March 29-April 12.

All three students are biology of global health majors who took the course Science and Society: Global Challenges with Francis Slakey, co-director of the university’s Program on Science in the Public Interest.

Students in the class picked a global challenge, conducted research and proposed ways to fund their projects.

Calcutta Mother and Child

A mother from the Fakir Bagan community in Calcutta, India, feeds her dehydrated child an oral rehydration solution at Calcutta Kids' Diarrhea Treatment Center.

Diarrheal Disease

The students’ goal was to figure out the barriers among caretakers coming to Calcutta Kids to properly prevent and treat diarrheal disease.

Diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under 5 (the first is pneumonia), killing 1.5 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization.

“Preventing it can be difficult, because there aren’t proper water sanitation solutions, but in terms of curing the diarrheal disease, all you really need to do is cure the symptoms,” O’Hearn says. “That can be done with something called oral rehydration solution (ORS)  – it’s basically a simple solution of salt and sugar.”


Meaningful Ethics

The research is the first funded through a pilot program for students that is part of Georgetown’s Engaged Ethics Initiative.

“A signature commitment of Georgetown is meaningful ethics education for every undergraduate,” says Maggie Little, director of the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics and chair of the steering committee for the Engaged Ethics Initiative. “And meaningful means engaged – taking ethics out of the classroom and into the world to make a difference. These young scholars are a perfect example of the sort of ethical leadership that Georgetown aspires to instill in all of its students.”

O’Hearn says the reasons ORS isn’t used varies among different regions.

“It could be a cultural factor, it could be because so many women don’t understand the concept of diarrheal disease or dehydration,” she says. “When their child has diarrhea, they instinctively won’t feed them or won’t give them water. Some cultures think that diarrhea is caused by bad spirits.”

Second Year

The students interviewed focus groups of six to eight women as well as health care providers such as nurses, doctors, social workers, community health workers and public health officials.

Once the students analyze their data, they will share the results with Calcutta Kids and hope to eventually publish the results.

This is the second year in a row that Slakey’s students have pursued research projects abroad on their own after the class was over. In the spring of 2011, four of his students traveled to Mali to research potential new transportation systems.

Closing the Circle

“It’s a great idea, they’re passionate about it, they’re doing it on their own,” says Slakey of the students who traveled to Calcutta. “And once again, they’re not getting credit for it, – they’re doing it because they’re concerned.”

The students talked about their experience to an Ethics 101 class when they returned.

“We call it closing the circle,” says Slakey. “One of the things we want to do is illustrate to them that being ethically informed can actually shape your decisions in science.”

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