Interdisciplinary Work in Uganda is Truly Collaborative

Interdisciplinary Work in Uganda is Truly Collaborative

Water is essential. Clean water is life-enhancing. And having a sustainable water system in place should be a way of life.


For an interdisciplinary group of University of San Diego faculty members, seven current students and one alumna, a January 2020 trip to Uganda continued their mission of delivering on the importance of water as a major public health component in this African country.

Their scientific research, nursing student involvement and relationship-building with academic, spiritual and organization leaders has roots that stretch back to 2008. What began as a chemistry complement to USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science’s international support for an archbishop’s request to build Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital in Mbarara, Uganda, has become a valuable commitment by USD faculty and students. And this year, USD President James T. Harris and his wife, Mary, made the trip to Uganda to better understand the work involved.

Jim Bolender, PhD, associate professor of chemistry and faculty member since 1996, got involved through then-nursing professor Anita Hunter, who asked him to find out if the new hospital — which opened in 2009 and has served 200,000 patients since — would pollute the Rwizi River, which serves as Mbarara’s main water source.

“The river does have huge environmental and contamination problems,” says Bolender, who has traveled to Uganda nearly 20 times since he got involved. “Over the course of the past 12 years, our project has expanded to include working with Uganda’s National Sewage and Water Corp., testing water at 25 different sites and helping train technicians on their water testing techniques.”

The last few years have seen a shift — and expansion — of USD’s focus. Bolender, fellow professors Keith Macdonald (Biology), Frank Jacobitz (Engineering) and Martha Fuller (Nursing) and their respective students have narrowed their attention on southwestern Uganda.

They’ve worked on a joint project with Mbarara University’s Science and Technology (MUST), an international collaboration between USD, MUST, Holy Innocents and experts from France, Israel, New Zealand, Washington, D.C., and Berkeley. There’s added support by developing relationships with Mbarara University’s school of medicine, engineering and science faculty, to create a local water quality resource that gives Ugandans a sustainable water quality monitoring improvement project.

“Our project really covers monitoring and determining what the problems are beyond sanitation,” Bolender explains. “Sanitation is still a huge issue in the developing world, but there are underlying issues that are chemical and are naturally occurring from the geology. There are places that have arsenic and uranium in the water at levels that are above the World Health Organization limits for what people should be exposed to.”

Hitting the Ground Running

The January trip had four students along — biochemistry majors Molly Klein, Marci Strong and Kendyl Maher and 2019 behavioral neuroscience graduate Natalie North-Cole — to assist Macdonald and Bolender with water quality sampling at multiple locations. Klein, Strong and North-Cole were in Uganda in January 2019 on a Bolender-taught study abroad class. 

On this most recent trip, Klein often took the lead to collect water samples at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, which is the largest refugee settlement camp in Uganda with more than 120,000 people; at two locations in the Kyabirukwa village where a medical clinic with Holy Innocents nurses, doctors and with support from the full USD group was held; and at a village in Kashongi.

Klein’s water research and firsthand experiences in Uganda gives her a greater appreciation of the importance of this work.

“I definitely did not realize how complicated certain issues are, especially with something like water quality,” she says. “Clean water is a basic right everyone should have access to; it should be easy — just get a filter for the water. But here in Uganda, you have to think about so many different steps to just drink the water.

“I really like this project because it takes a holistic approach,” she continues. “It’s not just how clean the water is to drink, but also how can we make it sustainable? How can Ugandans implement what we come up with and keep the project running? Is it cost-effective? It encompasses a lot more than just the chemistry side. Coming to Uganda has really helped with this holistic approach as well.”

Another key research aspect is the presence of bacteria. “Any surface water source we have is going to have bacteria from the runoff into those water supplies,” Bolender says.

This issue brought Dr. Jacobitz, a Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Mechanical Engineering professor, back to Uganda after advising students on a different project in the northern part of the country. Jacobitz met with MUST officials and the university’s engineering department officials.

Jacobitz is the faculty adviser for a mechanical engineering project that Christina Kozlovsky is working on for her senior design project along with Ava Bellizzi. They’ve built a water filtration system for use in rural areas of Uganda. Considered a possible remediation device, Kozlovsky tested multiple local items — “We’re using bananas, bio-mass from banana trees and other plants to filter out the bacteria and, potentially, various metals and other contaminants we’re interested in,” Bolender explains — to gauge effectiveness.

“We want this device to be sustained in Uganda with locally found products,” Kozlovsky says. “Getting the chance to come here, to test the trees that are most found here, was extremely helpful.”

Providing Sustainable Skills

Helpful is one of many adjectives that describe the contributions USD’s nursing school has made in Uganda. The graduate nursing program has renewed its interest in contributing as a service and education provider to Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital. Dr. Fuller and three USD nurse practitioner students — Allison Bryden, Shaylyn White and Cara Fratianni — were a visible and valuable presence throughout the trip.

“When I take nursing students to Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital, that is a global health educational piece, a service piece,” Fuller says. “We try to provide sustainable service by helping them obtain equipment they can’t and provide education that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. If we educate someone, we’re providing a skill that can be sustainable.”

Bryden, White and Fratianni each gave one presentation to the Holy Innocents nursing staff on topics such as basic life support practices, educating staff to better identify deteriorating patients, and working with newborn and premature-born babies. For example, Bryden explained a new-to-them method of how best to position a baby who is receiving respiratory support to better enhance ventilation. Fuller also made it a point for her nursing students to learn more about the water quality project, too.

The entire USD group worked side-by-side with Holy Innocents staff to serve nearly 500 children at two separate medical clinics in rural villages. The nursing students did regular shifts at Holy Innocents throughout the trip to add to their professional skillset.

“I saw incredible growth among our three nursing students,” Fuller recalls. “I’m very proud of the work they did there. There was a willingness to be open, to open themselves and allow them to be hurt by what they saw. They were able to cope with a lot of things; that’s a true sign of maturity.”

There were teachable moments for the entire USD group in Uganda. And there was much to savor, especially seeing the all-female student cohort bond, both in the important work they were doing and the friendships that emerged. By the end of the trip, the undergraduate/graduate student labels were gone, as had any fear of the unknown that some admittedly arrived with.

"I think the diversity of our group really is our biggest strength,” says North-Cole. "We’re able to tap into each other's expertise, learn from each other and collaborate better. The interdisciplinary learning really helps our project grow.” 

— Ryan T. Blystone

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