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Currents: tackling malaria in mali

Magbè Savané '10 Begins Research Training

Magbè Savané, an international student and biology major, intends to become a physician or work in some area of public health one day. She dreams of opening a medical clinic in her homeland, the Ivory Coast in Africa, where good and affordable health care is scarce.

This summer Savané will travel to Mali to conduct biomedical research as part of Howard University's Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program (MHIRT). In a program funded by the National Institutes of Health, Savané and eight other American college students will assist doctors and researchers from Mali and the United States in conducting laboratory research on malaria.

Malaria still plagues much of the developing world, and in Mali, it's a leading cause of death. The latest estimates suggest that 800,000 people there are afflicted with the disease, with close to 1,000 recent deaths. The Center for Disease Control reports that malaria causes 700,000 to 2.7 million deaths worldwide each year, 75 percent of which occur among African children.

Savané applied for several research opportunities but knew she wanted this one most. “I thought it would be good because malaria is a big issue in Africa and in my country,” she said. “After this program, I'll know better whether I want to go on to medical school.”

Since trainees are expected to begin their research shortly after arriving in foreign laboratories, the MHIRT program seeks students with strong research or technical skills who are interested in pursuing research or graduate studies. The trainees are selected based on their laboratory research skills, strong academic record and recommendations from faculty members. One of the faculty who highly recommended Savané was Associate Professor of Natural Sciences Cheryl Coolidge, who has taught her in courses such as Principles of Chemistry I and II, Organic Chemistry I and II, and Biochemistry over five semesters.

“Colby-Sawyer is a small college and science faculty teach our own labs, so we get to know our students quite well. Magbé has been an inspiration to faculty and students alike,” Professor Coolidge wrote. “Because she grew up in Africa, she had some challenges to address as a student in the United States. She had no experience with computers before she arrived at Colby-Sawyer, and English is her second language. She worked diligently and sought help as needed to bring her analytical skills up to speed. Indeed, she is among the strongest quantitative and analytical skills of all the students currently enrolled in the Department of Natural Sciences and is a real whiz with Excel.”

Professor Coolidge also commended Savané's laboratory skills. “[Savané] works carefully and efficiently, makes good observations, is an accurate recorder, and easily relates what she sees in the lab to the underlying theory that has been developed in class,” she wrote. “She works well with her peers, both in the laboratory and in learning groups in class. She is very well liked and respected by faculty members as well...She will be a wonderful physician. She is intelligent, caring and compassionate, hard working and extremely personable.”

Andrew Cahoon, a visiting assistant professor in Natural Sciences who had Savané in his calculus and physics courses, offered another perspective. “Her strength is that she never gives up on a problem and works persistently until she gets the answer. This is why I think she'll be successful in the research program,” he wrote in his recommendation. “Magbè is very proactive in seeking out help when she needs it and coming to office hours. I think she honestly cares about what she does and she has a tremendous work ethic.”

In mid-May 2009, Savané begins the eight- to 12-week research training program, which will also meet an internship requirement for the college. She must complete a manuscript, co-authored by her mentors and other student peers, that outlines their research results, by the end of her training. Each team of two to four students will be assigned a U.S. researcher as their mentor.

Drawn to Public Health

In the past two years, Savané has gained valuable experience in public health by twice volunteering to serve the women in Pokuase in Ghana, Africa. Working through WomensTrust—a non-profit organization based in Wilmot, N.H.—she tested women for anemia, hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes at the local health clinic in summer 2008. Six months later, she raised money from local organizations and college colleagues to return to Ghana in January 2009, this time to educate women in Pokuase about important health issues, some of which represent serious threats to their lives.

“I felt screening wasn't enough. These women needed to know more about how to protect themselves,” Savané said. After conducting some research, she designed her own educational program, “Healthy Living Skills,” and then spread the word around the village that she wanted to meet with small groups of women. “My goal was to educate women about malaria, diabetes, high blood pressure and anemia initially, and then I decided to add information about contraception, HIV/AIDS and family planning. They were really open to it, which was great. I tried to be funny, tried to relate to them like I was their next door neighbor. By the time I left I had met with about 230 women.”

After gaining experience in direct patient care and educational outreach, Savané felt research experience was what she needed most to advance to graduate school in public health and then, ideally, on to medical school. She spent a good deal of time searching for research opportunities, and the MHIRT program appealed to her most because it offered her the opportunity to gain experience in a university laboratory, alongside qualified researchers, and insight into a disease that continues to devastate people in her homeland.

“In my country there is no money, there's no good care, people are struggling,” Savané says. “When people get malaria, many of them can't afford treatment; sometimes they'll share their medication with other members of the family. I thought it would be good to learn more about the scientific issues of malaria because I plan to go back (to Ivory Coast).”

-Kimberly Swick Slover