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From Molecular Science to Political Science: Pasteur Internship Introduces Students to Global Public Health

From Molecular Science to Political Science: Pasteur Internship Introduces Students to Global Public Health

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09/08/2012

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Trucks, cabs, and horse-drawn carts compete for space with pedestrians and evengoats below the skyscrapers of downtown Dakar, Senegal. But passing through the irongates into the Pasteur Institute
ʼ
s gardencourtyard, one is greeted by a bust of LouisPasteur himself and the air settles into acertain calm.In the medical virology building, UW-Madison undergraduate student and MineralPoint native Dean Sayre greets me from theother end of the hallway–a tall, shyly smiling22-year-old in jeans and a Bucky Badger t-shirt. After a tour of the facility from Sayre
ʼ
ssupervisor Dr. Kadar Ndiaye, we descendthe stairs for lunch on Gorée Island. Leavingour halting French behind us, Sayre begins to relax into speaking and he easily offersup statistics to put his work and newly discovered passion in context.“It
ʼ
s estimated that 600,000 kids die a yeararound the world from rotavirus,” Sayresays. “And more than 80 percent of thosekids are in Africa and Asia.”Contrast this with the 40 or so deaths peryear from the virus in the U.S.Faced with the disparity between the stateof healthcare in Senegal versus his nativeU.S., Sayre is far from defeated. If anything,it has made him a more devoted researcher.“It
ʼ
s not that more people are infected in Africa,” Sayre explains, “it
ʼ
s just that more diefrom the virus. Today there are two licensed rotavirus vaccines in the world, but they areprimarily available in Europe and the Americas.”
From Molecular Science to Political Science 
 
“That
ʼ
s what
ʼ
s really interesting,” he continues, “the tools are actually out there to avoidthis.”Those “tools,” he has come to understand, are not just the vaccines engineered in labslike his. Equally important are programs like the PATH Rotavirus Vaccine Program,established to bring vaccines to the populations that need them most urgently.Initially tasked with collecting samples from sewers in and around Dakar, Sayre spenthis first few weeks searching for wild or nonvaccinal strains of polio under the tutelageof Dr. Ndiaye, a researcher in Pasteur
ʼ
s department of medical virology run by Dr.Ousmane Diop. (Researchers have yet to identify any nonvaccinal strains in the region.But due to migration to and from neighboring countries, Senegal cannot yet beconsidered entirely polio free.)By the time I visit in the middle of January, about nine weeks into Sayre
ʼ
s internship, hisresearch has shifted and he
ʼ
s spending most of his days–and sometimes nights–on anew task: analyzing the hundreds of samples of rotavirus that are sent to the Institutefrom three clinical sites in Dakar alone. The Institute eventually hopes to receive andresearch samples from around the country.Affecting almost every child in the world by the age of five, rotavirus is the mostcommon cause of severe childhood diarrhea. Like the flu, the rate of infection peaks inthe winter months. The day before we meet, 55 samples had just arrived. Each day,Sayre searches for genotypes to determine how many of the strains are circulating atany given time.“Dean has contributed a great deal to ourlab,” Ndiaye tells me in French. “He is avery critical thinker. He understands hiswork very well.”Sayre is the first student to take advantageof this unique opportunity established asan agreement between UW-Madison
ʼ
sDivision of International Studies and thePasteur Institute. Geared specificallytoward undergraduate students in thebiomedical sciences, the Pasteur internship provides them with research training for upto twelve weeks at any willing Institute around the world.“In school I was really into the mechanics of the viruses, how they work and mutate,”Sayre says as we wind our way through Dakar
ʼ
s skycrapers to catch a ferry to theisland. “Then I came here and I saw myself really getting into the public health thing andwondering what will happen here in regards to the viruses I
ʼ
m looking at.”
From Molecular Science to Political Science 
 
Sayre is not alone; a recent survey by the Association of American Medical Collegesreveals that U.S. students in the healthcare professions are increasingly travelingabroad for some aspect of their education. In 2006, 27 percent of U.S. medical studentshad studied overseas, contrasted with just 6 percent in 1984. The trend is positive;international experiences provide students with an understanding of public health–andhealth disparity–they are unlikely to gain in a classroom.Devoted to global public health, the Pasteur Institute has become an internationalnetwork of associated institutions studying infectious diseases. Founded in Paris in1887 by Louis Pasteur (the scientist who developed the first rabies vaccine two yearsearlier), the Institute now has 24 centers that are situated in developing countriesaround the world.Together, the Réseau International des Instituts Pasteur forms a global network ofbiomedical research that reinforces the purpose–and urgency–of epidemiologicalresearch and preventive care. Pasteur
ʼ
s successors have developed vaccines fordiphtheria, yellow fever, tetanus, and hepatitis B, among other infectious agents. Thecenter in Paris was the first to isolate the HIV virus in 1983.“This is one of the more unique opportunities for study abroad,” says Gilles Bousquet,dean of UW-Madison
ʼ
s Division of International Studies, who brokered the arrangementin March 2006. “And it
ʼ
s essential. Students in the health professions need to connectwith with the wider world in order to be global citizens and leaders in their fields. ThePasteur internship gives students that international perspective.”To Sayre, seeing those epidemics in their native region has made a world of difference.“In undergrad I thought study abroad was just for humanities majors,” he says. “It didn
ʼ
teven occur to me to go abroad. So when I heard about this opportunity, I decided I
ʼ
d dowhatever it took to get in it.”What it took was no small amount of courage and tenacity on the part of thisWisconsinite who had never before traveled to a developing country.Having just graduated from UW-Madison with a double major in molecular biology andmedical microbiology and immunology, Sayre had already applied, and been accepted,to UW-Madison
ʼ
s School of Medicine and Public Health when he learned about this pilotinternship program.“I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says, though it meant declining entranceinto one of the country
ʼ
s most competitive medical schools.“I didn
ʼ
t think twice about turning down my acceptance,” Sayre continues, “even when Iwasn
ʼ
t yet sure I
ʼ
d been accepted to go to Dakar!”
From Molecular Science to Political Science 

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