Celebrating 20 years of aiding health disparities groups

Camels and horses run free on the plains of Umnugobi province, Mongolia. That’s where graduate student Elise Tolbert learned to tolerate the dust and air pollution, as she asked people to join her research study to assess arsenic and uranium exposure in their drinking water.

“If they agreed, then we began to survey them and collect urine and toenail samples which serve as biomarkers of exposure. Overall, this was a great experience for me and taught me lessons which I can carry into my professional career,” she says.

Tolbert’s research in the Gobi desert was coordinated by the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program (MHIRT). Now in its 20th year, the program has sent 395 U-M medical student researchers around the world to work with health disparity populations.

MHIRT, within the Center for Human Growth and Development, this summer will send 25 students to Central America, South America, Africa and Asia. The program offers opportunities for active participation in international research to undergraduate and graduate students. Most are from health disparity populations.

The goal is to get most of these students interested in research careers in health-related fields or professional practices working with underserved populations, says Temuulen N. Johnson, MHIRT program manager.

“Besides providing students with stipends, MHIRT covers all costs associated with each student’s research, including free round-trip airfare, free accommodation, immunization and visa fees, local transportation and access to research and library facilities at the each foreign site,” Johnson says.

The program co-director is Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of environmental chemistry, School of Public Health, and research professor emeritus, Center for Human Growth and Development. He says it gives students firsthand knowledge of health disparities in other countries.

“Going into the program sharpens their interest in biomedical research,” Nriagu says.

The National Institutes for Health provides $250,000 annually for the program. MHIRT provides opportunities for graduate students to meet the internship requirement for their degree programs or collect pilot data for doctoral research proposals.

Sheri VanOmen performed a traineeship in Accra, Ghana, in summer 2014.

“We had help from various members on staff as well as a few translators in case we needed help communicating, so together we found the best way to maximize our efficiency when interviewing patients, getting urine samples, doing urinalysis and wrapping things up each day,” she says.

Tiffany Anthony, a Farmington junior, also performed a traineeship in Ghana. Anthony says she learned about public health research and maternal mortality.

“Being granted the ability to take part in this internship has further developed my research critical thinking and data analysis skills. Most importantly, it has instilled within me a passion for fighting for global disparities,” she says.

Students entering the program undergo one semester of pre-departure preparation, and close mentoring in the United States and at international sites. Post-trip follow up includes career guidance, further research placements, opportunities for independent study programs, mentoring related to honors theses and doctoral dissertations, and assistance in preparing manuscripts and presentations.

Minority or junior-faculty investigators engaged in research on child health inequalities in the United States are encouraged to develop projects into studies that can be done at the foreign sites, Johnson says.

Tolbert says she plans to complete her Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Science in May, and hopes to work to ensure equitable and safe environments for people.

“This program allowed the opportunity to test water quality and build the evidence to state whether or not the water is a problem,” Tolbert says, adding she will use this skill in her career.


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