THANKS TO THE GENEROSITY OF A COLLEGE PHYSICS PROFESSOR, SHE GOT A YEAR-LONG TASTE OF LABORATORY RESEARCH. KORTUM LIKED THE WORK BUT KNEW SHE “WANTED TO DO SOMETHING TO IMPACT HUMANITY IN A MUCH MORE DIRECT WAY.” TODAY, HER RESEARCH PROGRAM AT RICE UNIVERSITY BLENDS BIOENGINEERING WITH REAL-WORLD HEALTH CARE. KORTUM'S SPECIAL INTEREST IS BUILDING SCIENCE SAVVY IN THE CLASSROOM.
Every year, nearly 10 million children in developing countries die before they turn 5. Experts believe that about two-thirds of those deaths could be prevented with technologies that are feasible to implement in low-income countries. But transferring the benefits of research from developed countries to developing countries really requires a new way of thinking—one that incorporates technology development as well as public policy and management of health care delivery. These issues were the inspiration for “Bioengineering and World Health,” a college course I developed as part of my HHMI professor grant.
The course provides an overview of the major health challenges facing both developed and developing countries, using case studies to illustrate how new technologies can solve these problems in cost-effective ways. I think that students come away with a much better understanding of how precious health care resources are distributed in the world and how to make better decisions about their own health care.
While we designed the class for non-science majors, we found that it drew a broad audience, including science and humanities students. The diversity within the group brings interesting perspective to our discussions. In one assignment, for instance, students read a New Yorker article by Michael Specter about the scientific and ethical challenges associated with testing an HIV vaccine in Uganda. In class, we hold a town meeting to debate whether to take part in a clinical trial of the vaccine. Students play the roles of Ugandan citizens or the different scientists and policy makers quoted in the article.
Photo: Keith Carter