Although most of us think we ought to be teaching them, there really is a lot we can learn from people of other cultures.
Liz Sodomin ’11 believes education is a gift—one that she enthusiastically enjoys both giving and receiving.
As a high school student, Liz jump-started her collegiate education by taking a number of advanced placement courses—not only to prepare herself for the rigors of Elizabethtown’s biotechnology major, but also to give her the flexibility to exercise her intellectual muscle during college. “I love the fact that Elizabethtown has so many disciplines. Every semester, I try to take something very different,” she reflects. “I’m also in the Honors Program, and those courses have encouraged a lot of self-exploration.”
Not content to sit on the sidelines, Liz sought opportunities to partner with faculty on research soon after arriving at Elizabethtown. By her second semester, she was working with Assistant Professor Jodi Yorty and Bryon Martinez ’08 on a research project that explored the connection between stress, decreased immune function and tumor development. Over the next several months, Liz supported the investigation that looked at the effects of corticosterone, a stress hormone, on K11 CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell line to evaluate altered immune response. In 2009, she was proud to see her name listed among the authors when the team published their results in BIOS, the journal of Beta Beta Beta, the national biological honor society. And today she is continuing to enjoy further exploration of this line of research with the guidance of her mentor and grants from the Pennsylvania Academy of Science and Beta Beta Beta.
With much of her Elizabethtown experience playing out just as she envisioned, Liz unexpectedly faced an interesting dilemma in planning for her senior year. “I was already ahead in my program, so I could have been done a year early. But the classes I needed spread out through my senior year,” she says. “So I stayed on, but I really didn’t have any classes to take in the fall.”
As Liz weighed her options, faculty members in the Department of Biology and the Office of International Programs evaluated experiences that might prove beneficial to the industrious student. After careful consideration, the faculty team proposed a first-of-its-kind opportunity for Liz to gain real-world experience during a 12-week internship in Cape Coast, Ghana, working with the non-governmental organization, HEPENS (Health Prevention and Environmental Sanitation). And in early September 2010, Liz left for Sub-Saharan Africa.
“During my internship, I did health education and health outreach in many communities that aren’t being helped right now,” she explains. “In Africa, there is a definite gap between health care and health information. You can go to a clinic or hospital, but you’ll sit there for five hours before you’re seen. There are too few doctors and no specialists outside the main cities. And once you get into rural areas, there’s nothing. Even the clinics don’t exist out there.”
In support of HEPENS, Liz traveled to villages to do health education programs for children and adults. She and other interns presented information on nutrition, food safety, reproductivehealth, hygiene, hydration and health care practices. “We thought we were teaching ridiculously simple things,” she says. “But actually it was information they had never heard.”
As they traveled, they treated basic infirmities.“They don’t have gauze, antiseptic or alcohol. The treatment there is all herbal—they grind up plants and pack them into wounds,” she recalls. “One woman sliced her hand with a machete and then packed it full of herbs. The cut ended up infected. So we cleaned and treated the wound and then wrapped her hand. We told her to keep it dry and change the bandage. The idea of changing a bandage every day is a new concept—something so simple yet no one ever taught them.”
In addition to health education initiatives, Liz applied for grants and did bookkeeping for HEPENS and started a recycling program at local schools. She also volunteered at least one afternoon a week at the Abra Medical Lab, a diagnostic facility.
In reflecting on her time abroad, Liz emphasizes that she learned as much from the African people as they did from her. “There was never a moment that there wasn’t something new to be understood,” she reflects. “Although most of us think we ought to be teaching them, there really is a lot we can learn from people of other cultures.” Ultimately, Liz hopes to specialize in infectious diseases, with the goal of joining a global health concern, like Doctors Without Borders or the World Health Organization.