ASU students commit to boosting global health, starting with Uganda


September 24, 2014

Arizona State University is on a mission to empower its students to enact powerful and positive social change. One outgrowth is its relatively new GlobeMed chapter, helmed by undergraduate honors students Megan Atencia and Anna Simperova.

Atencia, a global health major, and Simperova, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in biological studies and a minor in family and human development, serve as co-presidents of the nonprofit. One day, they hope to work as physicians – an intensive care doctor and a pediatrician, respectively. In the meantime, they are getting community health experience while taking their spirit of service to the next level. ASU students Megan Atencia Anna Simperova Download Full Image

GlobeMed partners its chapters with communities to create sustainable health solutions specific to the communities’ needs. ASU’s chapter is matched with ICOD Action Network in Lyantonde, Uganda, and focuses on families and orphans affected by HIV/AIDS.

Rather than simply throwing money and supplies at a crisis, the GlobeMed model invests in learning about community issues and working with the local partner to determine the best ways to create lasting change. Examples include building housing and sanitation structures and providing microloans for farming and income generation purposes.

Founded in 2012, GlobeMed at ASU is composed of roughly 25 active members whose academic programs range from anthropology and biological engineering to sustainability. The group is diverse, representing various ethnic and religious backgrounds, with several international students and first-generation Americans.

Each summer, the chapter typically sponsors two to four interns who travel to Lyantonde for an average of five weeks to assess needs within the partnership, take metrics of success for past projects and act as a liaison between Lyantonde and ASU. This year, Sophia McGovern, a double major in creative writing and global studies, did the honors.

On the ground, McGovern was able to solidify the chapter’s partnership, put faces to names and immerse herself in the culture while witnessing the daily lives of people in the community. The experience, which she calls “all-around amazing,” helped her understand areas for improvement in the partnership, such as extending the scope of assistance for a previous beneficiary who was provided a home.

“Because of this, we are working to add income generation to our housing and sanitation project,” McGovern says. “We sat down and designed a microloan program after last year’s beneficiary showed us land she had cleared for potatoes. After the house was built for her, her life was so filled with hope for the future that she told us what she needs to be completely independent: money for potatoes. In five months, she’ll have paid us back, and that money can go toward the next beneficiary’s income generation.”

Seeing a need

Most of the GlobeMed at ASU members found their way to the group through in-class presentations or ASU-sponsored events like Passport to ASU. But their reasons for caring about global health issues are unique.

Atencia spent her youth living all over the U.S. as a military kid, but she is profoundly connected to the island of Catanduanes in the Philippines, where her parents were born and raised. In 2013, she interned in the hospital and rural clinic in her mother’s hometown. Here, she saw first-hand how the locals struggled to survive – sickened by being forced to drink from the same water sources where farm animals relieve themselves, weakened by malnourishment – while trapped in a vicious socio-economic circle.

“There exist man-made systems and structures globally that prevent people from fulfilling their potential, which, to me, is a staggering loss to the world,” Atencia says. “People who could advance technology, science and art are instead stagnant in a village simply trying to provide food for themselves, unable to work their way out of the cycle of poverty and into a better situation.”

She notes that the global health program in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences equips her to “analyze these systems and work to break them down.”

Before choosing the program, Atencia was planning to become a musician. A lifelong performer, she came in contact with people who were mentally, emotionally or physically unwell, and noticed that music touched them in healing ways. She credits music with instilling in her the desire to heal others and pushing her toward a career as a physician dedicated to addressing all aspects of wellness.

Heeding the call

For Simperova, the call to help others came early. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in being a pediatrician. However, it wasn’t until college and joining GlobeMed that she realized how critical a role global health plays in the sphere of medicine.

She immediately and strongly identified with GlobeMed’s mission to provide housing and sanitation for orphaned children in Uganda.

“Working toward a sustainable future starts with children, as they are often the most vulnerable when their basic human needs are unmet,” Simperova explains. “By giving them a roof over their heads, access to clean water and a place to go to the bathroom, GlobeMed is helping them reach their full potential. In reality, we are investing in the progress of humanity while attending to the health needs of the community.”

Simperova is particularly interested in issues surrounding prenatal and maternal health, and her work with GlobeMed provides a real-world look at these challenges. As poverty is endemic to the Lyantonde community, most women do not have access to ultrasounds, prenatal vitamins, clean water, medical information or treatment. Poor infrastructure in rural villages makes transportation to health centers or hospitals difficult and sometimes impossible, which increases the risks of complications for mother and child.

“Most of us cannot imagine not having clean water for a day, let alone during the course of a pregnancy and childbirth. By installing water tanks, we can begin to make an impact on the lives of our beneficiary families,” she says.

GlobeMed at ASU members believe in the model of community partnership and have seen real results come from it. They point to their methods as sustainable and empowering, unlike those of some nonprofits, which engender dependence. As Atencia puts it, “We are contributing in ways so that in the future, we no longer have any work to do in Lyantonde, Uganda, and (we can) leave this community with a better foundation to stand on.”

Get involved

Atencia and Simperova encourage those interested in shaping global health from a grassroots perspective to connect with GlobeMed at ASU. Membership is open to all.

The GlobeMed at ASU chapter meets from 5 to 7 p.m., every Thursday, in SHESC 265, on the Tempe campus. For more information, contact asu@globemed.org.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-727-6577

Event discusses decoding our biological software


September 24, 2014

Editor's Note: This story was taken from zocalopublicsquare.org.

We’ve reached a pivotal moment in our understanding of what life is. Biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, one of the scientists responsible for bringing us to this point, explained what this moment means at an event co-presented by Arizona State University at the Heard Museum – and the path that brought him here. J. Craig Venter and ASU President Michael Crow Download Full Image

ASU President Michael M. Crow, the evening’s moderator, opened the discussion in front of a full house by asking Venter how he went from serving as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam to running three scientific institutes – and predicting that human beings will one day reproduce organisms synthetically.

“As you might imagine, it wasn’t a linear route,” said Venter. As a medic in Vietnam, he learned that knowledge is critical to saving lives. His plan was to attend medical school, but got hooked on science instead as an undergraduate at UC San Diego. Publishing a scientific paper on how adrenaline works “was the most thrilling thing I’d done,” said Venter – a self-identified “adrenaline junkie.”

From studying adrenaline receptors, he moved on to trying to sequence a gene associated with adrenaline, laying the groundwork for a number of scientific firsts: In 1995, he sequenced the first and second genomes. In 2001, he sequenced the first human genome. In 2010, he created the first synthetic life form.

Today, said Venter, we can interchange the digital code of ones and zeroes with the four-letter code of DNA. “DNA is our software,” he said. “Every species on this planet is a software-driven system.” And our ability to transition between the digital and DNA worlds has huge implications: Today, biology can be sent through the Internet.

Venter and his team are now in the process of sequencing thousands of human genomes each year so that by 2020, we will have millions sequenced. This data, he said, will give us the ability to know precisely “what’s nature and what’s nurture” within the next decade.

This knowledge, said Crow, will have enormous implications, from human longevity to our understanding of race. But what are we going to do with it? Are we going to be able to close the gap between “natural science” – what we know and understand – and “design science” – what we do with what we know?

“It will be overwhelmingly tempting for humanity to refrain from using this knowledge to modify our species,” said Venter. He referred to a survey from 15 years ago in which a surprisingly large number of respondents said they’d choose to genetically modify their children. It’s not unreasonable to want to eliminate lethal diseases that are not treatable, he said, but other traits pose problems. Manic depression is a disease that’s difficult to treat, yet people who are manic depressive are also among society’s most creative. Could curing manic depression wipe out the creativity of our species? We’re a long way from having the knowledge we need to take such steps, cautioned Venter.

Venter’s current research interests include human longevity and how we can extend the healthy, high performance human life span. There is no a priori reason that biological systems have to wear out, said Venter: “There’s no reason to think there’s an absolute, finite limit on human life.”

And what exactly is synthetic life? Crow asked Venter to explain how he created a bacterial cell entirely out of synthetic DNA.

Venter explained that his team took a common bacterium, removed the operating system, and put in a synthetic operating system. Then, measuring every protein in the cell, they found there wasn’t a single protein from the original cell. “You change the software” – the DNA – “you change the species,” he said.

The idea of creating new life forms comes with serious ethical and safety concerns. Crow, referring to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” asked Venter if he had rules of engagement for synthesized life.

Asimov’s rules for governing robot behavior sort of apply, said Venter. We’re trying to create things to help humanity, not eliminate it. And we don’t want the things we create to become weapons of war, he said.

What, asked Crow, are your worries about human enhancement?

Venter noted that a knee replacement is a kind of enhancement. But he does have concerns: In the new do-it-yourself biology movement, people perform experiments at their kitchen sinks that previously would have been limited to laboratories. Ebola only has eight genes, said Venter; could kids, trying to be wise guys – like computer hackers – try to synthesize the Ebola virus?

“Our society tends to very quickly trivialize things,” said Venter, “and forget the ethics and the implications and the broader impact on society because it’s Kardashian time or something. We need to be smart about these decisions.”

Fifty or 100 years from now, said Crow, when most of the things you’ve dreamt have occurred – and the impact has been a net positive – what will be the most fundamental and significant changes resulting from digital biology?

Venter said that it was impossible to answer the question without looking at biology as a whole. The way the world works now, if digital biology extended our lifespans to 250 years, we would quickly overwhelm the planet. But, if we could use sunlight and carbon dioxide as our carbon sources instead of coal and oil, perhaps we could find a way to increase our lifespan in a way that’s healthy for humans and the planet.

Digital biology has the potential, Venter said, to create a new Industrial Revolution. We’re not just trying to change life but all human processes. “It’s a giant experiment, and hopefully we’ll be smart about it,” he said.

The audience question-and-answer session included more queries about ethics and the possible dangers of synthetic biology.

How could a synthetically created virus be stopped?

Venter said that we’re in far more danger from new emerging infections than we are from synthesized viruses. Synthetic biology already has combatted such infections: When the H7N9 flu virus broke out in China, Venter’s team successfully created a vaccine based on a digital copy of the virus Chinese scientists sent to the U.S. We can now transport viruses without putting people in danger – and transport vaccines, too.

What can we do about scientists who don’t share Venter’s ethical concerns dealing in genetic engineering?

Venter said that society faces the same challenges with any technology. “You can kill somebody with a hammer; you can build a hospital with a hammer,” he said. The U.S. does have stopgaps in place to monitor do-it-yourself scientists, and laws that govern lab practices.

The rules aren’t that complicated, he said – but scientists must learn them, and must work in the proper environment to ensure that their experiments are performed safely and without catastrophic consequences for society at large.

By Sarah Rothbard

Lisa Robbins

editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-9370