Saturday, July 16, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation…or Adventures Teaching Undergrads in India

As my Twitter followers know, I just returned from an eye-opening trip to India, where I was part of a faculty team for U Maryland undergrads. I was too busy and exhausted prepping, teaching, and studying there to blog, but want to relive and share some of this trip via my tweets, photos, and jotted notes of impressions.

Prelude…or why am I doing this?

When daughter, Heather, was 15, she persuaded me to take herand my son on a volunteer trip to India. It was transformative for all of us, fueling my interest in tropical infectious diseases and social justice issues, as well as my kids’ later career interests.

Heather has continued her interest in global and public health, and is now pursuing an MPH at U MD. As part of her work there, she put together this comprehensive summer program for undergrads, “Summer India: Global Health & Development,” and I was drafted as one of the faculty members, appointed “Visiting Senior Research Scientist” at the university, given my background in Infectious Diseases and clinical research, and that I had previously been to India. The other faculty were Mili Duggal, a PhD candidate and wonderfully down to earth, kind person, and Lis Maring (who was not able to join us until later into the trip), faculty in Family Life Sciences at U MD, and who has worked and taught in Varanasi, India.

The trip was logistically quite complex for a number of reasons. In addition to the didactic coursework—Heather put together an amazing syllabus—there were experiential and research components. The students were divided into three groups and rotated each week: observing at Lady Willingdon Hospital in Manali, joining village health care workers in assessing children’s health, or spending time at a rural health clinic in Jibhi, 3-4 hours from Manali. The final week was devoted to each student working on a research project of their choosing.

I helped arrange the research component, working with Dr. Philip Alexander, the director of the LWH, and Jayanth Devasundaram, an epidemiologist I recently met here in the states. Dr. Philip had asked for help in addressing their problem with tuberculosis, with many patients with drug-resistant (MDR) TB. We had only a sketchy plan before we left the states, and modified our approach as we went along, based on conditions we encountered there.

We set off!

The trip started a bit tenuously. I didn’t even get my visa until the day before, when my brother, aka St. George, was kind enough to wrest it out of Travisa’s clutches and deliver it to Mili.

I met the kids at BWI and was initially struck by their enthusiasim, and how YOUNG they all appeared, feeling OMG, what am I getting into? They were remarkably good sports on the trip though, which included the long flight, followed by a 9 hr wait in the Delhi airport, then a puddle-jumper to Kullu, which flew through a beautiful valley at the base of the Himalayas. We had to wait for some time in Kullu for Sunny and Heather to meet us—I guess there were more sheep blocking the road than they had counted on. (Sunny is a wonderful young man we met in Dharamsala 7 years ago, and he handled the logistics on the ground for all of us. We could never have done this trip without his guidance). But Sunny had a friend, Srita, who worked for Kingfisher and who was kind enough to ply us with chai while we waited.

There is a “taxi mafia” at the airport, and transportation has to be made using their services. Four taxis and a hair-raising 2 hour drive later, we arrived in Manali and settled in for the duration...(to be continued)