Creating Vectors for Transmission of Knowledge to Combat NTDs

Students from around the world wrote essays as part of their application for leadership positions with END7 for the upcoming academic year. Two students were awarded scholarships to attend the Millennium Campus Conference in Washington, DC. We are publishing the best essays on our blog during the Millennium Campus Conference this week. Scholarship winner John Lu of Duke University (Durham, North Carolina) wrote this essay in response to the prompt “How do you think students and young people can be agents of meaningful change contributing to the fight against NTDs?:”

By John Lu Duke University

We live in an age of Facebook-level involvement. Supporters are willing to click for a cause, but often times, they are not willing to do much more. Involvement is a spectrum, and the actions lying along the spectrum are not created equal.

Facebook likes are the epitome of “high ease, low engagement” involvement in a cause. I have changed my Facebook profile and cover photos to images related to NTDs, earning hundreds of likes. These likes create a sense of popular support behind NTDs (and an elevation in my self-esteem), but few if any of my friends liking my photos will become more likely to be further engaged with future NTD-related efforts.

Petition signatures and fundraising fall in the middle of the involvement spectrum – moderate ease, moderate engagement. Students asking for petition signatures and tabling to raise funds are certainly empowered to do such activities again in the future. Likewise, those signing the petitions and donating the money are certainly predisposed to contribute their signature or pocket change again.

At the same time, both levels of previously described involvement presuppose the existence of highly engaged members who would be involved in the first place. But why would the rational student spend their ultimate nonrenewable resource—time in college—on NTDs when there are so many other issues vying for the student’s attention? Who is to say fighting NTDs is any more worthwhile than waging war against cancer or campaigning for freedom of speech?

Finally, at the high end of the involvement spectrum lie research and education. They are low ease but high engagement activities, and this high engagement creates “vectors” that infect their contagious enthusiasm into those at other engagement levels. In this way, the research project that my fellow Duke student Phil Reinhart roped me into freshman year sparked my interest in NTDs.

I became interested in NTD research for its potential impact, and my research has done just that. When I presented my schistosomiasis research poster at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health conference in April, I met a Tanzanian official working at the Ministry of Health, who commented that he would contact another colleague working on the Tanzanian NTD Control Program about my findings on the high prevalence of schistosomiasis. A month later, all school-aged children in the village of Sota and the broader Lake Zone of Tanzania were given praziquantel for schistosomiasis by a government-run mass drug administration. Exactly one year before, I was in Sota meeting with the village chief asking for permission to begin my research there.

In reality, my research probably contributed only a little to the Ministry’s decision to launch its NTD campaign, for I am certainly not the first to report the high levels of schistosomiasis prevalence in communities surrounding Lake Victoria (Lonely Planet even warned against swimming in the bilharzia-infested waters). But I believe my research had a great value for an entirely different reason: it made me invested in the NTD movement. I discovered why I cared about NTDs. In turn, I sought out new avenues for engagement, such that now I am justifiably a “vector of transmission” of NTD knowledge—I created and taught Duke’s first for-credit course focused on NTDs this past semester.

I have spent my past year as an END7 student leader attempting to help other students discover why they should care about NTDs. Of the eight students that I taught in my NTD course, two will co-teach the course again with me next semester, and another was just drafted to the Los Angeles Lakers NBA team as the #2 draft pick of 2016. Out of the partnership Phil and I created between our schistosomiasis project and GlobeMed@Duke, four students will spend two months each in Tanzania implementing the schistosomiasis educational and promotional materials this summer. Future students who submit to the Duke Global Health Review will be incentivized to conduct research and produce papers on NTDs by the section reserved solely for NTD-related papers.

Creating these vectors for transmission will not dramatically increase the number of petition signatures collected or amount of money raised at Duke in the short-term—the time spent investing in human capital could have been spent on reaching these specific goals—but it will create a sustainable campaign that generates dividends long after I graduate. In quantifying involvement, we typically resort to measuring short-term transactional indicators, such as signatures on a petition. Instead, I focus on measuring the long-term fundamentals via the quality of people involved. If we are ever going to end the seven most common NTDs, we need to play the long-term game. We need to invest in human capital.

Students becoming agents of change is an inherently desirable process—we all want to make the world a better place. However, without outside guidance, students rarely become those agents of change. In chemistry, we call this a thermodynamically favorable but kinetically unfavorable reaction. The solution in chemistry is to bring in a catalyst to lower the activation energy barrier. I believe a similar solution can be prescribed for creating agents of change: we need students to lead the process of creating opportunities for their peers to engage.

This is a philosophy, not a prescription, for change. It will guide how I raise awareness and recruit new students to join END7 at the Millennium Campus Conference: I hope to launch an online photo campaign documenting END7 student leaders’ and employees’ stories of how they became involved with the effort to control and eliminate NTDs. Stories communicate vulnerability. Stories inspire. Stories help others discover why they should care.

On Memorial Day, there was a New York Times op-ed about the distinction between small love and big love. Small love is what soldiers feel for their families, friends, and communities. Big love is what soldiers feel for their country, for the ideals for which they fight. We need more people with big love for NTDs. Let’s start sharing the love that we already possess.

END7 Student Advisory Board.

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