Notes from a Travel Diary: A Postdoc’s Journey to Teaching and Learning in KenyaBrandon Sack, PhD
Posted on Apr 29th, 2017
The years between getting a PhD and getting your first position as a professor, a “post-doc” as it’s called, are often filled with long days in the lab, failed experiments and bad data which are supposed to teach you to become a more efficient, insightful and accomplished scientist. While slogging through all this, the perks can be rare. However, the best perk for those working in global health, in my humble opinion, is the opportunity to present your work at conferences in places far from my home in Seattle but closer to scientists working in the countries where the diseases I study are relevant.
Last year, while searching the list of upcoming conferences at which our lab’s presence would make an impact, I spotted two conferences separated only by 12 days and one large continent. The first conference was in The Netherlands but the second was in Cape Town, South Africa. Flying back and forth twice across the hemisphere wouldn’t be financially feasible or desirable, so I began to devise a plan for how to spend those intervening 12 days in the intervening continent…little did I know that plan would turn into such an inspiring experience that it will motivate my scientific career for the rest of my life.
This story actually begins with my volunteer work with SeaVuria, where I collaborate with MaryMargaret Welch, Science Program Manager for Seattle Public Schools, to bring cutting-edge, relevant science to the curricula of local schools. Together we’ve developed hands-on, investigative lessons about malaria to demonstrate core scientific principles. The lessons are brought home by connecting each Seattle high school class with a high school in a rural area of Kenya, a country where over half the population is at risk of malaria. All the students learn about malaria simultaneously then connect through Google Hangout calls where the two groups talk and ask each other questions.
When I got to join in these sessions, I was blown away by how quickly the Kenyan students got to the most important questions of malaria vaccine development. This passion and insight made me want to do even more with these students, so when I saw those two conferences I knew this was my chance to visit them in their own country.
So after some negotiations with an incredibly understanding boss, a crash course in teaching with MaryMargaret, 50+ hours of air travel, 35 pounds of worksheets and school supplies, a case of malaria blood slides, and a burner phone to use along the way, I was finally off to make a giant loop from Seattle to Holland to Kenya to South Africa and back.
Finally, after a successful conference in Leiden, Netherlands and 24 hours of travel, I landed in Mombasa, Kenya—a unique, diverse and beautiful coastal city in the south of Kenya.
Landing in Africa: Can I handle Kenya?
MaryMargaret had arranged for a driver to pick me up and cart me around from the coast to the southwest area of Kenya called Taita. My first thought was, “I’m an experienced traveler, have driven around Latin America, grew up managing the backroads of Florida and drove moving trucks around the streets of South Beach, there’s no way I need a driver!” Boy, was I wrong. Turns out, without my driver Jacob I would’ve ended up lost, squished or both on the way from Mombasa to Taita.
In our little Toyota Corolla, we were taking the same route used by semi-trucks to deliver goods from the port of Mombasa to land-locked Uganda. Rarely did we reach above 30mph as we dodged potholes the size of a Prius and switched between paved road, packed dirt road and some weird mix of the two. It took us about 5 hours – in a semi it can take as much as 5 days.
Finally, we arrived in Taita, where I was invited to recover from jet lag on a huge ranch that encompassed everything from farmlands, cattle pastures, gem mines and nature preserves.
I spent a few days exploring the area and a few nights talking about Kenya, politics, music and of course, malaria. Then I was off to the hills to meet the students for our malaria symposium.
Malaria Symposium: Day One
Each of the 10 surrounding schools had nominated 2-3 of their best science students to come to the Bura School for Girls to attend the two day malaria symposium, including 6 from the host school. Some of them endured four hours of extremely bumpy bus rides just to get there. They would all stay overnight either bunking up at Bura or at the neighboring boys school (almost all schools in Kenya are boarding schools). Needless to say, I didn’t want to waste their time after all they invested in coming, so I was getting a bit nervous about managing a class of 28 for two days straight with a curriculum I’d never practiced.
8:45 am: Jumping in to the deep end
The plan was to give me time to talk with the teachers and settle in, but the moment I arrived, the teachers put me to work. I was immediately taken to their biology classroom where a projector and rows of eager students awaited me. And so after some technical hurdles, we began two days of intense learning that would give even the brightest students an achy brain.
9:15 am: Teaching can’t be that hard…right?
Being a former British colony, one of the legacies that still remain in Kenya is the style of teaching. Typically, extremely shy and well-behaved students sit in silence during long lectures, occasionally being asked direct questions that they usually answer from rote memorization. This is quite different than the hands-on, creative thinking, hypothesis-driven exploratory lessons we had crafted back in Seattle.
MaryMargaret had told me that bringing this style of teaching to the classroom would be tricky and to push the students outside their comfort zone. So we started with a quick ice breaker where the students asked each other questions about malaria in order to fill out a BINGO card (they hadn’t heard of BINGO, so first I had to explain it). Then we dove in to the science.
To guide the topics of our lessons, we always started and ended with group conversations, generally focused around the questions of “What I know about malaria” and then “What I want to know.” We kept track of these on sticky notes at the front of the classroom and revisited them throughout the class to fill in the gaps with “What I learned.” Breaking the students into small discussion groups was a great way to probe their ideas in a way that was comfortable for them.
12:30 pm: Do y’all understand my English?
After the first couple of mini-lectures, I wanted to assess their learning so I asked them “Knowing what you know now, what part of the malaria life cycle would y’all target with a vaccine and why?” I expected someone to raise their hand and answer as would be typical in an American classroom.
Instead, I got silence.
My first thought was “Yikes, through a combination of my American accent, words like “y’all” that don’t make sense to British-taught English-speakers, and my poor teaching, they got nothing out of all that talking. I’m not doing very well.” Then, after the brief moment of panic, I remembered to ask them to get into their small groups, answer the same question as a group and pick one representative to read the answer out loud to the group.
To my delight, every single group nailed it with a thoughtful and science-based answer. Every single one. Not only was I relieved that the students were actually understanding what I was saying, but I was blown away by how well they all grasped the concepts.
4:15 pm: Yes, teaching is hard
In about seven hours, we had covered the malaria life cycle in detail and had an introduction to each component of the immune system with examples of how it can attack malaria. Exhausted, I spent the evening chatting with seminary students in the convent where I was staying next door. Together we enjoyed some beer and a delicious meal of ugali, a corn meal mush that reminded me of grits in the South. Full belly and empty brain, I had no problem immediately falling asleep under my bednet to the sounds of insects chirping outside.
Malaria Symposium: Day Two
6 am: Wake-up call
The next morning, I woke to the sounds of the kids singing their morning hymns in the neighboring church, without a doubt the most pleasant alarm clock I’ve ever had.
8:30 am: The malaria crash course continues
That day’s lesson got into the nitty gritty of how malaria has evolved to avoid our immune defenses with tricks like antigen switching. Antigen switching is where the parasite constantly changes the proteins our immune system uses to recognize malaria in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game where humans are always one step behind.
I have to say, I didn’t realize how packed the curriculum was when we were put it together in Seattle. We covered what would normally take a couple weeks to learn in a typical class that meets 5 times a week for a couple of hours each day. But the kids were with it the entire time.
11:15 am: We could use a brain like yours
As we neared the end of Day Two, I asked the kids to revisit their ideas about how the immune system could target the malaria parasite. I wanted them to incorporate what they had learned and think about how they could outsmart the parasite tricks and harness our immune system with a vaccine to overcome the disease—basically, my job. By now they we were familiar with the drill of small group discussions. And once again, they gave nothing but diverse and thoughtful answers.
One group even came up with the idea to “make a weakened parasite that stops developing in the liver so the immune system can recognize it and build defenses against it.” I kid you not, this is the foundation of our lab’s work and the exact type of vaccine we are pursuing in phase 2 clinical trials. And this was before I had told them about our vaccine – or any other specific malaria vaccine for that matter! I was so impressed with their critical thinking skills and so excited I wanted to pick up those kids and parade them around on my shoulders like they had just scored a touchdown (ok…maybe a soccer goal would be more appropriate).
3 pm: Sharing out their new knowledge
Before we wrapped up, I asked the kids to come up with a way to share what they learned with their schools back home. This could be through a lecture, pictures, a song, anything. Most chose a song or poem, which I thought was quite different from my experience with American students.
While they were doing this, we were finally able to finagle one of their old microscopes into operation to take a peek at a blood slide with malaria-infected blood cells on it. They came up one at a time, described what they saw in the microscope and then we all discussed which cells were infected with malaria. This is how most malaria cases are diagnosed in the field, and the students really enjoyed playing doctor and were proud of their new skill in being able to diagnose malaria.
Leaving behind the power of scientific discovery
It was great to see the students open up out of their initial shyness and really gain the courage to explore using their own intellect. A few brave souls even got comfortable enough to raise their hands and ask questions at the end. I think the teachers even gained a bit out of seeing their students engage in learning activities outside of their normal style, and it was an incredible feeling to think that I might have helped these students to realize that they possess all the skills to become great scientists and solve real problems. That ability to apply knowledge to solve problems is not only the core of scientific thinking, but it’s a valuable life skill to have.
Maybe it’s a cliché, but I definitely learned more from those students than they did from me. I can only hope that they had half the experience I did while there, and I can’t wait to get back as soon as possible.
I’d like to thank the teachers and students of Taita County for their warm and gracious hosting, for their collaboration and for allowing me the opportunity to share a couple of days with them. I’d also like to thank MaryMargaret Welch and Maria Bunn of SeaVuria for being my teaching crutch and ensuring that not only did the students get the most benefit from our collaboration, but that I did as well. Thanks as well to Stefan Kappe for allowing me to be gone for a month, and especially to my fellow lab mates for picking up my slack while gone.
The hills of Taita