Uganda Program inspires students to pursue health and service careers

Ntambi and students pose for a photo in Uganda

James Ntambi, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and leading researcher in nutritional biochemistry, bends down in the Ugandan soil outside a primary school. His study abroad students huddle around him. He picks up a stick and begins to work math problems in the dirt.

“He started telling us how he knew they practiced math that way because he went to primary school here,” says Trista Cushman, a biochemistry student who participated in the study abroad course in the summer of 2016. “This course with James was so amazing. He is so humble and is really invested in us getting something beneficial out of the course.”

Ntambi started a study abroad program to Uganda at the University of Wisconsin–Madison 15 years ago, and it has since morphed into several successful parallel initiatives. Students can participate in a program called Agriculture, Health & Nutrition, where they take a seminar during the fall semester and then travel to Uganda in late December. Other students participate in UW Mobile Clinics & Health Care, traveling to Uganda in the summer. Programs also exist where medical students travel to Uganda. These programs have impacted more than 300 students at UW–Madison.

Students and guide sit on a boat
Students in the Uganda course listen to their guide as they learn about the country on their safari trip. Photo: Jordan Minick.

“In courses I’ve taught, students learn about metabolic diseases and some are associated with nutritional deficiencies,” says Ntambi, who grew up and attended university in Uganda before earning a Fulbright to get a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. “We learn about them in a textbook but I wanted to start an international program where students could see the impacts of biochemistry in real life.”

The Department of Biochemistry also houses many other study abroad opportunities. Professor Marvin Wickens sends students each summer to work in labs in England, through the SCORE program, and Germany, through the Super G program, to gain valuable research and cultural experiences. The Khorana Program, run by professor Aseem Ansari, is an exchange program with India.

On the trips to Uganda, students get a comprehensive view of health impacts by learning about the influences of agriculture, nutrition, health care, and sanitation. They also learn about social factors, such as economics and culture, that impact people’s ability to make decisions about their health and that of their family and community. This holistic approach makes this program unique and beneficial to students.

In August, students help Ugandan doctors and nurses run mobile clinics that bring health care to villages where residents are unable to get to the country’s hospitals and clinics. Through touring hospitals and clinics, the students learn about the country’s health care system.

Undergraduate student with child in Ugandan village
Trista Cushman talks to a child in a Ugandan village. She hopes to return to Uganda during her career in healthcare. Photo: Paige Sieben.

They spend time working on projects that influence sanitation and access to clean water. Ntambi also hasn’t overlooked the importance of agriculture in health. His students spend time around a large sustainable farm that some village residents use to feed themselves and sell the surplus to support their families.

“I’m pre-med and plan to go to medical school so the focus on global health and the health care system in Uganda was very significant to me,” says Cushman, who received a scholarship from the Department of Biochemistry to help fund her trip. “In the medical field in the U.S. it’s very ‘treat, treat, treat’ and no prevention, but you realize that through the efforts of those working in Uganda that it can be an effective approach to health care. That is something I hope to continue.”

Students at a jewelry market. Brightly-colored jewelry and shopowners sitting on the ground.
The students survey the wares of women who make jewelry to sell at markets. Photo: Mitchell Arnold.

Biochemistry junior Caroline Kreitzer is about to travel to Uganda with Ntambi in late December. She says she’s excited about the trip and learning more about global health, which she plans to pursue as a career. The course offers flexibility so students can pick a specific topic they want to focus on. Kreitzer is interested in women’s health.

“Through the seminar this semester, I’ve learned many things about the country,” she says. “The course will be both hands on and reflective, where we think back on our experience and relate it to our futures in an integrated learning experience. I think that’s the benefit of being with someone like James.”

Biochemistry’s study abroad programs have a lasting impact. For example, the Village Health Project is a UW–Madison student organization started in 2005 that sprung out of students’ interest in continuing a relationship with the villages they visited on the trip. Many other students find themselves going back to Uganda, as well.

“Just the other day I was talking to someone in Uganda and learned a previous student from the course got a dental degree in Minnesota and is now going back to provide dental services in these rural communities,” says, Ntambi, who is also a faculty member in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Isn’t that amazing? They go back on their own because of the relationships they built. And that is what global health is all about.”


Read more about undergraduates and abroad opportunities in the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry:

SCORE, SUPER-G students take the ‘plunge’ and experience research in Europe

Students Find Passion in Labs as Undergraduate Summer Research Scholars

Six Ways to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research and Why You Should