James Ntambi Reflects on Decades of Study Abroad

Professor James Ntambi has brought groups of undergraduate students to his native country of Uganda since 2002. The Uganda Program has gained notoriety not only among biochemistry majors, but also among students in scientific disciplines across the UW–Madison campus. Students receive global health experience credits for their participation.

Ntambi’s research, which focuses on the genetic regulation of metabolism in health and disease, was strongly influenced by his firsthand observations of malnutrition and other food-related illnesses.

Photo of James Ntambi
Professor James Ntambi.

He has paved the way for students to gain their own observational understanding of metabolic disorders while connecting with communities through study abroad programs he established at UW with John Ferrick, former CALS associate director of international programs, and Solomy Ntambi, a pediatric social worker at American Family Children’s Hospital. More than 600 students have participated in these programs, which allow them to complete coursework at UW while giving them opportunities to explore public health, agriculture, medical care, and public policy — fields in which biochemistry majors often seek careers after graduating — in between semesters.

Ntambi, who conducted research in Kenya and Tanzania after completing his undergraduate work in Uganda, first came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar at Johns Hopkins University in 1980, where he completed his graduate and post-doctoral work in biochemistry and molecular biology. He joined the UW–Madison in 1992. Renata Solan, science writer for the Department of Biochemistry, talked with Ntambi about his more than thirty years at the university and his more than twenty years of experience building experiential programs.

Q: What inspired you to bring students from Wisconsin to Uganda?

When I first came to this department, I taught a class on metabolism. We covered metabolic pathways that lead to noncommunicable diseases, such as diseases due to protein deficiencies or high-fat and high-carbohydrate diets. There are diseases still prevalent in many parts of the world that are not common here in Madison. The impact is so different when [students] see it for themselves, rather than reading about it in a book. So, I set up a study abroad program which could offer students experiences outside the classroom and the lab. The students who come on our trips have gained a more global perspective about how researchers think about metabolic diseases and how doctors treat the diseases. They also see how communities and doctors are trying to prevent these diseases through agricultural practices, nutritional interventions, and scientific education.

Q: How does your research intersect with, and inform, the Uganda study abroad programs?

The research I do on metabolism addresses some noncommunicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, fatty liver disease, and so on. In some communities in Uganda, people are developing these metabolic diseases. The knowledge we have been building in my lab helps to develop strategies to manage and prevent metabolic diseases. I bring this knowledge with me when I visit [Uganda], and I work with doctors and health care professionals. Together, the students and people in the communities we visit learn about disease prevention strategies.

Q: You have been taking students to Uganda for decades. How has the program changed over time?

Originally, the program focused on building partnerships with other universities, professors, and researchers. But it is communities in rural areas, not the universities, that are most impacted by the health and agricultural systems we are visiting. Now, most of our activities are community-based. We visit agricultural fields and stations, we visit nutritional clinics, we go to schools, we look at places where people suffer from common metabolic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension. We get an opportunity to build relationships. We learn from them; they learn from us. And every time we go back, we check on what we did last time, see if the activities were impactful, and make changes based on what the communities need.

Q: What can students expect to do during the program in Uganda?

The summer students work and observe doctors and other health care providers at community-based mobile clinics — which the program has helped to set up — and talk to patients. They see how the doctors there diagnose medical conditions and what treatments they turn to. The winter students see how agricultural practices and availability of food impacts health and wellness. We also help to set up small home gardens. Even if someone doesn’t have much room, they can use sacks as containers to grow vegetables and students see how, in the smallest of spaces, families can grow enough vegetables to feed their children for weeks.

A goal of the trip is for students to see how different systems — health, nutrition, agriculture — are all connected. For example, we visit markets and farms and every year we think about why, if there is plenty of food, do kids become nutrient deficient? Why do they suffer from nutrition-related diseases? Then we visit the nutritional clinic in the country’s major referral hospital, as well as a community nutrition clinic where we sit down with the children and their mothers and talk about diet, about what food is available. Through these conversations, our students end up really learning about culture, how people interact with each other, and the kind of problems present in the communities.

Every evening, we debrief and talk about what we have learned. We compare what happens here in the U.S. and Uganda, the ways our health care and agricultural systems are different. There are ways that our systems are better and ways that they’re worse. The students learn to think about diversity in health care and agriculture, about community and collaboration.

Q: How does the program enhance the students’ coursework and labwork at UW?

The program is really about relationships and how we communicate with each other, and the impact that can have. Students make connections between what we’re seeing and the biochemical mechanisms behind the metabolic diseases we study. They start to think about our own health care system and the balance of disease prevention and treatment. The students and the communities both learn about the role nutrition plays in preventative care. People used to think that nutrition was just eating food. We’re learning and teaching about how the food you eat is handled by your body and how that impacts your health. The knowledge our students gain in the classroom, the work we do on the bench, all of that is translated into a common language to educate people about food, nutrition, and health.

Q: How have you seen the program impact your students beyond their time in Uganda?

Many of the students go into careers in public health fields. They start thinking about their futures in medical and nutritional sciences in terms of global health and global agricultural issues.

Some students are so inspired that their work in Uganda continues after graduation. They go back and visit the villages where we worked. They see opportunities to do more. They want a continuing relationship. A group of students started the Village Health Project to install clean water systems in Uganda. Access to clean water can be a major barrier to health. The students began it as a student organization, and now it’s also a nonprofit.

Q: What do you see for the future of this program?

I’d like to stay involved and help to keep it going after I retire. I would like to keep building opportunities for all students to go to Uganda if they want to. In Biochemistry, we can award some students with travel funds to come on the program, but not every student has the resources or support to pay for the program.

The experience is valuable to students, and since we’ve worked in these communities for many years, the trust is there. We work with leadership, with health care providers, with farmers, and with community members. They see that we are coming from UW–Madison, and they are excited to work with us. We’ve taken the time to build those relationships. People know who we are and know they can trust us. I want future students to have the opportunity to build off that.

Photos courtesy of James Ntambi, taken by students during the winter and summer programs.

Student Voices: Past program participants share about their experiences in Uganda.

“The trip prompted me to kind of take more of an interest in holistic perspectives on health, which is something that Professor Ntambi really emphasized. After the trip, I added a certificate in global health and expanded my coursework to include more classes on health and nutrition policy, as well as agriculture and environmental policy.”
Brooke Hartwig: August 2022
Major in neurobiology
Certificate in public health

“I was unsure if medicine was the right career for me, and then I went to Uganda. We met with one of the doctors who was also doing public health work, and I could see myself doing something similar here in America. I want to practice medicine like that — balancing public health work with treating patients.”
Jaskiran Kaur Sandhu: August 2022
Major in biology
Certificates in health policy and global health

“The Uganda program is really tailored to biochemistry majors because of Professor Ntambi’s expertise. I wasn’t as familiar with thinking about agriculture in the context of biochemistry, so that was a really cool aspect of the trip. And, I got to hear how people from other disciplines experienced each day. We would have an opportunity to ask and answer questions about what we’d seen, what we’d experienced.”
Beth Young: January 2023
Major in biochemistry

“I do research in the Ntambi Lab on genes related to diabetes. The disease can be so deadly and it affects so many people, not only here but in Uganda and all over the world. In Uganda, I had the opportunity to see how doctors are treating some of the diseases that we study in our lab and how the diseases impact people’s lives. I am returning to Uganda this winter to learn more about how nutrition and agriculture are linked to human health.”
Jacqueline Miller: August 2022 and January 2024
Majors in biochemistry, chemistry, and Italian

Students and community members in Uganda during study abroad programming