Ntambi’s Uganda courses inspire students to pursue health and service careers

This story appeared first on the Department of Biochemistry website.

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 field course in the summer of 2016.

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 global health field course 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 another global health field course, UW Mobile Clinics & Health Care, traveling to Uganda in the summer. Programs also exist for medical students. More than 300 students have participated in the programs.

Students in the Uganda field course learn about the country from their guide. ( Photo by 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.

Students tour hospitals and clinics, learning about the country’s health care system. They spend time working on projects that improve sanitation and access to clean water. Students also visit a large sustainable farm that provides food for village residents and surplus to sell.

“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.”

Biochemistry junior Caroline Kreitzer was excited for the opportunity to learn more about global health, which she plans to pursue as a career. “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.”