UMD: A Globally Connected University

In Global Health Class, No Time to Waste

In a small office at the School of Public Health, Dr. Muhiuddin Haider quietly works at developing the international connections necessary for research into public health and sustainability at a global level. Originally from Bangladesh, Haider spent a long career in public health before joining UMD in 2009, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in the Global Health Program at the School of Public Health. Now, he is bringing together students from his home country and students from UMD to create a research environment that benefits both.

Haider’s focus in recent years has been on the environmental factors mediating the spread of diseases, primarily waste disposal. As countries develop, their waste management challenges become more complex, posing increasingly significant health threats locally and globally. It is important for U.S. students who are working in global public health to have access to data from the field in order to understand this context. For many students at UMD, the conditions of life in certain countries are unimaginable, particularly in countries where public health is underfunded and underdeveloped. It is difficult today to imagine an American city in which the trash is not collected on a regular basis, where waste disposal is not a priority, even if it is not perfect.

Walking the pristine pavements of UMD, it is also difficult to picture what a similar university may look like in a developing country halfway around the world. Understanding the implications, and designing interventions for improving public health conditions in countries where the challenges are not only physical requires the development of a new mindset.

The mechanism Haider is using to build this understanding among his students is the Global Classroom initiative sponsored by UMD’s Office of International Affairs. A technologically mediated learning experience built around mixed teams of students from UMD and international partner institutions working on real-world problems, the Global Classroom is allowing Haider to give his students unique training in practical waste management project implementation in partnership with students at the International University of Bangladesh (IUB) in Dhaka, the capital city.  As one of the most densely populated cities in the world (population 15 million) which also has a developing infrastructure, Dhaka is an excellent place to examine waste collection and management, and to learn research techniques, data collection, analysis and research report writing on community household waste management.

“The focus is waste management, because as you know universal health coverage is a big topic nowadays for WHO (World Health Organization), World Bank and other international bodies and universal health coverage has certain principles, which are derived from primary healthcare. Nowadays if you look at the burden of disease data, 69 percent of diseases are mediated by environmental factors. So my argument is why [can’t] environmental health…be part of universal health coverage?” said Haider.

This is where research collaboration between universities in other countries and UMD is vital. It is a meeting point between the expertise and resources of an advanced American research university, and the field skills and problem solving techniques of a young research institution in a country where the problems are both pressing and immediate.  Haider received a 2015 Global Classrooms Initiative grant to develop his environmental health course, “Addressing Pressing Global and Environmental Public Health Challenges in Bangladesh,” and implement it from 2016-18.

Partnering with IUB in Dhaka, this year’s Global Classroom brought together six students from each university. The students were divided into three teams of four, with two students from each institution on a team. The teams then picked specific quantitative and qualitative research questions, creating a sampling area where information was gathered and then collected, analyzed and reported, with the Bangladeshi students focusing on fieldwork and research while students at UMD provided the technical support necessary to analyze the data.

The class also partnered with a Bangladeshi NGO, Waste Concern, to help develop the sample area and mobilize the community in support of their efforts.  This, said Haider, was a unique moment, as few such other partnerships exist between local NGOs and foreign research institutions. “Of course our students would like to go to the field and join the groups, and I hope in the future we can consider that, in collaboration with UMD International Affairs,” said Haider.

UMD is uniquely positioned to assist in this area. While students in Haider’s course can only recommend and design interventions, as one of the 144 member institutions in the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, UMD has the ability to help promote these ideas as sustainable solutions. The idea, said Haider, is to get government and the private sector motivated to work in areas that might otherwise be ignored.

“I hope our data will be disseminated at the appropriate time to the government authorities and hopefully we’ll inspire the private sector to get involved with waste management to achieve two kinds of benefits: economic benefits that you can get from recycling and health benefits by reducing the infection that comes from water or air pollution due to poor waste management,” said Haider.

Public Health was at one time a field where intervention by research was not a priority. As the benefits of increasing public health became clear, however, universities and governments developed greater collaborative focus on the area. Today we see the same partnership in global public health. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the Zika outbreak in Brazil have showed us that improvements in global public health are fundamental to the interests of people around the world. Diseases are not concerned with borders, and combatting the conditions that create them is as important as developing the medical means to defeat them.