Once commencement celebrations end, a fair proportion of the Class of 2008 will be pulling out passports. But Jessica Gu, Michael Marcus and Antonio Moya aren't just tourists. These three dedicated graduates will spend their summers — and beyond — working to improve the state of public health in far-flung corners of the globe.
Jessica Gu: AIDS in Tanzania
Gu, a microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics major who has spent the past three years teaching AIDS awareness at UCLA and at local high schools, wants to spread the word that even college-age students can make change in the world, especially when it comes to the global AIDS pandemic.
"HIV counts as an infectious disease, but its ramifications go beyond the realm of health care, affecting poverty, child labor, and social and gender issues," she says. "It is also completely preventable. If everyone had access to education regarding the prevention and transmission of HIV, then AIDS would end by itself."
And while Gu's local efforts have been effective and rewarding, it was the summer she spent running an AIDS-awareness campaign near Arusha, Tanzania, that convinced her she could make a major contribution to those struggling with the disease.
The fast-growing city of Arusha is ripe for the rapid spread of HIV, says Gu, located as it is halfway between the tourist mecca of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti plains. While working in the area for the nonprofit group Support for International Change, she witnessed firsthand the devastating toll the virus had already taken on the lives of countless families.
Time after time, women would lose their husbands to AIDS, only to find out that they, too, were infected with HIV. Gu was so touched and saddened by the stories she heard and the reality of so many children left without parents that she vowed to do what she could to help.
The three seniors in this story are among 18 outstanding members of the Class of 2008 honored by the UCLA Alumni Association. To find out more, see the 2008 Alumni Awards Recipients.
She brainstormed with a number of fellow volunteers and ended up creating the nonprofit One Heart Source to raise funds to build an educational facility and home for children in the area whose parents have died of AIDS.
This summer, along with nearly 60 volunteers, Gu will travel to Tanzania to help construct the facility. Approximately 15 workers will be hired to staff the home, and by October, 30 children will be able to live and eat there, and benefit from on-site counseling and academic programs while they attend school. After those children are acclimated to the new environment, more children will be taken in.
Gu will continue to raise money for the orphanage and make yearly trips to Tanzania as she pursues a career in public health and public policy.
Michael Marcus: primary care in India
Marcus, who will earn his degree in neuroscience, is a founding member and co-president of Project RISHI (Rural India Social and Health Improvement). Dedicated to developing and transforming rural Indian villages into modern, progressive societies, the project has focused on providing access to primary health care for the residents of Vadamanappakkam, a southern Indian village whose nearest hospital is 35 miles away.
After helping the organization raise $20,000, Marcus traveled to the village, where he helped set up a mobile medical clinic, including a triage unit and pharmacy. Last summer, the clinic treated more than 1,000 patients with ailments ranging from diabetes and parasites to hypertension and respiratory infections. Marcus also helped educate local residents on how to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease. This summer, the project will begin operating a permanent clinic, which it has built from the ground up.
In addition to his responsibilities with Project RISHI, Marcus currently does research at two Los Angeles-area hospitals, studying schizophrenia at the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center and degenerative disc disease at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. He is applying to medical school for fall 2009, but says he will continue to be involved with the project.
"Although I've been working in neuroscience with the intention of becoming a neurosurgeon, this experience has made me want to keep the option open of going into rural medicine," Marcus says. "I enjoy taking on the large responsibility of someone else's health, and the people I have met in India have been so appreciative. I definitely will continue to be involved in this for life."
Antonio Moya: stroke care in Manila
Moya, a neuroscience major, will travel to Manila, Philippines, this summer on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the country's medical response to stroke victims.
A Philippine native who came to the U.S. as a young child, Moya has learned a lot about strokes during his time at UCLA. As a research assistant for UCLA neurology professor Dr. David Liebeskind, he has spent hours poring over MRI images to find out if they can help predict whether stroke patients will recover from an acute stroke. And for three years, he has been an active member of the Student Stroke Team at UCLA Medical Center's emergency room, under the direction of emergency medicine and neurology professor Dr. Sidney Starkman.
As team members, Moya and other undergraduates make rounds, interviewing potential stroke victims in an effort to help the medical staff assess these patients' needs in a timely manner. The efficiency of this process can mean the difference between a stroke victim suffering permanent disabilities or being treated in time to reverse them.
Communicable diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis used to be the leading causes of death in the Philippines, but since 1990, heart disease and stroke have topped the list. Moya hopes to find out why and to discover how this trend might be stopped.
"In stroke centers, the emergency department and the neurology department work hand in hand and determine the time of the onset of the stroke and the symptoms, information that can help them reverse the symptoms of the stroke," Moya says. "I want to find out how the medical response to strokes differs in areas close to Manila, where the country's stroke centers are concentrated, from areas outside of the city center, where general medicine is practiced."
Beyond his stroke work, Moya has been involved with several other public health programs, using music as a form of therapy for the sick and elderly in hospitals and retirement homes, and volunteering with the student group Pilipinos for Community Health to screen patients for high blood pressure outside supermarkets and at health fairs.
Moya aspires to become a physician and researcher and actively recruits other undergraduates to become research assistants in the stroke study field.
Snapshots courtesy of the students