UCSF postdoctoral scholar Selma Omer, 28, jumped at the chance to teach biochemistry at Muhimbili University College for Health Sciences (MUCHS) in Tanzania.
"I was thinking about ways in which I could bridge my research in basic science and use it to advance health in Africa," she said. "I always wanted to work in developing countries. This was an opportunity to work with UCSF in Tanzania and I was really excited about it."
Omer, whose father and sister are both physicians, says she has always been interested in the health sciences, especially biochemistry.
Teaching in Tanzania
The first medical college and the only publicly funded health sciences university in Tanzania, MUCHS comprises four schools, including dentistry, nursing, medicine and pharmacy.
Subject to a hiring freeze during the 1990s, MUCHS is still recovering from a shortage of faculty. The problem is exacerbated because MUCHS has seen a rise in student enrollment while financial resources are limited.
A native of Sudan, Omer graduated from Reading University, UK with a degree in biochemistry and a PhD in molecular endocrinology. She was wrapping up her three-year postdoctoral program in neuroendocrinology at Oxford University, when the opportunity to teach in Tanzania presented itself. She joined UCSF's Gilles Hickson to begin teaching biochemistry 100 to first-year students. They worked with Stephanie Tache, an assistant clinical professor of family and community medicine who serves as health systems strengthening officer for Global Health Sciences (GHS). Tache was responsible for coordinating the education project based in Dar es Salaam.
"For me it was like coming back home," said Omer, who spent six months working in Tanzania. "It's a beautiful country."
UCSF's collaboration with MUCHS began in 2004, when GHS representatives hosted a meeting in Tanzania with their MUCHS colleagues to exchange ideas for potential academic and research collaborations. As a first step in identifying teaching and curricular needs at MUCHS, faculty from the medical school were invited to UCSF for a 10-day fellowship in medical education. During the initial visit by MUCHS faculty to UCSF in September 2005, it was agreed that UCSF would send postdocs to help fill the teaching gap in Tanzania, among other joint activities.
It is a model in which GHS is developing to replicate in other resource-constrained settings. GHS works to improve health and reduce health disparities on a global scale, in part by training the next generation of global health scientists and clinicians and partnering with institutions to help them build programs in health care and life sciences.
"I really enjoyed the students," Omer said. "They are so motivated, serious, hardworking with 100 percent attendance. They are really keen to learn. Their great enthusiasm is probably a reflection of the highly competitive university admissions process."
Besides teaching a large class size of about 320 students, Omer found other challenges as well. Biochemistry 100 is taught during the first semester of all first-year students in all four schools whose knowledge and backgrounds varied widely.
Grading exams was markedly improved with the use of a scanner donated by UCSF. Although computers with Internet access also were lacking, the communication with students was very efficient through class representatives who managed to photocopy and distribute handouts to students within a short time.
Omer is now working with Haile Debas, executive director of GHS, on curriculum development and strategic planning for a UC committee on biotechnology for the African Institute for Science & Technology. The goal is to generate future leaders and entrepreneurs within Africa who can create sustainable projects that fuel the economy.
"You need to be selective about the types of projects you carry out," Omer said. "It must be considered whether these programs are encouraging development or dependency. I think that is crucial. I do believe that change will happen through education. The long-term solution is empowering the next generation of people within Africa who have the fire in their belly and who want to make a difference."
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