Student insights on malaria

We caught up with Sarah McGough, a teaching assistant for the free, open-access online course, PH425x “MalariaX: Defeating Malaria from the Genes to the Globe” on the edX platform. McGough is a third year PhD candidate in Population Health Sciences, a new global health program at Harvard University. McGough shares how she got involved with malaria eradication and MalariaX.

What’s your background?
As an undergrad at the University of Notre Dame, I studied both biology and anthropology and felt that the natural intersection of those disciplines was the field of public health. I was particularly drawn to understanding population health from a macro-level perspective. I had a background in field work and had experience in engaging with communities to study the dynamics of disease, the interplay of culture and society, and how these issues affect a population’s vulnerability to disease. My past training in life science helped me to understand the dynamics of each disease from a biological perspective — but I had to learn what other factors, such as social, cultural, or behavioral factors, affected disease and particularly how they influenced the spread of disease in a given population.

What’s your research focus?
I feel really passionate about climate change and understanding how it affects the spread of infectious diseases. Some mosquitos are vectors for diseases like malaria and are known to be especially sensitive to the effects of climate. As part of my doctoral training, I’ve been working with Professor Marcia Castro (Professor of Demography at the Harvard Chan and member of the “MalariaX” teaching faculty) to look at the effects of changing the temperature on humidity, including the creation of new breeding sites for mosquitos in the Brazilian Amazon. As a researcher, a fundamental question that I’m interested in exploring is, “Where could malaria move in the world given these dynamic changes in climate?”

What excited you to be part of “MalariaX”?
To me one of the most interesting aspects of “MalariaX” was the teaching approach — similar to the concept of ‘defeating malaria from the genes to the globe’ — the faculty built the curriculum with this framework in mind. It was like building a course from the ground up, and it required a really dynamic and multifaceted curricular approach. As a population health and statistical modeler, it was also cool for me to work with other students and professors in the basic and social sciences — we joined forces and combined perspectives on eliminating malaria to create this course.

I was able to contribute to a lot of the curriculum that dealt with cultural and human behavioral factors influencing malaria transmission, but I also learned a lot by working alongside faculty and teaching assistants familiar with malaria parasite resistance to certain prophylaxis drugs. Developing the course helped to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about the biological and genetic aspects of malaria. I think we all learned from one another in creating this course.

Who should take the course?
I think anybody should take the course! People who work in an unrelated field — who don’t know anything about malaria — could take this course only to answer the question, “Why does Bill Gates care about malaria so much?”

Specifically, MalariaX is beneficial for public health practitioners, as well as people within ministries of health and national malaria control programs. My colleagues in the Brazilian Ministry of Health have participated in Harvard Defeating Malaria programs and courses, including MalariaX. I think MalariaX is a great way to connect colleagues from all over the world in one course format.

Learners interact with each other through the discussion boards where they get to post and ask questions. With over 140 countries represented, the discussion boards allow people to learn from each other and their home countries. For any student in the natural sciences, medicine, and public health, this course a great way to understand the challenges of eliminating malaria and the dynamics of malaria as a disease. Even if you’re not interested in understanding or treating specifically malaria, this course teaches you what it really takes to fully understand a disease and go about its elimination.

What advice do you have for those who want to work in malaria eradication?
Malaria eradication is very multifaceted. It’s going to take an enormous collaboration of people from all disciplines. No matter what you’re good at, you can be useful to malaria eradication, from communication to bench science to math. Find what you’re best at, and then collaborate with others. Malaria eradication is going to be a long road but it’s not impossible.

To learn more or enroll in MalariaX: Defeating Malaria from the Genes to the Globe, visit the edX website.