In the Media Archive

By Kelly Hochbein

Seven students flew to Panama City, Panama, last May and boarded a bus headed southwest to the mountains in the center of the country.

One hour later, the students got into the back of a pickup truck, and continued for another hour on a dirt road.

When the pickup could go no further over the muddy, mountainous terrain, the group got out and hiked for another hour, hauling their belongings and equipment to their base of operations, the small village of El Valle along the Rio Indio river.

The students, seven civil engineering majors, were now were ready to build a bridge.

The Rio Indio divides the remote communities of El Harino and Vallecito. During the dry season in Panama, from mid-December to early May, the river runs approximately three feet deep. Still, residents cross it on foot.

When heavy rains begin in May, the Rio Indio can rise five feet in 30 minutes. Now impassable, the surging river completely cuts off residents’ access to essential resources located on the other side of the river. Children in El Harino cannot attend school. Residents of Vallecito cannot reach the paved road, shop at the market, or receive medical care. The isolation makes daily life in this already impoverished community challenging at best, devastating at worst.

A footbridge, however, changes everything.

The students who traveled to El Valle were members of the Lehigh student chapter of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a nonprofit organization that partners with university student chapters to build footbridges in isolated communities around the world.

A 243-foot-long capstone project

Hardik Doshi, a former B2P intern who received a master’s of engineering degree in structural engineering from Lehigh in 2013, introduced B2P to a group of undergraduate civil engineering students a little more than a year ago.

The students applied to B2P for chapter status and raised more than $20,000 for their project in Panama, receiving a Thornton Tomasetti Foundation grant and a Grant for Experiential Learning in Health from Lehigh.

In January, Russ Vignali ’14 and Juan Viteri-Yaquian ’14 traveled to Panama to survey and select a site. Equipped with the necessary information about the Rio Indio, the group began to design a suspended footbridge with a 243-foot span.

“This effort represents a capstone of everything the students learn for their civil engineering degree,” says Clay Naito, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the B2P chapter’s adviser. “The exciting part of the project is that they can take the designs they develop in the classroom out to the site and actually build them.”

In addition to Naito, four other advisers accompanied the students on the three-week bridge-building trip. They were Peter Bryan, systems manager for the ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) Center; Daniel Zeroka, engineering technician in the department of civil and environmental engineering; Darrick J. Fritchman, ATLSS operations manager; and Patrick Trasborg ’14 Ph.D. The Lehigh group was hosted by local families in El Valle.

Assisted by local volunteers, the group dug trenches with shovels and carried equipment and materials such as cement, rebar and 1,000-pound cables on the arduous 40-minute hike from El Valle to the bridge site in Vallecito. Hard work and creative problem solving became routine on the project.

Engineering students typically work on paper or build a replica of something already in existence, says Doshi, who assisted with the project, “but this is completely different. They get a chance to actually make a difference and at the same time use their engineering knowledge for something that’s really valuable.”

Today, the footbridge is completed and its impact on the community is immeasurable. Children no longer miss months of school. Farmers can travel to the main marketplace to sell their crops. Obtaining medical care no longer involves tremendous risk. The Lehigh B2P footbridge has changed everything.

Next year, the chapter is planning to build another bridge in Panama. Tara Hofferth ’15, who led this year’s group, says the transformative project taught her how to think innovatively.

“This experience gave me the opportunity to work with a group of students that I did not know on an unprecedented project,” Hofferth wrote in a report about the project. “[It] involved being creative and innovative, thinking from a multi-disciplinary perspective, networking, and stepping outside of my comfort zone.

“I think we’re going to be a lot more prepared to be even more successful next time.

“The Lehigh University Bridges to Prosperity Chapter is just getting started.”

Faculty-student collaborations represent a key goal of the HMS program. While many research collaborations provide a fruitful dialogue or exchange for both students and faculty members, it is a rare success to have this develop into a scholarly publication. HMS student Maria Theresa Mejia and HMS faculty member Professor Kelly Austin collaborated on a project examining malaria prevalence across developing nations during the 2013-2014 academic year. This research has just been published in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology, and represents Theresa’s debut as a published health scholar. Their article, co-authored with Mark Noble of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, examines data from 90 developing countries to identify how gender inequality shapes the transmission of malaria. Theresa and Professor Austin are continuing to collaborate on research looking at the social predictors of health this fall as Theresa pursues a Master’s Degree of Sociology here at Lehigh.

In keeping with an institutional commitment to address complex issues with broad-based, interdisciplinary approaches, Lehigh University is continuing to fund small groups of faculty “clustered” around an intellectual theme, interest or problem. 
In mid-June, Provost Pat Farrell announced the selection of the Community Health cluster from the seven proposals submitted in February. The inaugural selected clusters—Smart Grid Electricity Systems and Africana Studies—were announced in April 2011. Later that year, the cluster initiative gained further momentum through the provision of seed funding for new cluster development proposals.
In all, 10 seed grants were awarded during the 2011-12 academic year for the following initiatives: Global Islamic Studies, Integrated Healthcare, Integrative Cognitive Neuroscience, Sustainable Development, Addressing Health Promotion through Prevention Science, Robotics, Asian Diaspora, Physics and Chemistry of Biological Systems, Community Health, and Digital Storytelling.
Donald Hall, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will serve as lead dean for the Community Health cluster, which will fund up to three new faculty positions. Searches for the first two are expected to begin this fall, with the third position filled the following academic year.
An interdisciplinary leadership core
The Community Health cluster will be headed up by a core group of five faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education. They are: Chris Burke, assistant professor in the department of psychology; Judith Lasker, professor in the department of sociology and anthropology; George White, professor in the College of Education’s educational leadership program and director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders; Breena Holland, associate professor of political science and the Environmental Initiative; and Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology.
Burke says this core group will work with Beth Dolan, associate professor of English and director of the Health, Medicine and Society program, and Dena Davis, professor of religion studies and Presidential Endowed Chair in Health, to achieve both the research and teaching goals of the cluster.
According to Burke, the Community Health Cluster will be strategically oriented around the community-based participatory research methodology that has been effective in analyzing and addressing determinants of health and health disparities.
“There is a growing recognition in the public health arena that a key to promoting and sustaining the health of populations is to understand the complex interplay between community members, their environments, and the healthcare system at the local level,” Burke said.  “Community-based participatory research is unique in that community members work side by side with researchers to identify and address the most pressing issues in the local community.”
In working closely with members of the community and with the institutions that serve them, Burke said that more trusting relationships can create a “climate of goodwill” that would encourage personal investment among local citizens and more self-sustaining interventions.
“There is also a significant benefit to researchers with this methodology. For instance, the active involvement of the community can open up access to streams of data that might otherwise be unavailable,” he said, citing Holland’s asthma research as a striking example. 
“Breena’s work is shedding light on the outdoor environmental factors that may contribute to high asthma rates among local schoolchildren, but you also need to look at the home  environments for the complete picture. Community members may be reluctant to open their doors to researchers, but if they can be trained to collect the data themselves in outdoor settings first, then this information becomes within reach.
“That’s the type of potential we see here,” he continued. “We have a well-defined, quite diverse community with significant needs. And we have the researchers here at Lehigh to help address them. What we lacked were a few core pieces to allow us to be more successful across the board.”
An increased interest from students
The selection of the Community Health Cluster comes at a time when undergraduate students are expressing an increasing interest in the university’s Health, Medicine and Society program and public health coursework, Burke said. The number of students minoring in HMS has grown from 36 to 159 since its inception in 2008, according to Dolan. The faculty hired as part of this cluster will enable students to pursue interests in epidemiology and community health with the potential for rich experiential learning opportunities.
“We’re tremendously excited to be selected for this funding,” Burke said. “It represents a very strong institutional commitment and it carries the potential to transform health in the community, as well as our relationship with the community.”
Dan Lopresti, professor and chair of computer science and engineering and co-chair of the Cluster Committee, said the committee considered the Community Health proposal an extremely strong one.
“In addition to the cluster theme, which is, of course, extremely important at a time when health and healthcare are serious concerns for society, we were particularly impressed by the strength of the cross-college collaboration and the potential for Lehigh to generate significant attention through the strategic hiring of three new faculty members to fill out the core faculty already present,” said Lopresti, who serves as co-chair with Anne Anderson, the Joseph K. Perella and Amy M. Perella Chair in finance.
Adds Farrell: “As we’ve seen with both Africana Studies and Smart Grid Electricity Systems, the development of these academic clusters at Lehigh broadly positions Lehigh for the future, and builds on the Lehigh culture of interdisciplinary work. This small group of new faculty focused on community health will augment current Lehigh faculty and provide the ability to move into exciting new areas of research and scholarship and can greatly benefit our local community in significant and measurable ways.”

By Michelle DiMeo and Joanna Warren

Michelle DiMeo teaches “Social History of Medicine in Early Modern Europe” at Lehigh University: an upper-level History course cross-listed with Lehigh’s interdisciplinary Health, Medicine and Society program. Students learn basic paleography, and the class works together to transcribe seventeenth-century medical recipes and situate them within their contemporary intellectual context. The following post is an edited version of a research paper written by Joanna Warren (class of 2015), a double major in Biology and International Relations with a minor in Health, Medicine and Society.

“Cure-all” medical remedies were popular in the early modern period, with one of the most popular being “The Countess of Kent’s Powder: good against all malignant and Pestilent diseases, French pox, Small Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, malignant or Scarlet Fevers, (and) good against Melancholy”.  It was first published in A Choice Manuall, or Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery (1653), a collection of household medicinal recipes attributed to Elizabeth Grey (1581-1651), Countess of Kent, and compiled by the book’s editor, William Jarvis, a “professor of phisick”. Lady Kent was well-educated and known for her collection of medical recipes and knowledge. A Choice Manuall was published two years after her death, and the 22nd (and last) edition was published in 1726, indicating its mass popularity.[1]