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Professors discuss humanitarian work

Molly Madden | Thursday, April 2, 2009

Two University professors discussed their work on humanitarian projects in the developing world and the ways they have collaborated with native societies during a talk titled “Science, Technology and Development” in the Coleman-Morse Center Lounge Wednesday.

“What we’re here to do is to inform you of the obstacles we must overcome in order to do our projects,” Mary Ann McDowell, professor of biology, said.

McDowell is working on a project that deals with a disease called Leishmaniasis. Leishmaniasis is a disease that is caused by parasites from the Leishmania genus and is transmitted through the bites of certain species of sand flies.

“When this sand fly bites you, the parasite lives in your immune system,” McDowell said. “It is the ultimate parasite.”

McDowell is working on developing a vaccine that actually comes from bites of non-infected sand flies.

“When a blood-feeding insect bites you, she actually releases saliva into your bloodstream,” she said. “The components of these particular flies are pharmaceutically active and stops pain and blood-clotting.”

McDowell said the people who are native to areas where these “vaccinated” insects inhabit could develop immunity to the Leishmania strain over a period of time.

“These people are getting bit by these insects hundreds to thousands of times a day,” she said. “When they eventually get infected with the poisonous strain, they are less likely to get the disease and if they do it will be less severe.”

While McDowell has been working on curing parasitic diseases, Stephen Silliman, professor of civil engineering and geological sciences, has been working in the African country of Benin, helping small villages to develop a clean water supply.

“The complexities I face deal with the drilling of new groundwater wells,” Silliman said. “My project has been through two phases: the service and the collaboration phase.”

Silliman said when he first went to Benin in 1998 to dig a well for a small village, they managed to provide the village with two wells with the help of Notre Dame and organizations like Lifewater International.

“That was the ‘service’ phase,” Silliman said. “When we went back a few years later, we had the ‘collaboration’ phase where the villagers showed us a better way of providing them with water.”

Silliman said the villagers approached him about a Benin government program that pays for most of the cost of digging the wells on the condition that the villagers are trained in how to do the work themselves.

“With this collaboration, we’ve already completed fifteen wells as opposed to the two from the first venture,” Silliman said. “Not only did we spend less money the second time around, we also had trained water committees in those communities that we composed of locals.”

Both professors stated they are in these foreign countries for research that will help in the long run, not necessarily to bring about any immediate change – something McDowell said they must explain to the people they’re helping.

“Up front we tell them that there is no immediate benefit for them,”

McDowell said. “In my case, I am simply drawing blood.”

“You have to accept that you can’t always get a solution,” Silliman said. “It is difficult to walk into a village and know a solution won’t be found in twelve months, but we want to put more money into a solution that will make a larger impact.”