Toxicology for Sierra Leone

Volunteers develop a course to help students help themselves.

Row of vials labeled with symbols for toxic substances

The course’s goal was to provide a basic understanding of how chemicals in your daily life can be bad for you. Antoine2K/iStock

When Rachel Wilson PhDx’20 heard about the need for a toxicology course in Sierra Leone, the graduate student in the UW’s Molecular and Environmental Toxicology program didn’t think twice.

After listening to a 2018 seminar presentation by the Sierra Leonean associate professor Alhaji N’jai, a former UW postdoctoral fellow, Wilson worked with N’jai and Professor Chris Bradfield to help initiate the effort. In 2017, Wilson participated in a yearlong teaching fellowship, where she learned how to develop a course. She emailed fellow toxicology students to see whether anyone else was interested in volunteering, hearing back from nine — about a quarter of the program.

“The goal was to provide a basic understanding of toxicology and why chemicals can be bad for you — how things in your daily life can be toxic,” Wilson says. “Then another more ambitious goal of this was that we would try to teach [students in Sierra Leone] ways that they can change that.”

The UW students split the course into units, assigning topics — such as heavy-metal and pesticide toxicities — depending on area of expertise. Once developed, the pilot course, consisting of lectures, worksheets, and activities, was taught by N’jai at the University of Sierra Leone.

Feedback from the class was positive, N’jai says, and the course is expected to become part of the university’s permanent curriculum. It may also be incorporated at a new university, Koinadugu College, which N’jai and his nonprofit, Project 1808, are developing in the northern part of the country.

Three of the original nine UW students — Wilson, Fola Arowolo PhDx’20, and Morgan Walcheck ’16, PhDx’22 — also hope to help teach a certificate program in Sierra Leone early next year. Whereas the pilot course was geared toward students, the certificate has been developed for the country’s government and industry leaders.

“I take for granted sometimes all of my education,” Wilson says. “You don’t realize that if you just put [that knowledge] on paper, that can change somebody’s life in a different place. This has been a really interesting and nice way of seeing how we can all put our minds together here and have a positive impact on someone else’s life.”

Published in the Winter 2019 issue

Tags: Africa, Environment, Health and medicine, International, Research, Science

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