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Project Jumpstart Students Explore Epidemiology in Meshnick Lab

August 14, 2017
Gillings School of Global Public Health

Questions filled the air as enthusiastic teenagers watched a machine fill row after row of test tubes at high speed.

“What is epidemiology, exactly?”

“If mosquitoes transmit malaria, does it make them sick, too?”

“How many countries have you traveled to for research?”

The inquisitive visitors to the Meshnick Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health were part of Project Jumpstart, a college readiness and life skills course for local high school students whose families are Burmese, Karen and Syrian refugees.

Project Jumpstart, which is taking place on the UNC campus from August 7-19, is spearheaded by Riley Foster, a senior Eve Carson Scholar studying public policy and economics. The project was created, Foster said, to spark an interest in higher education, to provide first-generation students with resources to envision college as a reality, and to connect those students with undergraduate mentors.

As Steven Meshnick, professor and associate chair of epidemiology at the Gillings School, guided the students through his lab, he outlined his research into tropical infectious diseases. After jokingly cautioning the visitors, “Just don’t touch anything!” he went on to explain, “Ultimately, we use science to make the world a better place. For example, in Thailand and parts of Africa, we use modern genetic tools to make disease maps so governments know exactly which of their provinces are most affected and need the most help.”

After the tour, students moved into a conference room to hear from Kyaw-Lay Thwai, Meshnick’s lab manager, who is himself a Burmese refugee. Thwai spoke about his experiences conducting research while living in a refugee camp in Thailand, a role which eventually led to his current job working with blood samples and sequencing DNA.

“While it’s helpful for students to hear from college admissions and financial aid professionals, there’s nothing like getting out in the world and seeing the opportunities that accompany a college education,” Foster said. “The tour of Dr. Meshnick’s lab allowed us to combine a neat, hands-on experience with the chance to hear from Kyaw-Lay, who is instrumental in the success of the lab’s research. My impression was that meeting an individual who represents their community made this experience all the more intriguing and beneficial for the students.”

As the tour ended, high school student Hikhrihay Htee shared her thoughts on the visit.

“It was amazing!” she declared. “I’ve never been a big fan of science, because I don’t want to work inside all day. But hearing [Dr. Meshnick] talk about traveling the world and doing field work made me think it might be cool after all.”

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