Prestigious Grant Sends SHSU Students Across The Globe
August 18, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
Sam Houston State University students and faculty embarked on a unique journey to Bangladesh this summer in response to a prestigious RO1 grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). A five-year grant, secured in 2021, has allowed Principal Investigator and Associate Professor Khalid Khan of the Department of Population Health and his colleagues determine how environmental metals impact the brain health of young children using a study population from rural Bangladesh.
Khan, as well as his colleague, Rasheda Sultana, are both originally from Bangladesh. The pair led a student team consisting of Mary Musleh, Stacey Wright and Brooke Brown across the globe for firsthand analysis while research scientist of this project, Jade Zimpfer, assisted the tour from a home base.
“To get an RO1 grant is phenomenal,” Zimpfer said. “Dr. Khan is one of three in the whole history of this institution to receive a grant of this magnitude.”
Khan’s project, officially titled “Building Capacity to Study Mixed Metal-Induced Neurotoxicity in Rural Bangladeshi Children”, was granted a five-year funding amount of approximately $2.7 million. Two NIH centers are co-funding the study, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and Fogarty International Center (FIC).
“After receiving the grant, I thought it would be great to give our students a chance to go to Bangladesh, where most of the field work is implemented,” Khan said. “The rural population and children living in the villages were our main focus.”
Despite the hefty grant, it is still far from cheap to cover student accommodations across the globe. While there was no room in the NIH grant to sponsor the students’ travel, Khan was advised to contact SHSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) for further assistance.
With strategic support provided from the ORSP, three students embarked on the opportunity of a lifetime in South Asia. The research trip lasted 16 days and involved projects with local universities and research organizations and, of course, field work in two rural communities.
“We are recruiting children at two stages of life,” Khan said. “The first group is adolescence, where we measure their metal exposures then investigate their brain development. There are some computer software systems we can use to measure cognitive functions.”
The research group is primarily analyzing harmful effects of metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and manganese. For the second group of children pregnant women are recruited and their children will be followed up after birth.
Sultana received a small grant to attend the trip from the Department of Population Health and joined the students at every research activity and workshop. She also assisted the students on the nuances of Bangladeshi culture, which would turn out to be the most memorable aspect of the trip.
“The students were so excited and enthusiastic,” Sultana said. “I was happy to see everybody come back healthy and safe. They liked Bangladeshi food, they liked our culture and they liked all the activities we did over there.”
As American-based students in rural Bangladesh, the three students certainly had a way of standing out in a crowd throughout their stay.
“The people were very welcoming, we were treated like celebrities over there,” Musleh said. “Rural people wanted to take pictures of us or have us sign autographs. It was a unique experience, and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.”
The Bangladeshi people were also always eager to feed their new guests and give them a firsthand taste of their local culture.
“They were all about food, it was like their love language,” Wright said. “As little as they have, they provided us with buffets. Everybody was so warm and welcoming, we loved the people and the culture.”
“They live in the struggle but at the same time are so generous,” Brown said. “That’s a lesson for everybody to remain humble in any situation. I found that really touching.”
The three students were chosen based on a certain set of criteria through a competitive process. They participated in various research activities with Khan and his team throughout the spring 2022 semester.
Both Musleh, a MPH student and Wright, an undergraduate student are set to graduate in December. Brown will graduate in May of 2023 and was recently accepted into the Bearkat Bridge program, which is akin to the McNair scholarship program and the honors college.
Due to their work on this project, the three students were chosen to present data from the NIH project at the prestigious American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting in Boston Nov. 6-9. They will also continue to participate in the project as it moves forward into its second year and plan to disseminate scientific data they collected during the trip in national or international conferences.
An important part of the work in Bangladesh included collaborating with local universities and institutes, including the University of Chicago Research Bangladesh (URB), the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), North South University (NSU) and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU).
“Our students were thrilled to observe amazing health service and clinical research facilities at the rural hospitals and clinics of icddr,b, URB and Hope Foundation in low resource settings,” Khan said. “Many of the ongoing projects implemented in these facilities are funded by NIH and other US agencies allowing our students to realize that high quality research is possible in vulnerable communities in a developing country if appropriate infrastructure is in place.”
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