From Molecular Science to Political Science: Pasteur Internship Introduces Students to Global Public Health

By Masarah Van Eyck, Division of International Studies

Trucks, cabs, and horse-drawn carts compete for space with pedestrians and even goats below the skyscrapers of downtown Dakar, Senegal. But passing through the iron gates into the Pasteur Institutes’ garden courtyard, one is greeted by a bust of Louis Pasteur himself and the air settles into a certain calm.

In the medical virology building, UW-Madison undergraduate student and Mineral Point native Dean Sayre greets me from the other end of the hallway–a tall, shyly smiling 22-year-old in jeans and a Bucky Badger t-shirt. After a tour of the facility from Sayre’s supervisor Dr. Kadar Ndiaye, we descend the stairs for lunch on Gorée Island. Leaving our halting French behind us, Sayre begins to relax into speaking and he easily offers up statistics to put his work and newly discovered passion in context.

“It’s estimated that 600,000 kids die a year around the world from rotavirus,” Sayre says. “And more than 80 percent of those kids are in Africa and Asia.”

Contrast this with the 40 or so deaths per year from the virus in the U.S.

Faced with the disparity between the state of healthcare in Senegal versus his native U.S., Sayre is far from defeated. If anything, it has made him a more devoted researcher.

“It’s not that more people are infected in Africa,” Sayre explains, “it’s just that more die from the virus. Today there are two licensed rotavirus vaccines in the world, but they are primarily available in Europe and the Americas.”

“That’s what’s really interesting,” he continues, “the tools are actually out there to avoid this.”

Those “tools,” he has come to understand, are not just the vaccines engineered in labs like his. Equally important are programs like the PATH Rotavirus Vaccine Program, established to bring vaccines to the populations that need them most urgently.

Initially tasked with collecting samples from sewers in and around Dakar, Sayre spent his first few weeks searching for wild or nonvaccinal strains of polio under the tutelage of Dr. Ndiaye, a researcher in Pasteur’s department of medical virology run by Dr. Ousmane Diop. (Researchers have yet to identify any nonvaccinal strains in the region. But due to migration to and from neighboring countries, Senegal cannot yet be considered entirely polio free.)

By the time I visit in the middle of January, about nine weeks into Sayre’s internship, his research has shifted and he’s spending most of his days–and sometimes nights–on a new task: analyzing the hundreds of samples of rotavirus that are sent to the Institute from three clinical sites in Dakar alone. The Institute eventually hopes to receive and research samples from around the country.

Affecting almost every child in the world by the age of five, rotavirus is the most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea. Like the flu, the rate of infection peaks in the winter months. The day before we meet, 55 samples had just arrived. Each day, Sayre searches for genotypes to determine how many of the strains are circulating at any given time.

“Dean has contributed a great deal to our lab,” Ndiaye tells me in French. “He is a very critical thinker. He understands his work very well.”

Sayre is the first student to take advantage of this unique opportunity established as an agreement between UW-Madison’s Division of International Studies and the Pasteur Institute. Geared specifically toward undergraduate students in the biomedical sciences, the Pasteur internship provides them with research training for up to twelve weeks at any willing Institute around the world.

“In school I was really into the mechanics of the viruses, how they work and mutate,” Sayre says as we wind our way through Dakar’s skycrapers to catch a ferry to the island. “Then I came here and I saw myself really getting into the public health thing and wondering what will happen here in regards to the viruses I’m looking at.”

Sayre is not alone; a recent survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges reveals that U.S. students in the healthcare professions are increasingly traveling abroad for some aspect of their education. In 2006, 27 percent of U.S. medical students had studied overseas, contrasted with just 6 percent in 1984. The trend is positive; international experiences provide students with an understanding of public health–and health disparity–they are unlikely to gain in a classroom.

Devoted to global public health, the Pasteur Institute has become an international network of associated institutions studying infectious diseases. Founded in Paris in 1887 by Louis Pasteur (the scientist who developed the first rabies vaccine two years earlier), the Institute now has 24 centers that are situated in developing countries around the world.

Together, the Réseau International des Instituts Pasteur forms a global network of biomedical research that reinforces the purpose–and urgency–of epidemiological research and preventive care. Pasteur’s successors have developed vaccines for diphtheria, yellow fever, tetanus, and hepatitis B, among other infectious agents. The center in Paris was the first to isolate the HIV virus in 1983.

“This is one of the more unique opportunities for study abroad,” says Gilles Bousquet, dean of UW-Madison’s Division of International Studies, who brokered the arrangement in March 2006. “And it’s essential. Students in the health professions need to connect with with the wider world in order to be global citizens and leaders in their fields. The Pasteur internship gives students that international perspective.”

To Sayre, seeing those epidemics in their native region has made a world of difference.

“In undergrad I thought study abroad was just for humanities majors,” he says. “It didn’t even occur to me to go abroad. So when I heard about this opportunity, I decided I’d do whatever it took to get in it.”

What it took was no small amount of courage and tenacity on the part of this Wisconsinite who had never before traveled to a developing country.

Having just graduated from UW-Madison with a double major in molecular biology and medical microbiology and immunology, Sayre had already applied, and been accepted, to UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health when he learned about this pilot internship program.

“I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says, though it meant declining entrance into one of the country’s most competitive medical schools.

“I didn’t think twice about turning down my acceptance,” Sayre continues, “even when I wasn’t yet sure I’d been accepted to go to Dakar!”

Still, experience researching and tracking viruses isn’t the only reason why Sayre jumped at the opportunity to work in Dakar. He also hoped his time in one of West Africa’s largest French speaking cities would allow him to pick up the language where he left off in high school.

As it turns out, this objective required an equal amount of determination on his part.

“Because in science everyone knows some English, I didn’t really have to pick [French] up,” Sayre says. “But it was one of my goals when I came here. And I feel really, really ignorant around here because everyone knows three or four languages!”

For his last four weeks in Dakar, Sayre took the matter into his own hands: “I told everyone I’d only speak French with them for the entire month.” He also presented his final PowerPoint presentation for his colleagues in French.

Unsure of where his French skills will take him and previously uninterested in medical research, Sayre now has a host of options to consider. In the meantime, he has returned to Madison for the next round of medical school applications and, possibly, a career in global public health.