students conducting medical interview
Three students practice their interviewing skills at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte In Brazil. (Photo by Saionara Câmara)

The rocky and semi-arid terrain of northeastern Brazil, dotted with small cities and rural communities, represents a formidable barrier not only to travel, but to conducting quality health research. Now, Office of Public Health Studies researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa are partnering with Brazilian epidemiologists to reach out to college students in Brazil seeking to improve health programs in this hard-to-reach and economically disadvantaged region.

woman looking in telescope
A student at the Federal University of Rio Grande Do Norte in Brazil examines a biological specimen. (Photo by Saionara Câmara)

The students are being taught to administer health surveys, interview study participants, collect epidemiological data in the field and write research articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, according to a published paper in the Journal of Global Health.

“These students want to learn how to conduct epidemiological research so that they can improve the health programs of their community and we want to support them in doing this,” said Catherine Pirkle, UH Mānoa assistant professor.

In one project, training modules conveyed how to properly collect data on body measurements and take samples for laboratory analyses in pregnant women. In another, students were taught how to recruit pregnant women for a study and provided tips on how to conduct systematic interviews to address women’s health and factors that might contribute to the high rate of teen pregnancy in the region.

“We chose to focus on adolescent pregnancy because doing research on this topic requires a solid understanding of the social, economic and psychological motivations of community members—and all of these ideas are at the core of what we do as public health researchers,” said Pirkle.

Associate Professor Tetine Sentell added that exposing the students to international training was an important objective. Four students from northeastern Brazil visited UH Mānoa to learn how to draft scientific manuscripts for submission to public health journals. So far, three have been published.

“These students are interested in graduate school and academic careers, so we wanted to support their academic development,” said Sentell. “We’re hoping to help them build a thriving research community and to provide new opportunities to support health in this region.”

—By Theresa Kreif