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Improving lung health abroad

Student-researchers Lan Luu and Emily Olson in India. (Submitted photo)

U Medical School, public health students study mesothelioma in India

Learning became a global endeavor for Lan Luu and Emily Olson, both University of Minnesota students in the Medical School and School of Public Health, when they traveled to India last August for a research study on asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer.

“[Asbestos] is banned in developed countries. So many are shipping it to places like India, because there’s not a lot of regulation,” says Luu. “People are breathing in this material. If you’re exposed to asbestos, it can lead to a number of different lung diseases and increase your risk of getting mesothelioma.”

The research project, a joint effort of the Medical School, Center for Lung Science and Health, and the School of Public Health (SPH), aims to find ways to prevent lung disease, says Jeffrey Mandel, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the SPH’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences.

For their role in the study, Luu and Olson focused on investigating how India’s health care system works and how it handles exposure to asbestos, then the pair are recommending a framework for future research collaborations related to this project.

Learning while helping others

When they arrived in Mumbai, India, last August, Olson and Luu were teamed with doctors, lawyers, and human rights workers who were gathering medical data from workers who may have been exposed to asbestos.

Olson and Luu surveyed the medical data, including pulmonary tests and X-rays, then worked with demographers and economists to interpret what the collected data meant. The pair looked for data patterns and made suggestions for project improvement.

“We kept finding holes in the data that, if filled, would help make it stronger, such as getting occupational health histories,” says Luu, a second-year medical student who has a master’s degree in public health from the University. “Digging deep and asking the right questions can really make a difference,” added Olson.

Already a fourth-year medical student, Olson’s work on the project also served as an introduction to her SPH master’s program. “The project helped me not only see the importance of regulations, but the attention that society needs to pay to vulnerable populations and our ability to make a difference in their lives if we do pay attention,” she says.

Luu’s and Olson’s work was the first phase of this project. Next, faculty from India will be coming to the University of Minnesota to collaborate, says Mandel, who is also working to secure funding to train public health and medical students for work on future mesothelioma research in India. He is hoping to have this in place within the next year.

“The last phase of the project would involve getting support for doing more advanced work in India—the actual work of reaching the public,” he says.

Importance of philanthropic support

“This trip would not have been possible without scholarships,” says Olson, who along with Luu, received financial support from the University’s International Medical Education and Research Program (IMER), the Center for Lung Science and Health, and Mandel.

“But more support is needed,” adds Mandel.

“It is important to train clinical and public health students in India in the methods needed to address dust-related lung disease,” he says of the funding need. “They have little capacity to address these problems within India.”

“The scholarships were very helpful,” says Luu. “We were able to go there and focus on the project—not think, ‘How will we pay for this trip?’ Donor support gives students a unique opportunity to learn about a country unlike their own,” she adds. “I wouldn’t have been able to go on the trip without it.”

Career-shaping lessons

Though they were in India for only a few weeks, the students say they learned a great deal about public health challenges, and the experience will likely help to shape their careers.

“I feel more connected to the bigger issues that can affect a patient population,” says Olson. “It’s not just about the disease, but what factors led to the disease and how can we address those in the bigger social context.”

“I haven’t chosen a medical specialty yet, but I will take these lessons with me wherever I go,” she added. “I think it will help me be a more well-rounded physician and clinician.”

For Luu, the experience helped her connect with her passion. “I grew up in an underserved community in San Francisco, so I want to help. This is what I’m passionate about —what I feel connected to,” she says.

“I’ve learned a lot about law, how workers get compensated and about occupational health,” Luu adds. “Being in a community with a vulnerable population that needs help is pushing me more in that direction. This is where I can make a difference.”

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