Opportunities Granted
Calvin Alumni Association grant provides experience in Ecuador for a Calvin professor and students
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

Jessica SiekmeierI remember that I felt so overwhelmed when the first woman sat down in front of me to be interviewed. I came into the project with a romanticized view of being an epidemiological research assistant, but when the first woman sat down, I was almost intimidated by her presence. I think it was humbling because I went into it with the idea that I was going to do research — to help communities — and it just came down to having conversations with people and listening well to what they had to say.”
— Jessica Siekmeier
Spanish major

It began as a modest enough plan. Then Kathryn Jacobsen, a Calvin professor of biology, landed the full $5,000 she requested from the Calvin Alumni Association (CAA) faculty grant program — the association’s annual funding of faculty-student research and scholarship. Quickly, her vision of spending two weeks in the summer of 2005 studying child health in rural Ecuador ballooned into a project involving five student researchers, three Calvin alumni (one who lives and works in Ecuador), 20 villages and many, many Quechua children.

There were also a few guinea pigs in the mix.

The Ecuador trip actually had its genesis in 2004 at a Global Health Missions Conference in Louisville, Ky., attended by Jacobsen, whose specialty is epidemiology, and a group of Calvin students. Brad Quist, a 1982 Calvin alumnus serving as a medical missionary in Quito, Ecuador, was also in attendance.

“I ran into all of these Calvin students everywhere,” Quist remembered. Soon he learned that there was an epidemiologist among the group, and he and Jacobsen began talking about a future collaboration between Calvin and HCJB World Radio, a radio station turned health organization whose call letters were belatedly expanded to represent “Heralding Christ Jesus Blessings.”

Jacobsen returned to Michigan and Quist to Ecuador, but they began to correspond about future projects.

The professor and missionary doctor eventually decided to study the impact of clean water systems — installed by the HCJB World Radio community health division — on remote Ecuadorian communities. Quist, who works in HCJB’s Carapungo Clinic just outside the Quito city limits, would travel with the group to perform health examinations on the villages’ children.

Jacobsen added $2,000 from Calvin’s Lilly Vocation Project to her budget and used the CAA grant to purchase air travel for the student assistants. She was looking for researchers who were interested in health care, who had traveled in other countries, who were fluent in Spanish — and who were willing to provide $600 each to cover their room and board expenses. She got 20 applications from qualified and willing students. “I was amazed,” she said.

“I found out about the trip to Ecuador in the spring through an e-mail sent out to Spanish, international development and biology students,” said Jessica Siekmeier, a lacrosse-playing Spanish major with a double minor in journalism and international development. “I went straight to Kathryn’s office after reading the e-mail because I knew right away that I wanted to go.” Siekmeier had already spent the spring of 2003 in Ecuador, working at a hospital and a Christian school, and she was eager to return.

Left to right: Christy del Salto, Peter Bosch, Michael Vander Meulen, Layne Thomasma and Jessica Siekmeier

Also joining the team were Peter Bosch, a Spanish major and pre-med student who had traveled in Mexico; Christy del Salto, a native Ecuadorian and a nursing student; Layne Thomasma, a Spanish major and future physician’s assistant who had spent a semester in Honduras; and Michael Vander Meulen, both a pre-med student and a Honduras veteran.

The project also included two Calvin alums studying to be doctors: Priscila Ribeiro ’01, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan, and Shawna Bouwers ’01, a second-year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Find out about professor Kathryn Jacobsen's other research projects.

Read about Pump it Up, a Calvin senior engineering project being designed to help deliver clean water to Third World countries.

Since 1970, the Calvin Alumni Association faculty grant program has awarded $548,523 to creative faculty research projects.

It was an arduous trip, Jacobsen admitted. Arriving in late July, the group had 11 working days to visit 20 mountain communities — the closest about an hour-and-a-half from Riobamba, where the team was based. “For every red dot (representing a village) on our map that had a water system, we chose a community next to it that didn’t have a water system. We’re hoping to find out that the communities with water systems are healthier, and by how much,” Jacobsen said.

The study concentrated on the young children of these Quechuan communities.

On arriving in a village, the group would set up shop at a community center, church or clinic. Then Quist and the two medical students examined the children brought to the facility, weighing them, measuring their arm circumferences and testing their feces for parasites. One child per family served as a survey subject, though all of the children were examined and treated. The Calvin students administered health surveys to the adults accompanying the children.

The surveys, designed by Jacobsen with input from HCJB, asked for information about a family’s health history, demographics, water use and hygiene practices.

“After about a week of doing interviews, we could recite the interviews,” Thomasma said. “I would go to sleep and my last thought was about the questions, and when I woke up, my first thought was, ‘¿Donde bota la basura?’” In English, this means, “Where do you dispose of your garbage?” and it was the final question on the survey.

Although the students were well-equipped to interview a Spanish-speaking population, they also relied on Simona, the interpreter who traveled with them, to communicate and relate effectively with the Quechuan people. The group spoke mainly with women, the mothers and grandmothers of families, who rarely left their villages and knew less Spanish than did the Quechuan men.

At times “we didn’t understand what they were saying,” del Salto explained, “and they didn’t understand what we were saying, so when the last question came up, we would get so excited.” In fact, the final question became an in-joke for the group, del Salto said: “So if we were walking down the street and saw a pile of garbage, we’d say, ‘¿Donde bota la basura?’”

The Quechuan menu also required a cultural adjustment. To honor their guests, the Quechua would serve a staple food, potatoes, topped with a local delicacy, cuy: guinea pig.

Biology professor Kathryn Jacobsen“We got used to doing our best to eat the cuy,” Jacobsen said of the dish that was usually served with its eyes, teeth and claws intact. Another Quechuan specialty, choclo con queso (corn with homemade cheese) was a nice change, she added.

“We did see guinea pig being prepared,” Thomasma said. “We were trying to keep warm in a little hut, and the women were cooking what we later realized was our lunch. We turned around and saw women taking guinea pigs out of burlap bags. They were alive … so we said, ‘Oh well. At least it was fresh!’”

While the group wanted to be respectful and appreciative, Vander Meulen said, “it’s hard not to think of your old pet when a whole roasted guinea pig is staring up at you.”

Though adapting to Quechuan language and cuisine took some effort, the students enjoyed the time they spent with the people themselves. “They were extremely friendly and generous,” del Salto said. “The little kids were very shy, but they would come to play with us.”

Vander Meulen said the experience challenged his ideas of indigenous cultures: “I think we tend to view all poor communities as the same, or at least very similar. It was quite a surprise to see that each village has its own unique characteristics and distinctive personality.”

Bosch appreciated the presence of the Calvin alumni on the trip. “It was really nice for me, especially since I’m sort of toying with the idea of med school, to have some people who have gone to Calvin ... and then have taken on the task of medical school,” he said. “I was impressed that they still had lives — that they weren’t overwhelmed with med school, that they were enjoying it — and also by how knowledgeable they were.”

Ribeiro, who remains in Ecuador working as an intern in Hospital Voz Andes del Oriente, in Shell, was impressed by “the patience and skill it takes to do organized public health work. The mundane tasks of giving informed consent — asking about personal hygiene habits, collecting fecal samples — are all critical,” she said.

Jacobsen was impressed with the entire group’s dedication: “There was a lot of travel time, a lot of waiting. Interviews were long. We had long days. And they handled it really admirably.”

“They did wonderful work,” Quist agreed. “We did 300 interviews. We’re waiting for Kathryn to do the data analysis.”

As she sorts through the data, Jacobsen is hopeful that the team’s research will validate HCJB water projects. “They really want to show that they’re accomplishing their goals with the projects,” she said. She also hopes to continue the Calvin-HCJB partnership. As her final report to the Calvin Alumni Association says, “We are certainly moving in that direction. … ”

— Myrna Anderson is Calvin's staff writer