April 25, 2005

Service learning goes global to test DNA

For her students, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help construct a DNA database. But for Ruth Ballard, it was also a way to take service learning to another level.

Several times over the last few years, Ballard has included students in her trips to Africa to help the government of Tanzania collect and extract DNA samples from the citizens.

While service learning traditionally has a strong emphasis on community, Ballard is expanding the definition. "I'm trying to make it more global. I want to think bigger than the region or the state." Service learning at this level is unusual, she says, not only because of the type of work the students are doing but the international aspect.

"There is a whole set of research literature built around service learning. But in genetics, there's not much history."

Ballard is nearly finished with her original mission-building a database for Tanzania to help its law enforcement personnel solve crimes. "Human DNA has identifying markers," she says. "When isolated, the markers can be different in different populations. In forensics, you can compare the sample with a suspect which can either rule people out or make a one-to-one match." Tanzanian scientists are being trained how to extract DNA and how to conduct forensic testing.

But Ballard has found that it is equally important to show them how to use the DNA data to assign paternity. "I see it as a women's and children's issue," she says.

In Tanzania there are many single mothers and in many cases the man takes no responsibility for the children he has conceived and often has no contact at all. "The women are desperate. There is no free public education so children of single parents often don't go to school."

An additional benefit of a DNA database, as was shown in the Baby 81 case following the Indian Ocean tsunami, is the role it can play in disaster relief. Ballard also cites a serious train wreck in Africa where it was difficult to determine whose body was whose, and in the collapse of the World Trade Center when DNA matching allowed families to receive as much of their loved ones' remains as possible. In Tanzania it can also be a factor with missing children. "Sometimes young children are taken from their homes to work in the coffee fields," Ballard says. "When they finally return no one knows who they belong to."

Sampling is complete for the Tanzania's Masai population. Next up for Ballard is the Meru, another genetically isolated tribe. Ballard and company also took samples from employees at the university in Dar es Salaam, which draws people from all over the country.

Last summer, Ballard's group of four students took 600 cheek samples, learning both the collection process and how to randomly sample a population. They also learned how to extract DNA from a sample.

Students go through a careful screening process, not only to make sure they will represent the University well but that they are up to dealing with the conditions. "Being there has a profound affect on them. I want to make sure they can handle it," Ballard says. Diary entries from students who went on the trips included memories of both the harsh living situations and resilience of the Tanzanian people.

Ballard's first foray into service learning came in her genetics course. Students would go into the community to work with families of children with genetic disabilities such as Down syndrome. She felt it was important for the students to see how the genetic illness manifests itself in the real world. "Disabled people are far more than their conditions," she says. "If students are going to go on to medical school they are likely to encounter these people in their careers. They need to feel comfortable working with the developmentally disabled population and to see them as individuals in their own right.

"Experience is valuable for that. It's also a service to the community because they don't have a lot of volunteers."


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