Three Medical Students Are Africa-bound to Work Closely With Patients

Danielle Wickman and Virginia Tancioco will study mother-to-child HIV transmission in Malawi; Judy Gbadebo will study malaria prevention in Ghana

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Three first-year students in the UCR/UCLA Thomas Haider Program in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California, Riverside are headed to Africa next month to gain first-hand experience in working with patients with HIV and malaria.  After spending a month there, the students — all women — will return to the United States, where they hope to apply the knowledge gained from working in African clinics to medically underserved areas, such as inland Southern California.

Danielle Wickman and Virginia Tancioco have been selected to participate in the UCLA Global Health Program in Malawi. They leave on June 4 and return on July 13.  Judy Gbadebo was selected to participate in the UCLA Global Health Program in Ghana.  She leaves on June 19 and returns on July 22.

Photo shows Danielle Wickman

Danielle Wickman will study mother-to-child HIV transmission in Malawi. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

Wickman, 23, was part of the University Honors program at UCR.  She has not been to Africa before, and expects her trip to Malawi will increase her passion for working in women’s health issues.  Along with Tancioco, she will work on a project that focuses on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.  Specifically, they will study, along with Dr. Risa Hoffman, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, the effectiveness of antiretrovirals that are part of a World Health Organization treatment plan to prevent HIV transmission.

“HIV-positive pregnant women in Malawi are using — or are expected to be using — these medications,” said Wickman, a first generation college student, who plans to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. “But a large number of them stop using them for reasons we would like to study. We want to understand the effectiveness of these medications, and look into how many women are able to follow up and take all the medication after the initial visit to the clinic.

“We will be working in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, with Partners in Hope, while using as our home base the main hospital in Nkhoma, where we will work with patients at the hospital and in outpatient clinics, in addition to conducting home visits in villages to evaluate access to care,” Wickman added.  “We will also investigate male partner involvement, meaning how many male partners are involved in the treatment process.  A good number of men in Malawi feel powerless when they find out their partners have contracted HIV, and find it easier to simply walk away.”

Photo shows Virginia Tancioco.

Virginia Tancioco will study mother-to-child HIV transmission in Malawi. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

Tancioco, 30, a student also of the five-year dual degree UCLA PRIME Medical School Program, said Malawi appealed to her because of her interest in public health.

“Malawi offers me an opportunity to work with an underserved population — another of my interests,” said Tancioco, who is considering a career in emergency medicine.  “Many pregnant women in Malawi are not taking the medication that prevents transmission of HIV to their unborn children.  Is this cultural?  Is it a mistrust of doctors? A fear of them?  Are the clinics too far and inaccessible?  Are the drugs unaffordable?  We would like to find out.”

She expects the trip also will help her appreciate things she takes for granted in the United States.

“Here, you switch on a light, and there it is,” she said.  “In Malawi, some villages lack electricity.  I expect this trip will be an invaluable learning experience for me in that sense as well.”

Dr. Hoffman, who co-directs the Global Health Education Program at UCLA, said Wickman and Tancioco were chosen for their passion for serving underprivileged populations, as well as their maturity, cultural competency, and enthusiasm for global health.

“Over the summer in Malawi, Danielle and Virginia will be collecting important information to help improve access and adherence to care for women of reproductive age living with HIV,” she said. “They will have the opportunity to learn about HIV care in Malawi, a country ranked among the poorest in the world, and will be making important contributions to our knowledge of specific issues related to treatment of HIV-positive women in rural Malawian communities. I hope this experience will further strengthen their desire to work in global health and that they will return to Southern California better able to serve the diverse UCLA-UCR community because of their unique opportunity.”

Photo shows Judy Gbadebo.

Judy Gbadebo will study malaria prevention in Ghana. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

Gbadebo, 26, is no stranger to global health. She spent six months in South Africa in 2009, working directly with TB and HIV patients while examining patient care in underserved populations.

In Ghana she will focus on malaria prevention efforts for children and families in the village of Sorano.  In collaboration with the Ghana Health and Education Initiative, she will examine the usage rates of insecticide treated nets and facilitate community education to reduce the transmission of infection.

“Although I enjoyed working with patients one-on-one in South Africa, I returned from the experience wanting to help patients on a larger scale and create sustainable change,” Gbadebo said. “Malaria is a devastating problem in Ghana, but through widespread education and standardized preventative solutions, it is quite solvable.  I hope my research there will make an impact on the community that will generate long-lasting results.  I expect my work abroad will improve my understanding of how to implement patient education and awareness as an avenue of preventative medicine.”

Dr. Emma Simmons, the associate dean for student affairs at the UCR School of Medicine, believes Gbadebo is perfect for the internship in Ghana.

“Judy is passionate about global medicine and helping the underserved,” she said. “She is also not naïve to the challenges that she will face during this internship.  She has already had some insights into the politics and gravity of health care delivery in developing countries and she is determined to continue to do her part, at every level of her training in medicine, to make a sustainable impact.  Her focus and commitment to study the behavioral and societal factors that influence the spread of infectious diseases, specifically malaria, in Ghana is a testament to that.”

Finding their passion

Wickman, who attended Murrieta Valley High School, Calif., is grateful that UCR gave her opportunities to find her passion.

“It was in a class I took at UCR on global health and agriculture development in developing countries that I found myself reading up on women’s health issues,” she said.  “It got me interested in empowering women to create change in their communities and be invested in health and well being.”

UCR gave Tancioco the opportunity to get to know professors in a smaller and more intimate program.

“To my surprise, I was able to directly approach my professors for letters of recommendation,” said Tancioco, who attended James Logan High School in Union City, Calif.  “I had expected hurdles to jump over and very limited access.”

The UCR School of Medicine’s mission of serving an underserved population appeals strongly to Gbadebo, who attended Foothill High School in Pleasanton, Calif.

“A health care disparities course through the Medical Scholars Program at UCR exposed me to a variety of issues in health disparities,” said Gbadebo, who will be joined in Ghana by a student at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.  “It is here that my passion for global health and forming parallels in my own local community flourished.”

Media Contact

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Additional Contacts

Danielle Wickham

Virginia Tancioco

Judy Gbadebo

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