Nairobi six‑week study abroad puts emphasis on research

WSU students observe a home health interview in Nairobi.
WSU students Katie Sciarrotta and Samantha Shippell Stiles observe during a home-health interview in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement. Sciarrotta and Shippell Stiles are two of the seven students who participated in WSU’s Research Immersion in Nairobi program this summer.

A new study abroad program is supplying research opportunities to Washington State University undergraduates and immersing them in Kenyan culture.

The six-week visit to Nairobi, offered for the first time this summer, is meant to enhance students’ technical expertise while supporting ongoing studies by WSU’s Global Health Kenya program and its research partners. Created by the College of Veterinary Medicine, the trip, called WSU’s Research Immersion in Nairobi program, is available to all WSU undergraduates, who are invited to apply this fall for next summer’s program.

“I was so amazed not just by how welcoming the community was, but how collaborative research is. That was the greatest thing — the research was interactive, on the ground and so hands-on,” said Katie Sciarrotta, a WSU neuroscience student and one of the six undergraduates to make the trip.

Under the guidance of local mentors, students like Sciarrotta collected samples, conducted health surveys and analyzed data from different studies aimed to benefit human and animal health. Research topics ranged from antimicrobial resistance to epidemiology modeling and infectious disease surveillance.

Katie Sciarrotta, a student pursuing a neuroscience degree on the WSU Pullman campus, collects a saliva sample from a chicken at the Burma Market In Nairobi, Kenya. The sample was used to screen for highly pathogenic avian influenza. Sciarrotta is one of seven undergraduates who participated in WSU’s Research Immersion in Nairobi program this summer.

In-clinic and at-home interviews in Kibera — Kenya’s largest informal settlement — were among the many highlights of the visit. Students shadowed WSU global health researchers on household visits to monitor residents’ health and help track some of the most prevalent diseases in East Africa.

“It was truly awe-inspiring to see and witness the local WSU researchers helping as many people as they were,” said Samantha Shippell Stiles, who earned her neuroscience degree before the trip. “The residents in Kibera were kind enough to let us in their homes to listen to these interviews, and then we learned how the data from those interviews was processed and analyzed.”

WSU students processed samples collected in the clinic at the Kenyan Medical Research Institute.

Students performed blood draws on animals in regional tribal communities which was a research- first for them. Screening chickens for highly pathogenic avian influenza at the Burma Market in Nairobi was another new experience.

“We got to be there from the day the sample was collected all the way to the positive or negative result,” Sciarrotta said.

The trip included cultural experiences such as food exchanges, herding with the Maasai people, Swahili language lessons as well as visits to the Nairobi National Museum and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – Elephant Orphanage.

Culturally, Sciarrotta said, nothing on the trip may have been more impactful than the Power Women Group in Kibera. The group was formed decades ago when HIV-positive mothers waiting in line for medication came together to provide education and erase the stigma of HIV in Kenya. 

“During our visit with the Power Women Group we got to dive deeper into the impact of the disease, past the treatment, and into what it means for them to live longterm with HIV – what that means for their community their daily lives,” Sciarrotta said.

Undergraduate students and faculty leading WSU Research Immersion in Nairobi program.
Undergraduate students and faculty leading WSU Research Immersion in Nairobi program pose with the WSU Global Health Kenya team this summer inside the WSU Nairobi office.

Shippell Stiles and Sciarrotta, who are both aspiring medical doctors interested in research, said they made what they expect to be career-long connections on the trip.

“It was just a very welcoming experience. We never really felt like we weren’t a part of the team. They just automatically welcomed us into their lab and their community,” Shippell Stiles said.

The pair also grew to appreciate Kenya’s tight-knit community-based healthcare system.

“Seeing how community-based health care was, how involved the health care practitioners were and knowing their patient on a personal level — that’s exactly why I decided to get into medicine in the first place,” Sciarrotta said.

For more information about next summer’s trip, contact Phil Mixter at pmixter@wsu.edu and visit WSU International Programs website.

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