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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
February 16, 2004
Volume 39, Number 12

Out of Academia

UNM contributes to African art, communication education, law and medicine

During Black History Month, Campus News takes an in-depth look at faculty, staff and students reaching out to a continent in turmoil. We also celebrate African Americans succeeding at UNM and in our community

Nigerian experience allows students to see world in different way

By Greg Johnston

VanderJagt and Glew celebrate with Nigerian villagers after the completion of new hourses, rebuilt with money they helped raise in Albuquerque.

Building houses in the rural villages of Nigeria may seem an unlikely endeavor for a UNM biology student. Even more unlikely would be the opportunity to conduct international public health research in Africa. But for the past 10 years, more than 100 UNM undergraduate students have traveled to Nigeria to perform research as part of the Minorities International Research Training (MIRT) program.

“The students hit the ground running,” said Dorothy VanderJagt, UNM assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“It’s like going into the Army,” said Robert Glew, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, who with VanderJagt has directed the program since 1997.

UNM student Jessica Valdez takes notes while Diane Kretzer, UTEP student, holds a baby during a breast milk study.

MIRT students receive training and credentials to help them go on to graduate school, medical school or public health programs. The work performed is part of a broad study that looks at the health of rural villagers in Jos, Nigeria. Students analyze diet and nutrition, study children’s growth and development, and examine mothers’ breast milk and water quality. The program is supported by a grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health.

Through ongoing research, the native people learn more about themselves and receive information they can act on, such as changes in diet or improved water conditions. “We think education is really important,” Glew said. “When women get educated, the health of their children improves.”

The majority of students come from UNM, but others participate from New Mexico State University and the El Paso and San Antonio campuses of the University of Texas. Two teaching hospitals in Nigeria provide the base for students who are working and learning abroad. Due to budget shortcomings, the hospitals work with some equipment dating back 50 years.

Glew describes the project as labor-intensive. Students are selected in October and receive training until they make the trip in early June. Gone for eight weeks to perform field work, students then return to UNM to conduct laboratory work and co-author a manuscript. Findings from their studies are often published in peer-review journals, a valuable accomplishment for an undergraduate.

The MIRT project grew out of a visit that Glew made to Africa in the 1970s following the war in Biafra. He said that while on sabbatical he worked to develop a biomedical curriculum. He found that he liked the land and realized that there were huge needs he could address.

Nigeria, with 130 million people, is the most densely populated of all 58 African countries, says Glew. There are 290 ethnic groups. The MIRT program concentrates its studies on the nomadic villagers in the north.

Although the main focus of MIRT is the acquisition of research skills and experience, participation in the community is encouraged.

“What we’re looking for is not only their scientific ability, but also their ability to adapt and get along with others,” VanderJagt said. Study projects are designed to bring the New Mexico students in close contact with the people they meet. Students are required to lift, weigh and measure the subjects of their studies.

“When we went to Nigeria in the beginning, we weren’t planning to be philanthropic, but we work with these people and you can’t walk away from their problems,” Glew said.

“Two years ago, we actually built a village,” said Glew. “The people we were working with were attacked one day, out-of-the-blue. Some of their leaders were killed and the entire village was destroyed by fire. The people were driven away.”

“So we came back to New Mexico and started to raise money. We raised enough to build houses for the widows and now the village is growing again.”

Jessica Valdez, a senior who grew up in Espanola, traveled to Nigeria with MIRT last summer. The connection Valdez made with a Nigerian woman during the study was rewarding. As Valdez held the woman’s baby, she and the mother communicated non-verbally.

“The next time we arrived she came up to me and gave me four eggs,” Valdez said. “These people are poor and they don’t have much. For her to give me food really meant a lot to me. I wanted to say ‘You need it more than I do,’ but I knew it would be disrespectful not to take them.”

VanderJagt said after the MIRT experience, students don’t look at the world in the same way.

“They really appreciate their education,” she said.

Faculty achievements

Sherri Burr lectured at the University of the Western Cape in Capetown, South Africa, in Summer 2000. Her speech “From Noriega to Pinochet: Is there an International Moral and Legal Right to Kidnap Individuals Accused of Gross Human Rights Violations?” was presented to a group of African and U.S. students taking a course on international human rights. The University of the Western Cape was initially built as a showcase institution to educate only “coloreds,” but now is open to all. Burr said she found the experience to be both educational and uplifting. While many of the economic vertigoes of apartheid remain, the politics of the country had changed substantially with blacks and coloreds occupying important roles in the government. Burr received a tour of parliament by a leading minister who discussed challenges the country faces. Burr also visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been held captive by the prior regime for 29 years.


Associate Professor of Law Jennifer Moore received a Fulbright scholarship to Tanzania, Africa, for 2002-03. Moore taught about refugee law and comparative human rights at the University of Dar es Salaam Faculty of Law.


Regents’ Professor Everett Rogers, Communication and Journalism, developed an entertainment/educational radio soap opera to help stop the spread of H.I.V. and promote family planning. “It was and is today the most popular radio program in Tanzania,” Rogers said.

Although project funding ended in 1999, government owned Tanzania Radio continued to air the program due to its popularity. “The good thing about this project is its sustainability. It reaches so many people at such a low cost,” Rogers said.

Recent sample surveys conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development show that changes in human behavior promoted by the program continue. Of the nearly 60 percent of Tanzanian adults who listen to the program, 31 percent have adopted family planning methods. In 1993, it was a mere five percent.


Four Naro artists from Botswana visited Tamarind Institute in 1999, a visit facilitated by Mark Attwood, Tamarind-trained printer who operates a print workshop, “The Artists’ Press,” in Johannesburg, South Africa. Attwood and Tamarind Institute Director Marjorie Devon will soon spend two weeks in Botswana with the Naro people, working on a book of stories and illustrations. The original books, which will remain in the hands of the tribal leaders, will be bound using local materials. During the past few decades, the Naro people have been confronted by Western society and forced to compromise in many ways in order to adapt to an entirely new way of life. Kuru art projects focus on documenting the history of the Naro people while offering a means to explore ideas and provide a source of revenue. While the Naro artists were at Tamarind, they documented traditional stories working with New Mexico Pueblo artists.