Engineering a New Curriculum in Uganda

Originally posted on Duke Global

Written by Emilie Poplett

As the inaugural class of one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s first biomedical engineering (BME) programs celebrated its graduation in Kampala, Uganda this May, Duke professor William "Monty" Reichert cheered their success from Durham.

Reichert had recently returned to Durham from Kampala, where he spent the 2014-2015 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar at Makerere University, helping ensure the success of a fledgling program in a field still new to universities across the African continent.

The field of biomedical engineering bridges engineering and biology to develop medical technologies that detect and treat human diseases. Because many physicians in Uganda have limited access to medical equipment to treat patients, BME is viewed as a valuable addition to Uganda's healthcare system.

“When I saw biomedical engineering [on the course list] at Makerere, I had to check five times to make sure it was real,” one student said.

Reichert conducted a curriculum review and taught six courses over his two semesters at Makerere. Among the courses he taught was a senior design class, in which students developed skills not only to maintain and repair existing biomedical equipment, but also to design and build their own.

As part of the course, students worked in teams to develop new BME tools. For inspiration, Reichert sent the students to nearby Mulago Hospital, where they interviewed physicians about the challenges they face in administering patient care.

“They found someone who had a need, and they made a gadget to meet that need,” Reichert said. “From an engineering point of view, that’s pretty cool.”

Student projects included a neuropathy detection system based on a smartphone and a web-based medical database designed to record information about folic acid intake during pregnancy, an important factor in helping to prevent Spina Bifida in babies.

Although the majority of BME students in Africa go on to become technicians, many Makerere students are interested in exploring design as an avenue to address challenges specific to their country’s health environment.

One student said her career goal is to develop specialized resources for physicians and surgeons in Uganda’s hospitals. “I realized BME is not just about taking apart equipment that has failed and putting it back together,” she said. "When you're designing a machine, you have to remember that you're saving someone's life."

“When you say you want to design,” another student added, “people say it has all been done. My interest is to challenge that idea. I get to design my own solutions that will work in my own country.”

This fall, Reichert will link his biomaterials course at Duke with a concurrent class at Makerere, exposing Duke students in Durham to the context of healthcare and biomedical equipment in Uganda. Through Skype, Reichert will invite Duke students to partner with Makerere undergraduates to develop their semester-long projects—“an experiment,” Reichert admitted, “but we’ll find a way to do something meaningful together.”

Back in Kampala, Makerere’s newly-graduated BME students are excited and ready to take on a developing field that their work will begin to define in Uganda.

“This is our future,” one student said, “and we are ready to stand out there and say, ‘I am proud to be a biomedical engineer.’”