Big Smiles from Humans for Education
News Article by Heather Natola, PhD
When I first joined URBEST, with the intention of eventually doing an internship, I assumed I would be somewhere sitting at a desk, looking professional, and maybe doing some writing. It turns out, I was only correct in one out of three assumptions. This past August, I traveled to Kenya with support from URBEST and direction from Humans for Education, founded by Daphne Pariser, a PhD student in the Department of Department of Microbiology & Immunology. I was selected, along with Denisse Vega Ocasio, to help with a dental clinic for elementary aged children at Destiny Shaper School in Ngoswani, Kenya.
In addition to our group of three, Daphne has recruited two dentists to travel with us. Our group of five made the 32+ hour flight from our homes in Rochester, US; Calgary, Canada; and Guadalajara, Mexico to meet in Nairobi, Kenya. We took a quick break to stop to pet giraffes (yes really, and it was awesome!) before taking a 6 hour drive to Ngoswani to set up the dental clinic.
On the first day, the two dentists on our team converted a classroom into a dental clinic while Daphne and I led a human reproductive health class for the Destiny Shaper School teachers. In a classroom with desks made from a few planks and sized for children, Daphne and I led discussions about puberty, sexual health, fertility, and menopause. At one point, the torrential downpour outside made such a racket on the tin roof of the school that we were literally shouting about menstruation to be heard over the rain. To me, it was already awkward to discuss these topics with strangers, but shouting about reproductive health over the rain with children in the next room was certainly an experience.
Over the next few days, we helped our dentists, along with a third dentist from Kenya, treat 200 children and 50 adults. With only a crash course in the procedures, Daphne, Denisse, and I learned very quickly how to fill out the dental charts, how to grab the appropriate tools, and when to offer up the cotton squares to wipe off plaque. We learned a little bit of Swahili, including the words for “come,” “open,” “close,” and “bite,” as we communicated our instructions to the children who were still learning English. We learned how to count teeth, fill out bite charts, and to stay still when the giant wasps came in to investigate the trays of spit.
I may not have been sitting at desks or dressing professionally, but the internship with Humans for Education provided a great learning experience and environment for me. In the past, I have made jokes about science being its own language, but in communicating with the students and teachers at Destiny Shaper School, I learned about an additional barrier: we spoke the same language of English, but they could not understand my New Hampshire accent! To get around this communication barrier we finished the lessons in smaller groups, and I had my notes in front of them so they could read along, and hopefully take my accent out of the equation. I have struggled to communicate before, but never because the rain was too loud for me to be heard. Talk about a “next level” for voice projection! Finally, I learned how transferrable many of my skills were to this completely different environment. I had practiced communicating science through seminars and Thinkers and Drinkers, so I knew I needed to think about how I was using jargon terms. Even though I was not performing the procedures, I used my experience in the lab to help organize our tools in a way that made sense to the three of us who weren’t experts in dental tools. And importantly, six years as a scientist had taught me that sometimes you just need to go with the flow, which was important when we were sitting around waiting for a teacher to show up who had to walk three miles through the mud to meet us.
This trip presented many challenges that I had not yet experienced or anticipated -- monkeys racing across the roof at 4 in the morning -- but provided many more positives. I have never visited a place where I felt so safe around strangers and so welcome. I cherish the hair clips and drawings that the children gave me, and I keep watching the video of their welcoming ceremony on my phone. I have never felt so appreciated as I did walking into the school, when all the children ran up to grab our hands and show us where to sit. While a more traditional internship may be right for some, I am eternally grateful for this experience, and I cannot recommend Humans for Education enough to those who are interested in a slightly different path.
Tracey Baas |