Each year, Honors College students can take part in an immersive, hands-on, cohort learning experience in the form of a Praxis Lab. These experience-driven courses are taught by an interdisciplinary team of professors and place a strong focus on the creation of a student-led project that will contribute to the larger community. This year, the students studying in the Praxis Lab Infectious Disease on the Run have thrown their efforts into creating InfectED, a student-led university club focused on education and bringing relevant information on infectious diseases to the larger community in the Salt Lake Valley.
The SARS-CoV2 pandemic has highlighted the prevalence of misinformation and misunderstanding around many topics involving infectious diseases. Preventive strategies such as mask-wearing and vaccinations have become controversial issues, and trust in the medical community has diminished for many. The public discourse around the infectious disease is more heated than ever before, and terms such as “herd immunity” and “quarantine,” once unfamiliar, have become part of everyone’s daily vernacular. It was in this environment that the Honors College elected to pursue a Praxis Lab with the theme of infectious disease, and why students in the lab worked to create the InfectED program.
When asked about why students decided on creating the InfectED program, Gauri Garg, a Praxis Lab participant responded, “during the first semester of the class, we realized that the biggest threat to getting out of the current pandemic we are in is the threat from misinformation. To tackle this, we created InfectED as a tool for spreading meaningful, scientific infectious disease-related information, verified by infectious disease physicians, to the community. Many groups in our community have been infected with misinformation on COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases and we hope to help bring them real information so they can make an informed decision to better their health.”
During the Fall 2021 Semester, students were introduced to much of the history, current conversation and ethical discussions surrounding the field of infectious disease. Pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. TW Jones, pediatrician and hospital administrator Dr. Wendy Hobson-Rohrer and biomedical ethicist Dr. Margaret Battin led the class in discussions on relevant infectious disease issues, as well as pertinent history and background information. Students were able to meet with experts in the field, such as Dr. Peter Hotez, a physician-scientist in the field of vaccinology who is combatting misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccinations, and Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder, who are pioneers and heroes in the field of HIV/AIDS treatment here in Utah.
“We selected prominent speakers who could engage with the students on the topics of pandemics, public health and philosophy,” said Hobson-Rohrer. “Understanding infectious diseases while we are all living through a pandemic is critical to our society. Empowering undergraduate students to make a difference in the world is the best way that we’re going to be able to make a change in this and future pandemics.”
As the class progressed, students were encouraged to identify problems and propose potential projects or solutions. A common issue noticed throughout was a lack of education.
“Infectious disease education is incredibly important as it plays a role in health outcomes,” said Akow Ibrahim, a student working on developing the InfectED educational programs. “Insufficient health literacy may lead to reduced protective behaviors that in turn result in heightened disease transmission. An educational direction in improving preventative health behaviors can help mediate the effects of inadequate health literacy.”
Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted response, but by providing targeted, physician-approved presentations to a variety of populations and communities, the students of InfectED hope to increase general knowledge about infectious disease, improve scientific literacy in the Utah community and grow interest in the field of infectious disease prevention and treatment.
The students have already met with a group of students at West High School and presented on careers in infectious diseases and microbiology. They have also visited with parents of special needs children at the South Main Clinic and presented on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. This, however, is just the beginning. The students of InfectED plan to reach out to more schools, organizations and community groups, and continue their educational programs with all who will agree to hear them.
Want to see InfectED in action? Students will present on their work at the Praxis Lab Summit, scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. on April 19, on the first floor of the Marriott Honors Community building. All are welcome to attend and view the presentations.