Ugandan study fuels undergraduate's interest in research

January 06, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- On Penn State's University Park campus, Ce Zhang lives the life of a typical student, working on his honors thesis and conducting research in a lab.

But 7,000 miles away in Uganda, he’s a life saver.

A public health program he initiated in rural Ugandan village schools recently won the Johnson & Johnson Rural Healthcare Award as the top rural healthcare solution in Africa, standing out among 61 entries submitted from across America. Now he stands at the forefront of a global health project focused on increasing sanitary practices in third-world countries.

Zhang’s Uganda experience began in 2009 with a Uganda Village Project internship, thanks to a grant from Penn State's Schreyer Honors College. His original intent: to examine the many health issues affecting residents in rural and underdeveloped areas.

Troubled by the lack of hand washing habits and facilities in the rural schools he visited during his trip, Zhang returned to Penn State and designed a modern version of a Tippy-Tap, a water tap consisting of a wooden frame with a plastic water jug that tips over when the user pushes a pedal, releasing a flow of water. His hopes were that Tippy-Tap use would decrease the transmission of bacterial disease -- particularly diarrheal disease, the fourth-leading cause of death for all ages in Uganda and the second-leading cause of child mortality in the world.

“I never realized that in the United States, not washing your hands for even a couple of days wouldn’t be a problem at all because there are so many opportunities for you to wash your hands that sooner or later you will,” said Zhang, a senior Schreyer Scholar majoring in biology in the Eberly College of Science. “But in other countries, the opportunities are not there because of their lack of education and underdeveloped immune systems.”

In a study designed by Zhang and a team of Penn State and Ugandan colleagues, 400 Ugandan-elementary students were given access to Tippy-Taps and received basic health education information. After four months, the children reported a 90 percent increase in hand-washing rates -- providing strong evidence that children can change behavior when given the education and the means to put what they’ve learned into practice. Zhang credits the success of the Tippy-Tap device to its low-cost and simple design.

“They’re kids, and they love to play with toys,” he said. “I believe that the Tippy-Tap device causes behavior change because it’s fun to use.”

In addition, researchers in Uganda who were implementing his study discovered that around 50 percent of the children were able to independently build Tippy-Taps in their own homes -- proof that the children themselves can be what Zhang calls “catalysts” for spreading healthy habits and education to their families.

But Zhang’s having no problem making an impact back at Penn State either.

As co-chair of the Student Organization Conduct Committee, he leads a group that regulates student organizations and levies sanctions on student organizations that violate policies. The University Park Undergraduate Association Board of Arbitration, of which he’s a vice-chair, acts similar to judicial branches of government, mediating UPUA disputes regarding constitution and organizational policies.

Zhang’s neuroscience lab work is the basis of his honors thesis. His research focuses on how inhibitory brain circuits are established and regulated to perform complex functions. Many brain disorders are caused by the improper formation of inhibitory neural circuits. Zhang hopes his research will identify potential therapeutics.

“Abnormal development of inhibitory neural circuits is a contributing factor to a lot of brain disorders,” Zhang said. “For example, there is evidence that impairment of brain inhibition can lead to diseases such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse. It’s a hot topic in the neuroscience world.”

For now, Zhang’s future looks bright. In 2012, Zhang will be giving an oral presentation of his public health research at global health conference at Yale University. He plans on getting his Tippy-Tap research published in a public health journal and, after graduation in the spring, he will be enrolling in a public health master’s program to gain more specialized training in designing population-based research studies and public health promotion. Pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. in neuroscience also is in his plans.

“I have a strong interest in molecular neuroscience and an interest in public health,” Zhang said. “At the end of the day, I’d like to work to work at the interface where mental health issues and brain disease come together. The thing about mental health is that it is very underrepresented in global health because it’s not HIV/AIDs, it’s not malaria, it’s not something that shows a high mortality rate. But it is a huge problem out there, because it does account for much of the disease burden globally. It’s not being addressed as efficient as other diseases, which is where I see the opportunity. Mental health is a fundamental health of science. Neuroscience is the way we connect human experience with biology. Together, it’s an exciting field to study.”

Last Updated January 06, 2012