Students taking Manu Platt’s BMED 3600 class this year will be exposed to much more than the physiology of cellular and molecular systems. Platt, associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and his students are collaborating across campus with a sociology class to gain a better understanding of race, science, and medicine across social and cultural boundaries.
This semester, BMED 3600 (a required course for third-year BME students) is joining with HTS 3088 (Race, Medicine, and Science), a course taught by Jennifer Singh, associate professor in the School of History and Sociology, challenging students from both classes to think more critically about the historical, social and economic challenges and considerations and disparities within the nation’s healthcare system.
“Our goal is to link our courses through shared lectures and service learning opportunities with HIV/AIDS and Sickle Cell communities in Atlanta,” explains Singh. “We’re working with the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia to identify learning opportunities for our students that benefit these communities.”
Platt and Singh met through a working group called Race and Racism in Contemporary Biomedicine in 2015, “and we thought we could develop something really interesting together by linking our courses through the theme of ‘community health’,” says Singh.
This past summer they were able to acquire funding for the program through the Center for Serve, Learn, Sustain (SLS), the service learning initiative at Georgia Tech. Last spring, SLS was accepting proposals to link different disciplinary courses around the theme of community health, a framework that encompass social and environmental elements of health and their effects at the macro, micro, and molecular levels of analysis.
Singh, who has been teaching SLS courses since 2016, wanted to collaborate with someone from BME and connected with Platt.
The budding biomedical engineers in Platt’s class will be challenged to think more critically about the scientific knowledge they produce, who it actually benefits, and who it doesn’t; who has access to the drugs they design, and who doesn’t. The final project in BMED 3600 is to design a specific treatment for either HIV/AIDS or Sickle Cell. The students from HTS 3088 will serve as consultants to identify the potential social, ethical, and economic issues that may arise when these drugs go to market.
“This type of interdisciplinary work is critical for our future in biomedicine because everything that is made in the lab must integrate and work within the realities of people’s everyday lives,” explains Singh, who points out that, for conditions such as sickle cell or HIV/AIDS, as well as the contemporary shortcomings of race-based medicine such as BiDil (a heart-failure medicine designed specifically for self-identified African-American patients).
“Understanding the racial history of these conditions is essential for future biomedical researchers,” Singh says. “We hope to open up this conversation at the very moment students are learning about the science and developing research questions and projects.”
For Platt, BMED 3600 always has been an opportunity to expose his students to the downstream ramifications of their research – addressing those questions of access and lack of access.
“In the past we’ve brought in professors from other Atlanta institutions, like Spelman and Emory, to discuss the impact of race and racism within the context of biomedicine,” says Platt, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech. “But this year is a little different. Dr. Singh is an expert with a deep understanding of the implications of ethnic disparities in medicine and society. This is also a chance for students on completely different paths to develop a better awareness of these challenges, and of each other.”
For Singh’s students, it’s a chance to discover the science behind the complications in these diseases. “Sickle Cell, for example, can lead to disability and reduce life expectancy, so we’ll talk about the biological mechanisms at work and some of the solutions engineers are working on,” Platt says.
Students are gaining first-hand knowledge from different guest speakers, including patients who share their personal stories. This is coursework that goes beyond academics, according to Platt. “This takes us inside and outside of the science,” he says. “We can have the best solutions in mind, but if it doesn’t get to the people who need it, what good is the solution? There are hurdles beyond figuring out the science.”
In past years, Platt has asked his students to explain why a product or treatment is scientifically and commercially relevant. This year he’s adding another challenge: Identify the societal barriers to getting a product to market and to the patients who need it most.
Platt and Singh are working together to help their students find the answers to these questions.
“We want our students to work with community partners to identify and better understand how resources, access, and agency shape community health,” Singh says. “By linking our courses, we will be able to bring together social and natural sciences in new ways that relate to social, environmental, and economic issues of biomedicine.”