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Students Investigate Global Challenges through Institute

A nearly half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation will create a research and educational institute at Willamette University for studying global challenges.

The first project of the new Institute for the Interdisciplinary Social Analysis of Complex Global Challenges (ISA-CGC) is to examine the ongoing exodus of skilled medical providers out of Africa, pejoratively referred to as "brain drain." Students and faculty will work with the institute to study several facets of this exodus, with a particular focus on how Africans in the Diaspora, living in North America and Europe, are working to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis.

The $442,100 NSF award, funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, will pay for Millen's continued ethnographic research on health care in Africa, in addition to covering the initial three years of the institute, starting this fall.

"Most Willamette students understand that global inequalities and injustices are products of complicated, multidimensional and often historic processes," says Joyce Millen, associate professor of anthropology and the primary investigator for the grant. "Yet students rarely have opportunities to investigate social problems in ways that reveal their true complexity. This new program will encourage collaborative, problem-centered, interdisciplinary inquiry that can be used to form realistic proposals for redressing complex challenges."

The institute, directed by 2009 Willamette graduate Sarah Kutten, will serve as a lab for social science inquiry and will provide students with the opportunity to delve deeply into the social analysis of a particular global crisis or challenge. Guided by a multidisciplinary team of scholars, Willamette students will collaborate with African students to conduct research during summers in Africa. Their analyses will be used to create working policy recommendations to help address the challenges, and they will present their work in writing and through presentations.

"The summer sessions will allow students to look beyond what they are taught in the classroom about global challenges and actually take an active role in developing solutions," Kutten says. "The experiences that students take away from the field should have a positive impact on their own global understanding, and as they share their findings with others, their communities stand to benefit as well."

The first global challenge to be investigated relates to work done by Millen, a medical anthropologist and global health expert who has studied infectious diseases in Africa for more than 20 years.

"The ‘brain drain' phenomenon is not new, not unique to Africa and not isolated to the medical professions," Millen says. "Yet Africa arguably suffers more than any other continent from this acute exodus. Africa has lost one-third of its skilled professionals in recent years, and the United Nations estimates that more African engineers and scientists now live in the U.S. than live in all 54 African nations combined.

"The exodus of medical personnel is of particular concern as it has intensified in recent years at just the moment when African countries, especially those in southern Africa with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS, are in greatest need of skilled health care workers."

After the first three years, the institute, led by a new group of Willamette faculty, will choose and investigate a different global challenge.

To learn more about ISA-CGC, call 503-370-6942 or email Kutten at skutten@willamette.edu.