UW News

May 31, 2007

Multidisciplinary International Research Training (MIRT)

Michelle Williams says she created the Multidisciplinary International Research Training (MIRT) Program to “allow minority students to have an international experience, something I didn’t have until I was a graduate student.” Now the innovative program that has been providing international research opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students since 1993 is being honored with the Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence, recognizing outstanding collaboration to improve undergraduate education.

“I started the program in response to a request for proposals from the National Institutes of Health to engage in public health and leadership,” said Williams, professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine and director of MIRT. “We got funded, and in 1995 one of our first groups of students went to Zimbabwe.”

That first trip was an incredible learning experience for the UW students and cemented Williams’ commitment to continue the MIRT program. “The biggest determinant of health is poverty,” she said. “What I learned was that with the right connections and a will to make things work, you can have a significant impact even in resource-poor settings.”

The MIRT program is a “win-win” for all involved. Each year, students in an array of disciplines (biology, chemistry, neurosciences, etc.) from schools across the United States vie for one of the 10 available slots in the program, which provides two-month residencies in foreign countries, working on real problems with host researchers. Students develop their analytic skills and improve their writing and research skills, and the host researchers gain valuable assistance on their projects.

The program builds on established UW relationships throughout the developing world, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Thailand, Republic of Georgia, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

Students spend two to three months in their designated country learning about population-based research and assisting their host institutions in furthering much needed research and health services projects.

To participate in the program students must be research oriented, have proven academic scholarship, and demonstrate a commitment to community. In addition to these basic criteria, Williams has one other major requirement.

“I demand excellence. When you’re working in a poor environment with meager resources, you don’t have the luxury of wasting time or resources,” she said. “I am intolerant of mediocrity, especially in developing countries where that mediocrity could mean life or death because of the lack of a safety net.

“Our students have worked on such problems as water-borne diseases in Zimbabwe, maternal mortality in Peru, iron deficiency and cardiovascular disease in the Republic of Georgia. These kinds of experiences encourage the expansion of cultural perspectives and international knowledge of students and faculty — and that often means being outside of one’s comfort zone. Our students are leaving their comfort zones, both culturally and economically. They trust me, faculty and staff to challenge them and to support them as they work through that discomfort.”

Since its beginning, 135 students have been trained through the MIRT program. As a result of their experiences, many have achieved more than they could have imagined.

“Our students have gone on to medical school, joined the Peace Corps, become Fulbright Scholars. Six are now faculty members in institutions of higher learning, and 65 have published in scientific journals,” Williams said.

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants who attended public schools in New York, Williams credits mentors along the way for inspiring and supporting her academic achievements. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from Princeton, a master’s in civil engineering from Tufts University and a doctorate in epidemiology from Harvard. The MIRT program is her creation and her gift to students and to the numerous countries and people they touch.

Winning the Brotman Award means a lot to her and to the MIRT program.

“With this attention, we may be able to grow the program and give more students these kinds of experiences and successes. I know that I’m thankful that I had people in the community who said ‘You can reach higher.’

“Someone in the academy has to say to students ‘Come along with us.’ I’d like to be that person for these students.”