Helping American minority students gain unique medical experience

The Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training (MHIRT) Program at the National Institutes of Health was established to (1) increase representation of socially or economically disadvantaged groups who have been historically underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral careers and (2) support the research training of students who will most likely contribute to the elimination of health disparities that exist among disadvantaged populations in the U.S.

MHIRT is an all-expenses paid program that provides students the opportunity to engage in important and interesting research overseas on issues related to health disparities. It provides opportunities for graduate students to meet the internship requirement for their degree programs or collect pilot data for doctoral research proposals. Besides providing students with stipends, MHIRT covers all costs associated with each student’s research including round-trip airfare, accommodation, immunization and visa fees, local transportation, and access to research and library facilities at each foreign site.

International Impact

Twenty-two U.S. schools offer MHIRT programs.  Participants have studied in more than 50 countries throughout the world including Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, Peru, Poland, South Africa, and Thailand.  


MHIRT-Peru

Huanchaco, 2006 - MHIRT-Peru students, along with Peruvian colleagues and program directors Drs. Rainer Bussmann and Douglas Sharon. Photo by John Effio. 

Huanchaco, 2006 - MHIRT-Peru students, along with Peruvian colleagues and program directors Drs. Rainer Bussmann and Douglas Sharon. Photo by John Effio. 

The focus of MHIRT-Peru concerns the medicinal plants used to treat disease by the curanderos, or healers, of the North Coast Region of Peru. Laboratory studies are conducted at the Chemical Engineering Faculty of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo (UNT). Medical anthropology work is carried out with the curanderos, patients, EsSalud (the Peruvian National Health Care System), and cultivators of native plants. Out of 94 undergraduate and graduate students who have worked with NPP, 55 of them were funded by MHIRT. 

MHIRT-Peru is currently co-directed by Dr. Gail R. Willsky from the University at Buffalo (SUNY) School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Dr. Douglas Sharon, Adjunct Professor at San Diego State University and the University at Buffalo.  MHIRT students work with NPP's Peruvian colleagues and summer session students from all over the United States. The laboratory work focuses on plants and plant mixtures used to treat infectious disease.

All participants in MHIRT-Peru live together in a hostel in the coastal city of Huanchaco on the outskirts of Trujillo and have opportunities to observe healing ceremonies carried out by local curanderos as well as to explore the nearby Moche and Chimú archaeological sites. Students are required to prepare two papers on their summer work – a cultural experience paper and a research paper.


Areas of study for MHIRT students in Trujillo

  • Drying, grinding, and making extracts from medicinal plants and plant mixtures.
  • Microbiology studies using spectro-photometric assays to monitor the effects of the plant extracts on bacterial growth.
  • Toxicology studies using brine shrimp to monitor the effect of the extracts in a eukaryotic system.
  • Chemistry studies using Thin Layer Chromatography to separate the components in the extracts.
  • Surveys of the persistence of herbal knowledge in public and private clinics and local communities.
  • Interaction between traditional and modern medicine.
  • Documentation of local shamanism.
  • Documentation of traditional knowledge and medicinal plant supply chains.
Summer 2014 - MHIRT student Abel Arellano works with with Carolyn Gigot, a Harvard student working in the UNT lab, to see if Peruvian medicinal plants have antibacterial properties. 

Summer 2014 - MHIRT student Abel Arellano works with with Carolyn Gigot, a Harvard student working in the UNT lab, to see if Peruvian medicinal plants have antibacterial properties. 

The MHIRT-Peru program alternates each year between a medical anthropology focus and a biochemistry/lab focus.  

Most Recent Project

In 2015, we are primarily focused on medical anthropology surveys on the use of medicinal plants in the community of Moche near the city of Trujillo, Peru’s third largest urban center. However, some time is also being spent working in biochemistry labs at UNT, the host institution for MHIRT-Peru. Surveys are geared to complement prior studies conducted at three clinics in Trujillo. The information elicited is being used to build a Master List of the most frequently used plants and their applications, which requires working with the project’s database of over 500 medicinal plants and 900 remedies. Hands-on application of project results are being channeled into the re-planting of the Chan Chan community plant garden.


Source: Douglas Sharon & The National Institutes of Health