This summer, 40 Triangle-area participants in grades 1-7 attended the STEM camp studying infectious disease organized and staffed by NCSSM students.


Students design, lead infectious disease summer camp

Summer in the South means heat, humidity, and, of course, mosquitoes. And while those pesky insects are rarely more than a nuisance for most people in North Carolina, they can be deadly for people living in tropical climates where dengue fever is present.

Though we’re mostly safe from dengue here, globalization means the illness can still reverberate around the world in a multitude of ways. That’s why a group of students at NCSSM designed and held a one-day global health summer camp on the NCSSM campus to help educate elementary and middle school students about the mosquito-born disease.

Eye-opening experience

The summer camp, which hosted approximately 40 Triangle-area participants in grades 1-7, was organized and staffed by NCSSM students from a student-led nonprofit called SECURED, based on the group’s full name, Support and Educate to Cure Diseases.

Jessica Chen, a rising NCSSM senior from Cary, NC, sits on SECURED’s board of directors and was one of 20 NCSSM students conducting the camp. “The camp’s aim is to teach kids about infectious diseases as a whole,” Chen says. “Originally, our mission started off just as infectious diseases, but then we wanted to make it more focused so we talked about dengue.”

The day camp was filled with age-appropriate games, activities, and information sessions all designed to illustrate the ease with which infectious diseases such as dengue can spread, how the illnesses develop and behave, and how concerned individuals can contribute to addressing or even eliminating such dangerous global health challenges. Student leaders consulted with experts in infectious diseases at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill to help develop the curriculum.

One activity was particularly surprising for the older camp students. By rolling dice and landing on an unlucky number (a game the group leaders had picked up as a learning tool in their Differential Equations class during the academic year), students steadily became “infected.”

“At first, one of the kids actually said, ‘Only one person is sick. No one else is going to get sick because of this one person,’” says Chen. “But in the end, everyone became sick. They were really shocked at that.”

Half a world away

SECURED cofounder Vibhu Ambil ’18, of Charlotte, NC, contracted dengue fever as a child in India after swimming with friends in a stagnant swimming pool swarming with insects.

“The pain was too unbearable,” Ambil says, recalling the severe head and body aches, vomiting, nausea, and high fever he endured. Only after being hospitalized did he recover.

“It was a close call, and I was extremely thankful to be alive,” Ambil recalls.

Moved to act

One of the challenges presented by dengue is that in many of the regions where it is endemic, money and facilities to treat the fever are in short supply.

“I was lucky enough to have the resources to combat the disease,” says Ambil, “but there are so many people that are not as fortunate to have the same support system, and I cannot imagine the pain that they had to go through.”  

Shiv Patel ’18, of Elon, NC, helped cofound SECURED after he and Ambil met during their junior year at NCSSM. Patel hopes that student groups like SECURED and its summer program will help leverage assistance from more affluent countries.

“Because we’re so resourced here,” he says, “we should use the resources that we have, like the universities and hospitals and research labs here, to serve the under-resourced populations that are actually being affected.”

Containing dengue, but spreading awareness  

SECURED’s student leaders are already making plans to build upon the success of the summer pilot program.

“We actually heard a good amount of positive feedback from parents,” says board member and rising NCSSM senior Arushi Biswas, from Marvin, NC. “They saw how excited their children were and the way their children were disappointed that they weren’t coming back to learn more. So that’s something that we want to work on, to increase the duration of the program for next year.”

Program leaders hope to expand the geographic footprint of the program as well by encouraging other chapters to adopt the program on their local campuses.

For now, the group’s next step is to launch a website. In the meantime, you can learn more about the group through the group’s official social media profiles, on Facebook and Instagram.