Peace Corps Service Unites Cadre of NIH’ers
When Ebola struck West Africa recently, Dr. Peter Kilmarx responded. He led the CDC Ebola response team in Sierra Leone for a month in 2014 and assisted another in Guinea for a month in 2015. Kilmarx, an infectious disease researcher, credits his 2-year Peace Corps service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) for enabling the success of these trips and his career in public health.
As current deputy director of Fogarty International Center, he is one of dozens of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV) who work at NIH. The group of returned volunteers started meeting regularly last fall and has 29 people on its listserv. However, Ella Ewart-Pierce, one of the group’s coordinators, says that number is growing. Members meet regularly for lunch and plan to participate in local volunteer projects. The group’s goal is to network and support NIH staff members who have Peace Corps in their backgrounds and potentially attract more returned volunteers to federal service. Members who served in 24 countries currently work across more than 10 NIH institutes, offices and centers.
For Kilmarx, 2 years as a fisheries volunteer in Africa in the mid-1980s was the start of his career in public health. He was the first Westerner in the small village of Bakwa-Tombe. Kilmarx spent those years building tilapia fish ponds alongside 20 farmers and their families. Everyone lived in thatched or mud huts without electricity or running water. “I’m still in touch with them, and they continue to raise fish,” Kilmarx says.
It was the measles deaths in his village that got him interested in infectious diseases. Kilmarx wondered how the deaths were still possible. He had been vaccinated for measles prior to joining the Peace Corps. When he returned to the U.S. in 1986, he enrolled in medical school.
Carol Sienché, a health educator at the National Cancer Institute, also served in Africa in the 1980s. She was a school health educator in the Central African Republic from 1986 to 1988. Like Kilmarx, she lived in the middle of the community in a small house without running water or electricity. She traveled up to 120 kilometers by motorcycle to teach health lessons to local elementary school teachers.
However, it was the cultural hurdles she overcame that shaped her experience. “It’s not enough to articulately deliver information, we must understand our audience’s contextual and cultural realities if we hope to reach and help them,” Sienché says. She earned her master’s degree in public health from Tulane University and now develops educational content for people with cancer, their families and health care professionals.
Claire Schuster, a health specialist with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, served about a decade after Kilmarx and Sienché. She was a rural health educator in Paraguay from 1997 to 1999. While there, she learned Spanish and Guaraní, an indigenous Paraguayan language. Her work focused on improving maternal and child health in her community of about 100 families.
Schuster’s health lessons included nutrition, dental hygiene and adolescent health. She also helped with vaccination campaigns. She says the Peace Corps tested her understanding of public health challenges and energized her to engage communities to develop sustainable solutions to those challenges. After returning home, she earned her master’s in public health and joined NIAID’s International Maternal Pediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Network (IMPAACT).
“Working with IMPAACT felt like an extension of my Peace Corps service because I had the opportunity to interact with communities all over the world and help bring their voices to the clinical research process,” she says.
Returned volunteers are encouraged to join the NIH RPCV group by sending an email to RPCVS_AT_NIH@list.nih.gov with only the following text in the message body (no signature): subscribe RPCVS_AT_NIH your name.