Two veterinary students had a vision. They wanted to incorporate their passion for helping animals with improving conditions in underserved communities in the developing world. In 2012, Lisa Gretebeck and Nikki Wright co-founded Pou Sante: Amar Haiti, a project that improves health and income opportunities in rural Haiti through sustainable goat production.
The project earned Gretebeck, 26, and Wright, 28, a spot on the 2015 Forbes magazine 30 Under 30 list. Published in January, the list features 600 influential people all under 30 years old—from young venture capitalists and Hollywood stars to scientists and educators—in 20 categories. Nominated by their alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Gretebeck and Wright are featured in health care, one of five new categories this year.
“I think making the Forbes list will be great for the project going forward,” said Gretebeck. “It certainly got the word out. I’ve had many people contact me to learn more about the project.”
Gretebeck is currently enrolled in NIH’s Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP), a yearlong research program for medical, dental and veterinary students. She’s conducting research in a vaccine laboratory with Dr. Kanta Subbarao, chief, emerging respiratory viruses section, NIAID. After completing MRSP, Gretebeck will receive her veterinary degree from Penn, which helped launch and continues to support Pou Sante: Amar Haiti.
For Gretebeck, an earlier trip inspired the project in Haiti. While working on a rural health project at a hospital in India, she realized the people depended on animals for food, income, security and social status. She found funding to start a project for widowed women who came from a stigmatized caste. The women received goats and training on their proper care. After the goats gave birth, the kids were given to another widow. Raising and breeding goats helped empower these widows, allowing them to be financially independent.
Meanwhile, Wright had just returned from a World Vets Team trip to Haiti. The two Penn classmates discussed a possible collaboration to improve conditions in the northern Haitian village of Thibeau, where Wright had visited.
“I felt strongly about working in Haiti,” said Gretebeck. “The people of Haiti have a very strong connection, as it was in India as well, to their animals. At the same time, in the last few years, the people of Haiti have been victims of natural disasters, which can bring rise to zoonotic infections—diseases that can spread from animals to humans. Haiti has the highest incidence of rabies in the western hemisphere and no veterinary school, so the need was great for animal care and training.”
Pou Sante means “for health” in Haitian Creole. The project combines medical treatment for animals and community education and training. Pou Sante: Amar Haiti brings veterinarians and trainees to Haiti and so far has provided veterinary care, including vaccinations, for more than 1,000 animals. They continue to provide sustainable animal husbandry training and resources to enhance animal, human and environmental health.
Gretebeck (at left in the race photo and third from l in the gingerbread photo) has also participated fully in campus life, getting involved in both the NIH Interinstitute Relay and in the Clinical Center’s annual Gingerbread House Contest.
Left Photo: Liwei Jiang
The veterinarians also provide animal health clinics for the community, to teach basic and preventive care. If a family can raise 5 goats in a year, they can afford to send a child to school. In addition to care for goats, these clinics provide care for cows, horses, pigs and other animals. A healthy cow is worth $600 to a Haitian farmer.
“With development work, I think it’s important to not just go in and put a bandage on and then leave,” said Gretebeck. “It’s important for the people within the community to become empowered; sustainability is really important. So we wanted to make sure we provided them with what they wanted.”
The word Amar in the project’s title means never-ending cycle in Marathi, inspired by Gretebeck’s time in India. The project name symbolizes what they hope will be a never-ending health cycle. And like the project itself, the organizational structure is also intended to be sustainable. Amar is now run by Penn vet students who will pass along the project to younger students. Gretebeck said, “The success has come from the enthusiasm of the students who keep it going.”
She continues to speak out about the need for medical research to incorporate lessons from human and animal medicine. “Physicians and veterinarians studying the same diseases should collaborate on projects side by side,” Gretebeck said. “We all need to get out of our comfort zones and connect our ideas.” She hopes to develop opportunities that foster collaboration between physicians and veterinarians to benefit human and animal health.
In December, Gretebeck and her friend and colleague in MRSP Abdulkareem Agunbiade, a medical student at the University of Chicago, were interviewed for StoryCorps, a national oral history project. NIH’s Office of Science, Outreach and Policy partnered with StoryCorps to record the stories of researchers, patients and others in the community. Gretebeck and Agunbiade discussed various aspects of the MRSP, from journal clubs to social events. The recorded conversation will be preserved in the Library of Congress this month and parts of the conversation may be streamed through National Public Radio.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” Gretebeck said of her time at NIH. She’s particularly enthusiastic about the chance to interact with medical and dental students. “Everyone’s so bright and inspiring. It gives me a lot of hope for the future of medicine.”