May 20, 2021

After COVID-19 delay, student begins Fogarty-funded research experience in Ghana

Ann Wolski is the first Medical School student in more than a year to travel on a global health experience

Ann Wolski (center, rear) and her Ghanaian research colleagues, including project mentor Dr. Ashura Bakari (center, front)
Ann Wolski (center, rear) and her Ghanaian research colleagues, including project mentor Dr. Ashura Bakari (center, front)

As the novel coronavirus first spread around the world in the spring of 2020, UMMS student Ann Wolski recalls talking with a colleague about an upcoming international fellowship she’d been planning through the Fogarty International Center.

“There was this question of whether COVID was going to impact my Fogarty fellowship. And I was dismissive: ‘No, that’s months from now!’” Wolski said. “But then as time went by it became clear that I was wrong.”

Wolski’s fellowship in Ghana was ultimately delayed, her time in-country shortened from a year to six months, and the focus of her project altered. But this March Wolski arrived in Ghana – a full eight months after originally planned — the first UMMS student to travel for a global health experience in more than a year.

“We had nearly resigned ourselves to the fact that Ann may spend her Fogarty year Zooming from Ann Arbor, but then a series of things began to fall into place,” said Associate Professor of Ob-Gyn and Learning Health Sciences Cheryl Moyer, Wolski’s U-M mentor on the Fogarty project.

The project

A fourth-year student, Wolski is spending six months at Kumasi’s Suntreso Government Hospital working alongside Ghanaian physician Ashura Bakari on a project that aims to help new mothers identify the signs of jaundice in newborns so treatment can begin early, reducing long-term complications and deaths. Bakari and Moyer are longtime collaborators.

“Ann was going to a place where I knew she would be in good hands and where my partners were excited to welcome her,” Moyer said.

Jaundice is typically identified in healthcare settings via a handheld device that strobes a light into an infant’s tissue and then uses a spectrometer to measure the wavelengths reflected back; yellow is a sign of jaundice.

Those machines are pricey. The icterometer device that Bakari and Wolski are testing is a decidedly low-tech alternative, not typically used in hospitals but a potentially helpful tool for parents at home.

“It looks like a light-to-dark paint swatch that you might get at the hardware store, printed on plastic,” Wolski said. “You use your finger to blanch the tip of the baby’s nose, and then compare the color there to the different color swatches. The idea is, what if we taught mothers how to use this and then sent them home with one?”

An at-home feasibility study for the device was to be the centerpiece of Bakari’s own upcoming Fogarty project. Wolski is helping to lay the groundwork, conducting a retrospective medical record survey of more than 1,000 recent births at Suntreso to document the frequency of jaundice screenings, diagnoses, and outcomes. She is also part of a small research team conducting qualitative interviews of providers and new mothers, asking about their familiarity with jaundice, diagnosis, and icterometers.

“Having Ann in Ghana made us expand the study with a qualitative subsection, which will guide us on how best to introduce the icteromoter,” Bakari said. “I would not be able to do all of these things without the help of Ann.”