Deshpande Foundation funds students’ public health efforts in India

May 05, 2009
Two teams of students from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have been selected by the Deshpande Foundation’s Innovators Program to lead projects in India this summer that address pressing public health needs in sanitation and reproductive health.

Founded in 1996 by Gururaj (Desh) and Jaishree Deshpande, of Andover, Mass., the Foundation funds innovative, entrepreneurial, sustainable projects that benefit communities in the northwestern Kamalaka region of India.

Members of the "Tar Heel Transformers" are Oluwaseyi Ibidapo and Jill Johnston (seated), Nick DeFelice and Patsy Polston.

Members of the “Tar Heel Transformers” are Oluwaseyi Ibidapo and Jill Johnston (seated), Nick DeFelice and Patsy Polston.

Student awardees include Nicholas DeFelice, Oluwaseyi Ibidapo, Jill Johnston and Patsy Polston, master’s students in environmental sciences and engineering, on “The Tar Heel Transformers” team; and Yasmin Cole-Lewis, Daniel Cothran, Jessica Feingold, and Jessica Izquierdo (master’s students in health behavior and health education) and Rajeev Colaco (doctoral candidate in maternal and child health), on the “Partners for Gender Progress” team.

The Tar Heel Transformers have proposed the construction of a closed, feedback-loop sanitary system that will improve basic sanitation, indoor air quality and soil fertility through the construction of latrines and the conversion of human and animal waste to biogas.

If successful, the project will reduce diarrheal infections; provide a free, safe source of agricultural fertilizer, make available methane gas as a safer cooking fuel in poorly ventilated homes, and improve the lives of adolescent girls, who often leave school at puberty, discouraged by the lack of sanitation facilities.

The "Partners for Gender Progress" team includes (l-r) Yasmin Cole-Lewis, Jessica Izquierdo, Rajeev Colaco, Jessica Feingold and Daniel Cothran.

The “Partners for Gender Progress” team includes (l-r) Yasmin Cole-Lewis, Jessica Izquierdo, Rajeev Colaco, Jessica Feingold and Daniel Cothran.

Partners for Gender Progress will work with the Family Planning Association of India to design and implement an educational program to teach young men about sexual health and gender equality. Team members will train peer health educators from the local post-secondary school to aid in program implementation and will develop SMS health messaging “reminders” about themes from the curricula. (SMS, or Short Message Service, is commonly referred to as “text messaging.”)

The gender equity team aims to increase young men’s understanding of gender dynamics and women’s health so that men will serve as facilitators to women accessing health services. Other expected outcomes from the curriculum include a reduction in new incidences of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and reduction in gender-based violence.

Barbara (Bobbi) Wallace, MPH, the School’s associate director of development for corporations and foundations, calls the opportunity “amazing.”

“We first approached the Deshpande Foundation because we thought their emphasis on creation, innovation and a culture of transformation was such a good fit with our School’s approach to public health,” Wallace says.

“Given the School’s long history of work in India, we were also attracted to the Foundation’s focus on creating sustainable change in one geographic region,” she says.

Margaret (Peggy) Bentley, PhD, professor of nutrition and associate dean for global health at the School, was “not at all surprised that our students were able to quickly form teams, develop proposal ideas that fall into line with Deshpande’s ‘Sandbox’ initiative in Karnataka, finalize these with minimal help from staff and faculty, participate in challenging telephone interviews with their teams and Deshpande staff” and then successfully win the awards.

“I am extremely proud of our students and their commitment to global health and social justice,” Bentley says.

Meenakshi Verma Agrawal, program officer for global exchange programs at the Foundation, agrees.

“The Deshpande Foundation is excited to be working with the students of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health this summer to bring their innovations to Karnataka,” Agrawal says.

“We are pleased to foster the partnership between the students and the NGOs and look forward to the sustainable solutions that come from this new relationship.”

To learn more about the Deshpande Foundation, visit Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or