Small Group Begins Dialogue on Research, Curriculum, and Program Collaborations around Ebola

Emory Ebola Faculty and Community Discussion Forum small-group participants discuss the impact of religious practices on Ebola containment and treatment in Liberia.

The Ebola pandemic underscored, in stark terms, the importance of working across academic disciplines and institutional boundaries. This fact was highlighted in the Emory Ebola Faculty and Community Discussion Forum, and discussed in practical terms by the faculty and institutional partners who participated in the small-group discussions that accompanied the forum. For the participants, the group was much more than a theoretical exercise; it was an opportunity to bring diverse expertise and experience to bear on a global pandemic verging on catastrophe. 

The forum—organized by IDN, Emory’s Institute of African Studies, and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing—was a semester-long series of talks on the complex nature of the Ebola crisis and its implications for West Africa as well as the US and broader international community. The public talks covered various aspects of Ebola, including the ethics of deciding who gets experimental vaccines; the impact of neoliberal economic policies on developing countries’ ability to respond to public health crises and other emergencies; the importance, for effective crisis response, of trust and cultural understanding between governments and citizens, and between international NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, and citizens. In April former President Jimmy Carter, Emory University Distinguished Professor, spoke on the impact of Ebola in Liberia and how The Carter Center–Liberia’s work during the last decade allowed them to work closely with the government and citizens to help contain and treat the disease.

Vincent Bruyère, a professor in the French and Italian department, researches and lectures on the connections between health and humanities, with a particular focus on research ethics in historiography and health sciences.

Sheila Cavanagh is a professor in the English department and director of the World Shakespeare Project, an organization that uses interactive technology to link Shakespearean students and faculty from around the world in interdisciplinary dialogue.

Dabney Evans researches and lectures on the intersection of public health and human rights. A professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health and director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies in the Rollins School of Public Health, Evans focuses on issues impacting vulnerable populations.

Sheila Tefft, a senior lecturer, is an expert on health and science writing in the Institute of the Liberal Arts. As a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for almost 25 years, Tefft spent 12 years in Asia and worked for the Chicago Tribune and Atlanta Constitution before coming to Emory.

The small-group participants’ interest in learning from and contributing to cross-sector, multidisciplinary discussions around Ebola led to lively debate, a better understanding of the work of colleagues in the Emory community, and plans for future research, teaching, and capacity-strengthening collaborations. Sheila Cavanagh saw participating in the discussion group as an opportunity to discuss an important issue with experts from across the university, commenting, “It was one of the most stunning opportunities at a place that often offers stunning opportunities.” Vincent Bruyère prized the ability to “establish contacts with colleagues across the College, with epidemiologists and public health practitioners” for his current research on the reasoning behind the declaration and management of a public health crisis. Dabney Evans explained that fellow group member Tom Crick, associate director of The Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, has helped her make connections with the Center’s Mental Health–Liberia Program, which will prove valuable as she embarks on a research project examining stigma and other mental-health implications for Ebola survivors.

Forum group members have incorporated conversations from the public and small-group discussions into courses they taught this semester. Sheila Tefft, who taught a freshman seminar on US immigration policy and news coverage, was particularly interested in the discussion following the public session on Ebola and the law in the US and West Africa. Following Emory Law Professor Polly Price’s discussion of the impact of international, federal, state, and local laws on the US response to Ebola, Vialla Hartfield-Mendez asked other group members, “What about immigration? The way the story of Ebola is told is that infection is coming across our border, which leads to conversations about immigration.” This led to a broader discussion about the history of xenophobia and a narrative of disease coming from other countries.

For Evans, the small discussion group was a way to meet colleagues from across campus and share some of the events and discussion topics through the MOOC, which had an enrollment of more than 4,000 students (including more than 1,200 students from low- and middle-income countries).

The public and small-group discussions benefited students at Emory and beyond through a Coursera course on Ebola. Evans, who co-taught the massive open online course (MOOC) Ebola: An Evolving Epidemic, provided the public with real information on the science of EVD and explored the broad impact of the Ebola crisis on global health. Evans knows well the value of interdisciplinarity, as she explores the relationship between global health and human rights, but she also understands that true interdisciplinary dialogue often can remain an abstract goal. For Evans, the small discussion group was a way to meet colleagues from across campus and share some of the events and discussion topics through the MOOC, which had an enrollment of more than 4,000 students (including more than 1,200 students from low- and middle-income countries).

Several group members expressed appreciation for the diversity of perspectives in both the public and closed-door discussions. Cavanagh lauded forum organizers for

bringing together speakers on such different dimensions of the crisis. Small-group members have learned about and discussed dimensions that we may not have been thinking about before the forum. For example, I hadn’t necessarily considered the full economic impact of Ebola on Liberia’s future until Jeff Rosensweig [professor of finance at Goizueta Business School] talked about how Ebola has affected Liberia’s tourism industry, including its nascent surfing community.

Going forward, organizers, presenters, and group members will continue to draw on the richness of expertise at Emory and in the broader community to facilitate the collaborations related to rebuilding after Ebola in West Africa and preparing for future pandemics. Tom Crick, for example, accepted Tefft’s invitation to speak on Ebola and the environment in Liberia in her environmental journalism course. Tefft also plans to include a unit on news coverage of Ebola in Dallas and other U.S. cities in her Health and Science Writing course this fall. Currently, she is working with fellow group member Elizabeth Downes, clinical professor in the school of nursing, to help nursing students make their op-ed pieces more accessible to a broader audience. Bruyère plans to work with colleagues from epidemiology and public health to better understand collaborative practices and organizational challenges that differ from those in his areas of research. He sees these connections as critical for his research on the impact of contagion and containment narratives on global health. As he says, they “will be crucial in the process of selecting cases and in navigating recent developments in the various fields and subfields of epidemiology . . . while helping me gain insights on the questions and methodologies structuring the discourse of public and global health.” Other small-group members, including Elizabeth Bounds, professor of Christian ethics, expressed a desire to work on the roles that religious institutions and practices have played and can continue to play in local, national, and international responses to Ebola and other public health crises.

Emory Ebola Faculty and Community Discussion Forum organizers. <l to r> Deborah Bruner, Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, and Pamela Scully  


Top: Emory Ebola Faculty and Community Discussion Forum small-group participants discuss the impact of religious practices on Ebola containment and treatment in Liberia.

Bottom: Emory Ebola Faculty and Community Discussion Forum organizers. <l to r> Deborah Bruner, Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, and Pamela Scully

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