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Northwestern strengthens academic ties with Cuba, expands faculty collaborations in health-related fields

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Interview with Anthropologist Rebecca Seligman

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In a step towards continued cross-cultural collaborations, eight Northwestern faculty members and administrators traveled to Havana, Cuba, this past June to explore possible joint research opportunities with Cuban peers.

Four days of back-to-back meetings with University of Medical Sciences of Havana faculty and visits to family doctor offices, hospitals and specialty clinics highlighted Cuba’s public healthcare successes and yielded multiple possible research collaborations through diverse theoretical lenses.

The meetings come at a point in indefinite U.S.-Cuban relations. Yet Northwestern continues to intensify its ties with the country's academic community in an ongoing effort to promote the creation and sharing of knowledge across borders.

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Professor Lifang Hou, a member of the delegation who specializes in preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, met with doctors and scientists from Cuba’s National Institute of Oncology and Radiology. Already, she says, they have begun discussing potential collaborations to conduct cancer research by studying different populations.

For Associate Professor Craig Garfield, who researches parents’ roles in early childhood development at the Feinberg School, possible research collaborations exist in cross-cultural examinations of child-family dynamics.

"I have always been interested in learning how other cultures deal with health, and as a pediatrician, how they deal with children and families specifically,” Garfield says. “When you understand how other cultures include families in their decisions, you better understand that culture.”

Meanwhile, Anthropology Professor Thomas McDade, who studies the impact of childhood environments on development and health later in life, approaches the issue of early childhood development through a biological anthropology lens. For him, there is a lot to learn from Cuba.

"Despite the fact that Cuba has been incredibly strained for resources, it still has some of the world's highest rates of positive birth outcomes,” McDade says. “I’m particularly interested in the pattern of social relationships that contribute to better outcomes for mothers and their babies in Cuba.”

Since the early 1970s, the infant mortality rate in Cuba has decreased from 38 to 4.5 per 1,000 births, and life expectancy has increased to 82.7 years, putting Cuba's life expectancy at the same level as the U.S.

Healthcare as a right for all is manifested in the Cuban constitution, and has been a priority for the Cuban government since the island's revolution in the late 1950s. Since then, the number of Cuban doctors has increased fourteen-fold and has resulted in large gains in public health in recent years. Today, 100 percent of the Cuban population is immunized, and 99.6 percent are literate.

“Cuba has a very interesting health care system,” says Associate Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Seligman, who studies mental health in cross-cultural perspectives. “It will be interesting to look at what happens to mental health as more economic inequality emerges in Cuba and whether Cuba maintains a socialized healthcare system in the same way it has. If so, will their public health system act as a buffer against negative mental health outcomes, or will inequality contribute to the emergence of more mental health problems?”

The public health successes that Cuba has achieved proved compelling to faculty involved in basic sciences, too. Professor Guillermo Oliver, who uses stem cell research to study brain and visual development at the Feinberg School, says “For me, working strictly in medical research, Cuba is an intriguing paradigm because of what its health system has been able to achieve despite a lack of resources. It provides a great opportunity to establish scientific collaborations.”

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Northwestern has had long-standing academic interest in Cuba, particularly in public health. In 2011, Northwestern began offering a study abroad program in Cuba in public health.

Vice President for International Relations Dévora Grynspan, who developed the program at the time, remembers, "Cuba has always been a fascinating place for study and research for Northwestern, especially in health and the arts. I first tried to set up a program in 2000, and even received a grant for it. But it was not until the travel restrictions loosened in 2011 that we finally succeeded."

Two years later in 2013, another track was added, giving Northwestern students the opportunity to experience Cuba through the study of art, literature and film. Since then several Northwestern faculty members with professional interests in Cuba have taught in the program, including Emily Maguire, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, Henry Godinez, Professor in the Department of Theatre, and Ramón Rivera-Servera, Department Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies.

Creating connections and promoting research collaborations between Northwestern and international partners is part of the Office of International Relations’ mission. The office, under the leadership of Grynspan, enhances Northwestern’s internationalization efforts, prioritizing partnership development and global engagement of faculty and staff.

"Northwestern is strongly committed to developing and expanding collaborations in Cuba to include more faculty, scholars and fellows," says Grynspan. "Faculty exchanges and research collaborations are some of the means through which this partnership can evolve."

This fall, the Office of International Relations will host at least two Cuban scholars to further explore joint research possibilities. Northwestern faculty interested in meeting Cuban scholars or pursuing collaborations in Cuba should contact Kim Rapp, Assistant Vice President for International Relations. Rapp will be returning to Cuba in October to represent Northwestern at the Cuba TIES 2017 Workshop of Strategic Alliances for the Internationalization of Higher Education, and to continue discussions about collaborations between the University of Medical Sciences of Havana and Northwestern.

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In full, the eight-member delegation to Cuba included: Craig Garfield, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Social Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine; Lifang Hou, Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Thomas McDade, Professor in the Department of Anthropology; Guillermo Oliver, Professor of Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine; Rebecca Seligman, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology; Daniel Young, former Deputy Director for Global Health Education at the Center for Global Health at the Feinberg School of Medicine; Kim Rapp, Assistant Vice President for International Relations and Janka Pieper, Director of Communications, in the Office of International Relations.

The group was hosted in Cuba by Midiala Monagas Docasal, the Dean of the Manuel Fajardo School of Medicine at the University of Medical Sciences of Havana. The relationship with the Cuban medical school deepened when Frank Penedo, Professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine, visited Havana last fall to discuss collaborations in cancer survivorship. He invited his peers from Cuba’s National Institute of Oncology and Radiology and the Manuel Fajardo School of Medicine to attend Northwestern’s Cancer Survivorship Symposium this past May. They continued discussions on joint research around cancer recovery processes and met the group of Northwestern representatives who travelled to Cuba in June. In Cuba, Monagas and her team were instrumental in connecting the Northwestern group with scientists and potential collaborators across Havana.

Financial support for the trip was provided by a Partners of the Americas grant, the Global Health Initiative at Northwestern Medicine, and the Office of International Relations.

Click on the name to watch and read individual interviews with the Cuba delegation members and the Cuban host:

  • Craig Garfield - Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Social Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Lifang Hou - Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Thomas McDade - Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Guillermo Oliver - Professor of Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Kim Rapp - Assistant Vice President for International Relations
  • Rebecca Seligman - Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Midiala Monagas Docasal - Dean of the Manuel Fajardo School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba
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