Chemistry students get lab experience testing antibiotics from Kenya

One in 10 medical products in developing nations -- including birth control pills, antibiotics and malaria medicines -- has been found to be substandard or falsified, according to the World Health Organization. The issue has led to a loss of confidence in health care providers, as well as increased antimicrobial and drug resistance.

From left, IU Bloomington students Alex Butrum-Griffith, Maya Patheja and Anna Hsiao.View print quality image
From left, IU Bloomington students Alex Butrum-Griffith, Maya Patheja and Anna Hsiao. Their chemistry class analyzed antibiotic samples from pharmacies in Kenya. Photo courtesy of IU Office of the Provost

To bring this real-world issue closer to home, an Indiana University Bloomington class analyzed antibiotic samples from pharmacies in Kenya. The fall 2019 honors section of Principles of Chemistry and Biochemistry I worked in support of the University of Notre Dame's Distributed Pharmaceutical Analysis Lab, which collaborates with Chemists Without Borders to characterize suspect medications from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, Nepal and Malawi.

Jill Robinson, senior lecturer in IU Bloomington's Department of Chemistry, first heard about the project at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in July 2018. "Universities from around the country get real samples -- ours are from Kenya -- and we test them and report back," she said. "The analysis correlates with what we learn in class: to make solutions and to analyze data and graphs."

But unlike other classroom experiments, Robinson said, the results are unknown beforehand.

Many freshmen who enrolled in Robinson's lab plan to enter medical or science professions. The four-week project left them thinking about regulatory agencies, medical ethics and the concrete effect of drug access on everyday lives.

Anna Hsiao, a neuroscience major in the class, was left contemplating her own options when it comes to medical care.

"I am sick now and can get Dayquil and Nyquil, and if they don't work, I have so many other options," she said. "For some people, these drugs we tested are the only option."

Hsiao decided to pursue medicine when her grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson's and dementia.

"His hands would shake," she said. "He was a brilliant writer, but he could no longer hold a pen."

Medical research became Hsiao's passion, especially the exploration of neurodegenerative diseases.

Alex Butrum-Griffith, a chemistry major on the pre-med track, was amazed by the real-world impact of the assignment.

"It makes you realize you're not in high school anymore," she said.

Her interest in medicine emerged after her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer when Butrum-Griffith was 9.

"She had the best oncologist," Butrum-Griffith said. "He would balance giving you the truth and not scaring you. I wanted to provide people with that."

Maya Patheja, a human biology major working to become a physician's assistant, didn't expect to be providing results to a national lab at age 18. Her interest in medicine developed when she tore her ACL in high school and underwent physical therapy and visited orthopedic surgeons.

"I later interned with a chiropractor and fell in love with kinesiology," Patheja said. "The chiropractor had personal relationships with clients, and I just fell in love with that environment."

The students were happy to discover that the dosage of the two antibiotics they analyzed was correct within a 10 percent error. They said the assignment will help them step with more confidence into the professional roles they plan to fill someday, and they are grateful to Robinson for this opportunity and for the careful thought she puts into her labs.

"Working for the benefit of the greater good feels rewarding," Hsiao said. "We're all trying to do this every day anyway."

This project, in which IU students work with and learn from an agency while contributing to the larger community during their time in Bloomington, is considered an IU Corps experience.

Lana Spendl is speechwriter and communications specialist in the Office of the Provost.