haiti bioscience
Bioscience class at UNDH-Hinche. (Photo credit: Jean Arnaud)

By J.O. Haselhoef

In the United States, television cameras captured the image of thousands of purple-capped vials of COVID-19 vaccinations moving to the next stage of production. The camera pulled back as a scientist explained how the vaccine came about at lightning speed. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s our awareness of the vast bioscience infrastructure, long in existence, to make a safe vaccination quickly available. 

The presence of bioscience in some countries, however, underscores the lack of it in other places — like Haiti. In the context of COVID, there are no vaccinations and few tests are available. Haitians are at risk internally and limited from traveling abroad. 

Establishing bioscience in Haiti? 

Ilio Durandis, a Boston-based biotechnologist, recognized the science and technology deficit in Haiti and set out, in 2014, to solve it by creating the Haitian Bioscience Initiative.

He laid out the steps to achieve his goal, gathered a board, utilized crowdfunding and donations from U.S. institutions and built a full science lab at the University of Notre Dame of Haiti in Hinche, a city 70 miles northeast of Port au Prince. 

University of Notre Dame of Haiti (UNDH), established by Roman Catholics in 1995 in Port-au-Prince, expanded its campuses in 2012 to Hinche. There, the university initiated nursing and a three-year biology program under Father Herald Jean, its executive vice rector.

Durandis and Herald set up a school feasibility study, trying different combinations of curriculum and student levels (high school students through college instructors) to see, “what would work best for bringing science and technology skills to Haiti,” said Durandis.

By 2018, the program successfully graduated 50 students in bioscience and 75 in biology. All of the first-year students found employment — from positions in laboratories to a juice company that one of the students began.

Jean Arnaud taking water samples on the Grand Plateau (Photo credit: Monika Roy) 

Maintaining bioscience in Haiti?

Durandis and Herald recognized that they’d created a valuable hands-on learning environment that diversified Haiti’s labor force to a higher educational level. Not only does it introduce a new way of learning because it relies on testing ideas with gathered evidence, but it also presents the world through the lens of living organisms, their structure and their behavior.  

 Bioscience training changes the mindset of students, according to Durandis. They recognize needs in Haiti differently from educators, sociologists and doctors and create jobs that utilize bioscience skills — from assessing vendors’ food quality through developing healthier crops to discovering new medicines from plants. 

But could the Haiti Bioscience Initiative sustain itself or expand?

During 2019 and 2020, the initiative’s enrollment and graduation numbers fell off by half. Durandis cited the country’s financial difficulties and COVID-19 as contributors.

He had hoped that Haiti would develop more quickly the need for a larger technical workforce so that more students could be employed after graduation. 

“That didn’t happen,” he said, “but there are still opportunities to use the science skills these students have.” Herald helps the graduates find work, and the new scientists assist one another as well.

Haiti Bioscience Initiative lab at UNDH-Hinche (Photo credit: Jean Arnaud)
Haiti Bioscience Initiative lab at UNDH-Hinche (Photo credit: Jean Arnaud)

The key for sustainability, according to Durandis, is to find ways to extend the results of the bioscience teachings. Can the students do research? Will the graduates start businesses? 

In Haiti in 2018, Jean Arnaud, now a graduate student in bioinfomatics​ at Northeastern U, was studying chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was collecting samples of Haiti’s surface water on the Grand Plateau near Hinche for his professor’s work on Cholera at the Institute for Global Health. He wondered if, instead of returning the samples to Massachusetts, someone in Haiti could analyze them using traditional laboratory techniques. A quick Google search revealed the bioscience lab at UNDH-Hinche — a short walk away. 

Arnaud recognized the value that the Haiti Bioscience Initiative could bring to the UMass project and connected UNDH-Hinche to his professor, Dr. Timothy Ford, then director of the institute. 

Ford, now professor and chair of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Lowell, maintains the connection with UNDH-Hinche. His lab is developing training modules to link Hinche’s students with another UMass partner, Midwives for Haiti. Once funding is secured, teams will reach out to rural Haitian communities to support clean-water education with basic water-quality analysis. 

And, in an additional effort to ensure bioscience stays in Haiti, UNDH-Hinche recently hired a molecular biologist, to extend its capabilities and engage the students in basic research beyond the walls of the university.

Rodney Joseph, UNDH-Hinche faculty, taking water samples in Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Monika Roy)

The future of the Haiti Bioscience Initiative

What’s to come intrigues all of the partners. They acknowledge bioscience can, and must, open doors in Haiti. 

For example, a simple application of bioscience is to determine whether a patient has Hepatitis A or B so that the proper medicine can be prescribed. Haiti has few locations where this simple diagnostic can take place. 

“The more people trained in basic science skills,” said Durandis, “the better it will be for the country.”
His statement brings the issue of the pandemic back into view. Why shouldn’t the initiative’s lab at UNDH-Hinche be a testing place for COVID-19?

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J.O. Haselhoef is the author of “Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti.” She co-founded "Yonn Ede Lot" (One Helping Another), a nonprofit that partnered with volunteer groups in La Montagne ("Lamontay"), Haiti from 2007-2013. She writes and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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