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Advancing Sickle Cell Disease Research in the Caribbean

Student headshot

December 13, 2018

An undergraduate gets a head start on her career managing a groundbreaking study to advance public health in Jamaica.

Originally from Jamaica, Gi'Anna Sterling-Donaldson, BS '19 Public Health student in the Dornsife School of Public Health, came to Philadelphia at the age of 17 to finish her high school degree and attend college. "I chose Drexel University because they had a lot to offer in STEM," says Sterling-Donaldson.

Her passion for her island and her culture gave Sterling-Donaldson the motivation to work on projects centered on West Indian public health, while pursuing her undergraduate degree. "I want more people to know how hardworking and innovative my fellow West Indian and Caribbean people are," says Sterling-Donaldson.

This past spring and summer, she completed her co-op at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR) Tropical Metabolism Research Unit at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. She helped to research Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), anemia, diabetes, and nutrition-related health disparities in the Caribbean.

"I'm really proud to have led the Institute's implementation of its first SCD and associated cancers bio repository that gathers information about the genetic makeup of all who suffer from SCD in Jamaica," says Sterling-Donaldson. As project manager, she oversaw a team of medical students to ensure data was collected efficiently and ethically. She curated surveys and interview questions for existing and incoming patients, worked with the IT department to create a more user-friendly platform for providers to communicate with lab technicians, and a portal for patients to receive and interpret their lab results. The bio repository will soon be used on other Caribbean islands.

"It's really rewarding to start something from the ground up," says Sterling-Donaldson. "I aspire to work on projects from their inception again." After graduation, she hopes to return to the Institute to do similar work with HIV/AIDS and diabetes data.

For the past four years, Sterling-Donaldson has also been president of the West Indian Student Establishment (WISE), a university-wide organization that socially, academically, and culturally unites the West Indian student population. She and the WISE Executive Board were instrumental in starting new events like 'Quest to the West Indies' for new students and growing the organization from 15 members to more than 100. "I'm really happy with the work we’ve done, the connections we've made, and how we've pushed the envelope," she says.

This spring, WISE will host the 15th Annual Bob Marley Dinner with authentic Caribbean cuisine, entertainment, and live music. "The event gathers students and community members to celebrate the renowned Caribbean musician and social activist," says Sterling-Donaldson. Updates about this event and other WISE events can be found on their Instagram page.