Sawandi Salimu: Eye-Opening Mission in Nigeria Has Graduate Student Looking Forward to Medical Career
Sawandi Salimu (Class of ’09, B.S., biochemistry) is busy this summer. With his sights set on medical school, he is preparing to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and to begin his graduate studies in biology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Despite the rigors of medical school ahead however, he says he feels prepared thanks to his experiences on a medical mission in Africa with physicians and other volunteers from the Anambra State Association (ASA), a nonprofit led by Nigerian professionals who now live and work in the United States.
Salimu says that his work with ASA for several months in 2007 to 2008 shaped his goals and inspired him toward a career in helping to diminish global health disparities.
“In the U.S., there are demographics of the population that are underrepresented, but a social safety net exists to mitigate their medical [shortfall],” he says. “In Nigeria, especially outside of the nation's capital of Abuja (formerly Lagos) there was very little representation. This is not an indictment of the Nigerian government, but an opportunity to illuminate the lack of clinical representation and research [to the extent] we are able to rely on at home and abroad.”
Salimu assisted one of his mentors, ophthalmologist Dr. Leroy Vaughn, with cataract surgery to restore sight to geriatric patients. While this is a common procedure among elderly patients in the United States, Salimu points out the tragic results of the lack of medical care in Africa.
“By age 80, approximatley 60 percent of all Americans will have a cataract or need cataract surgery,” Salimu says. “This statistic... has a profound impact on the third world, primarily the regions that depend on agriculture…. A consequence, apart from legal blindness, is starvation.”
Salimu credited his education and training at CSU Dominguez Hills as an undergraduate – which included his internship with Vaughn and a second internship with Dr. Abdoulaye Diop of Diop Family Medical in Inglewood – with the ability to serve 650 patients in challenging and potentially inadequate clinical conditions. The ASA team’s entire outdoor clinic served 10,000 patients in two weeks.
“I owe my science professors at Dominguez Hills, big time,” says Salimu. “My background in microbiology, biochemistry, and sterile technique proved essential as in most underdeveloped nations, infection is a post-operation nightmare. Our execution was sterile and detail oriented. We received numerous donations of eye drops from Allergan, grants from ASA, and supplies from the Nigerian government. Although we had antiquated equipment, and very little marcaine (anesthetic) and antibiotics, there was one resource that could not be weakened – ingenuity.
“When the generators in our small operating theatres lost power, Dr. Vaughn and I completed cataract surgeries with head lamps, loupes, and candlelight, without diminishing results. All of our patients went from legally blind to 20/20 with a replacement intraocular lens by extracapsular extraction in one eye. Unfortunately, we could only perform surgery on one eye per person out of fairness to the other patients – one eye is better than none.”
Although he was accepted at CSU Long Beach and the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles resident chose to earn his master’s degree at CSU Dominguez Hills “because it is comprehensive, laboratory-friendly, cost- efficient, and offers a [variety] of research mentors on and off campus.”
This fall, Salimu will work with Dr. Robert Cubillos, adjunct faculty in philosophy, who will supervise the bioethics component of his thesis, and professors of biology Dr. Davood Soleymani and Dr. Thomas Landefeld. He will also continue to work with Dr. Vaughn and study pathogenesis and cataract formation with Dr. Simon Law of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA.
Salimu says that his thesis, a comprehensive study in immunohistochemistry and bioethics, is vital to the preservation of the quality of life for future generations of older adults. He says that numbers underscore the importance of expanding the field of geriatric eye care.
“The United Nations Vital Statistics and Population Data estimates that there are about 6.8 billion human beings inhabiting the planet,” he says. “With populations living longer than ever before [cataracts] could become a public health concern.”
The untimely loss of his father to a stroke due to heart disease inspired Salimu to pursue a medical career to hopefully help eliminate health disparities at home and in developing nations. Salimu says that according to the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, minority groups, especially African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos have a higher incidence of chronic diseases, higher mortality rates, and poor health-related outcomes than Caucasian ethnic groups. Upon becoming a physician, he hopes to volunteer his time and resources to address health disparities at home and around the world.
“Scientists believe that higher rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, substance abuse, stroke, and infant mortality are the results of complex
interactions among several factors such as biology, the environment, and specific behaviors,” says Salimu. “These areas are significantly impacted by discrimination, a shortage of minority health professionals, and inequalities in income, education, and access to health care. Minority health practitioners are needed to visibly and proactively increase the need for stronger patient-physician relationships, health literacy programs, and early detection to counteract social forces that may impact patient communities.”
Salimu is also actively involved in encouraging more students of color to develop an intersest in the sciences. Toward that end he established and presented a mammalian dissections class named the Imhotep Anatomy Program at Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles last spring. The program was supported by Linda Saunders, the school’s excutive director and Patricia Rillera, chief executive officer, Young Black Scholars. Their support also made instructional field trips to the Body Worlds exhibit at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. He also represented Marcus Garvey School at the State of the African American Male Conference at USC in 2008 and 2009. He served as a panelist on issues in South Central Los Angeles, sharing commentary on understanding student disengagement for youth of color.
“My passion is to understand why black and Hispanic communities exhibit limited participation in science and academia,” says Salimu.
Salimu has set his sights on Meharry Medical College in Nashville upon completion of his master’s thesis on the areas of immunohistochemistry and bioethics. He also looks forward to returning to the villages of Nigeria for another mission with ASA.
For more information on biology and pre-med programs at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.
- Joanie Harmon
Photos above: Graduate biology student Sawandi Salimu served on a medical mission to restore sight to cataract patients in Nigeria amid less than ideal clinical conditions. Above, Salimu takes a patient's vital signs pre-surgery in an abandoned vehicle.
Salimu taught a mammalian dissections class during the Imhotep Anatomy Program at Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles last spring.