“How can we vaccinate people who need the protection in these vulnerable areas? And how can we protect vaccinators, many of whom are from polio-endemic areas?”

Ikran Sheikh-Mursal ’20 (Shakopee, Minn.) has spent most of her college career researching a topic that’s a distant memory for many: polio, a contagious disease that the public health world has worked to eradicate since 1988.

Through her participation in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program—a program that supports and aims to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who will pursue a PhD and enter the professoriate—Sheikh-Mursal studies barriers to polio eradication in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Although she estimates that fewer than 100 polio cases occurred in those countries in 2018, political and historical challenges make it difficult to eradicate the disease.

One example includes militant groups in polio-endemic countries. “[These groups] point to western imperialism to discourage people from getting vaccines,” explains Sheikh-Mursal. “They say, ‘We don’t want the polio vaccine in our cities. You see what [Americans] did to us in the past, why would you trust them on how safe this is?’

“So now, there are people who are scared to travel to these regions to administer vaccines. How can we vaccinate people who need the protection in these vulnerable areas? And how can we protect vaccinators, many of whom are from polio-endemic areas?” she asks. “The issue of polio eradication, in some ways, is simpler than it used to be, but at the same time, much more complex.”

Sheikh-Mursal credited a class about public health in Africa from pre-colonial to contemporary times, taught by history professor Jessica Pearson, as her main inspiration in coming up with her MMUF research topic. “[The class] showed me what public health could look like when it’s not just STEM-focused,” says Sheikh-Mursal, an international studies and classics major. “What inspired me to continue with this research is how current the topic is. There’s a new polio update almost every week, so it’s important for polio eradication to be interdisciplinary. I wanted my research to put the history, politics, and scientific aspects of public health in conversation with each other.”

Along with the class itself, she credited Pearson’s unique teaching style and general approachability as the reasons why she asked her to serve as her faculty mentor for the MMUF. “Our check-ins aren’t just about academics. They are also about me, as a person, outside of being a student, which is an important role [Pearson] plays in my research.”

And being a part of the MMUF cohort—which largely recruits students of color like Sheikh-Mursal—has been a source of support, pride, and empowerment in her academic and research career thus far. “I’ve never associated empowerment with academia until [the MMUF]. Mellon’s helped us all realize our potential in very white academic environments.”

February 17 2020

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