Frontline: Dropout Nation

Sunday, September 23, 2012
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Boston Volunteers Help Vietnamese with HIV

By Phillip Martin   |   Tuesday, July 10, 2012
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July 11, 2012

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — This summer, two Boston College professors are leading a group of students to volunteer at a clinic for HIV patients who are at the end of their lives in a society where the illness carries significant stigma.

A mile from my hotel, the taxi driver looks at the instructions again, does a U-turn and then speeds down the city's main avenue. A good 45 minutes later we are on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, which most people around here still refer to as Saigon. The driver does a zig and a zag past stores selling pots and portable stoves and through an intersection crowded with commuters on motorbikes. Then tucked away on a side street that meanders past several industrial sites we arrive at an HIV clinic run by the Catholic Church, where I’m met by a woman who calls herself Vee, who tells me the name of the facility, Tieng Vong, is pronounced "Tan Vaughn" and means “Hopeful Voice.”

I’m also met at the gate of the “Hopeful Voice” clinic by Boston College professors Thanh Tran and Rosanna DeMarco. They’re leading a group of BC undergraduates on an eye-opening medical mission to help dying HIV patients at the ends of their lives: learning, relating, struggling with it all and then returning to Boston to make a difference back home.

How the Boston team got involved

“I am an expert in the area. I have been working with black women who are living with HIV who are aging with the disease,” says DeMarco.

DeMarco, a professor of nursing, is far from the HIV clinics of Blue Hill Avenue and the African American and Hispanic women she counsels in Boston. But HIV cuts through boundaries and knows no borders. “I partnered with Dr. Tran and we got five other students interested. All of us came together to try to learn. And see how the health care system works for these patients and what it’s like for them.”

Six students, with plenty of choices for a carefree summer, choose Vietnam instead, a place where HIV carries with it a stigma and a personal and cultural challenge. Says DeMarco:

“Vietnam, although stable in a sense, the rising rates among women and men who have sex with men is very significant. Thus the stigma in the Vietnamese culture. When you are perceived as doing something wrong, like IV drugs or sex working or doing something related to the usual connotation of why people get HIV, then you become ostracized and how painful that is in this culture because there’s so much value on family and connection.”

The students' motivation and the scope of the problem

In the doorway of a one-story suntanned brick building, Pauline Tran of Worcester extends her hand. She is one of five Vietnamese-American students at BC who’ve returned — if you will — to a country they have never known.

“I’ve always had an attachment to my background, to my culture. I’ve always been interested in helping the vulnerable, especially for my family who came from something like this,” she says. Her family escaped to the U.S. after the war. She and the other Vietnamese American students were born in the U.S. They say they have also come to this HIV clinic as a way of giving back to the country of their heritage. And everyone on this trip has a role. For instance, Nguyet Chau, a native of Worcester, helped translate the documents the team uses for the HIV prevention program.

They can use all the help they can get. Vietnam has very limited human resources. In a country of nearly 89 million people, about 300,000 have been diagnosed with HIV. But there are only 1,300 health workers assigned to this population, and many of them are volunteers.

Still, stigma is probably the greatest obstacle to controlling the epidemic, says clinic director Co Vinh, speaking in Vietnamese. “About 13 years ago when we founded this clinic there was no treatment for HIV here in Vietnam and most people had no knowledge about the disease. So their own families discriminated against patients and many of them were thrown out in the streets. Some live in the park under the benches and in the bushes.”

The scene at the clinic

We take a tour of the clinic: There are eight beds, a needle cleaning machine, photos of Jesus and Saigon’s archbishop on the wall; clothing, food and medicine are piled in one corner, medical charts in another. Local volunteers bathe patients, hand out supplies, chart their progress or lack thereof and offer moral support. BC nursing student Mary Gerardo is the only non-Vietnamese student among the six from the U.S.

“I’m from Richmond, Virginia. I don’t travel very much," she says. "They contacted me and I said that would be a great opportunity. Professor DeMarco, after meeting her, I said, 'I can do this.'”

Most local volunteers here are congregants at the Catholic Church that sits on these grounds in Ho Chi Minh City. One is a former clinic patient with HIV who seems amazed by his own survival. “They gave me free medicine starting in 2004,” he says, and that has stabilized his medical condition.

IV drug use in Vietnam is on the rise, as is voluntary and forced prostitution, according to the United Nations. Vinh tells me about a patient who was sold by her own mother into sexual slavery across the border in Cambodia and ended up with HIV.

She says, “The young woman ended up in critical condition with tuberculosis and I met her in a local hospital. I got her address from the hospital and later I was looking for her but the address wasn’t clear. So one rainy afternoon I was looking for her and found her sitting on the streets; coughing on the streets by herself. And when I saw her like that I just could not stand it and I used my own money to rent her a small room.”

To listen and to learn

While most of the Boston College team are visitors to this faraway land, Professor Thanh Tran knows Vietnam well and struggles — perhaps more than we can ever know.

“I was born and raised up here until I finished high school and came to the U.S. at the end of the war," he says. "I’m always very hesitant to return to Vietnam because I belong to a different generation and a member of the Vietnamese community in the United States that’s extremely anti- this government. But I came here with Dr. DeMarco and a group of students to learn about the health care system; how these people find resources [to take care of patients] under very limited conditions.”

And the commitment to reducing HIV infections and the stigma of AIDS outweighs any ideological tug of war between Vietnamese Americans and Vietnam, between heritage and politics, says Professor Tran.

DeMarco agrees and says being here offers an invaluable lesson: “No matter what the care is, whatever level it is, whatever is here or isn’t here, when people come here — they come with their family members and they don’t feel any stigma, they feel respect. When they come here they don’t have people not listening to them. They have people listening to them.”

And that’s perhaps the most important lesson here. These professors and their students are not missionaries. They’re not here to tell Vietnamese clinicians, caregivers and patients what to do and how to do it, but instead they listen and learn, says DeMarco. “As professors we’re interested in helping students not understand research like they are reading it out of a book but understanding that it’s a relationship with people who have real experiences and in order to ask good questions and to figure out the answers to those questions you really have to get to know the problem, up close and personal.” 

And “up close and personal,” says DeMarco, is a step nearer to addressing the stigma of AIDS that keeps many from admitting a problem that is worldwide in scope — from Ho Chi Minh City to Boston.

Want to Go to UMass? Get in the Lab

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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June 20, 2012

test tubes

BOSTON — Massachusetts high school students will soon be required to take at least 3 years of lab-based science classes to get into the state's public universities. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education announced the new entry requirements on June 19.
Currently, students looking to get into a four-year university in Massachusetts have to take 3 years of high school science but only 2 of them need to be lab-based. And those classes have to be in biology, physics or chemistry.
Starting in 2017, high school seniors will need to have 3 years of lab-based science courses instead of 2. And classes in computers, engineering and technology will count.
Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville said the new entry requirements would better prepare Massachusetts college grads to compete in key industries.
“Engineering and technology should be a prominent part of our curriculum and part of our admissions requirements," he said. "Because that’s where the future is in terms of jobs that are coming to Massachusetts."
He added that the emphasis on experimentation and problem-solving would persuade more kids with scientific inclinations to stay in the sciences:
"We have what I call an 'inspiration gap' in Massachusetts. We do better than any other state on average in terms of student test scores in math and science. And yet when our students expressed what they’re interested in majoring in college, we are well below the national average in terms of interest expressed in STEM majors. Kids aren’t excited."
Reville said he worries traditional science education shuts out too many kids at a time when the state needs more scientists and lab technicians.

New Mass. Lawyers Feel the Squeeze

By Abbie Ruzicka   |   Monday, June 18, 2012
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June 19, 2012
BOSTON — As the number of people graduating from law school has gone up in recent years, the amount of available jobs in the legal field has gone down due to outsourcing and technology. A recent study by the Massachusetts Bar Association revealed possible ways to improve job prospects for new lawyers — many of whom have taken on six-figure debt and are graduating with little experience in the legal field.  
Eric Parker, a Boston lawyer who worked on the study, said more law schools need to have clinical programs that introduce practical skills to students so they will be more qualified when they leave.   
"You can come out of law school having passed the Bar and go right to a jury  trial and try a case having never been in a courtroom in your life. It sounds crazy but it's absolutely true," he said. "Imagine just for a moment being on a gurney in an operating room and your surgeon walks in and says, 'So, this is the operating room. Yeah, there's the anesthesia machine just like on "Grey's Anatomy." It all looks so real.'"
In addition to having law students get hands-on experience before graduating from law school, the task force that conducted the study recommended that law schools admit fewer students, make the Bar exam more difficult to pass and encourage new lawyers to take on pro bono and community work to build experience.
> > Read the response on Facebook.

Inside MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Challenge

By Kara Miller   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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Part 1:

Part 2: 

Twenty-three years ago, MIT wanted to find the very best start-up ideas out there. What new companies were waiting to be born? What inventions could change our lives?

Today, the winners of MIT’s 100K Entrepreneurship Competition have, together, created businesses worth $16 billion and generated nearly 5,000 new jobs.

A screen shot from, the first product from the team that created CloudTop, this year's MIT 100K winner.

But the competition is stiff. 

This weekend, we meet the winners of this year's challenge, who may have started the next big thing — while trying to finish their homework. And we'll hear about some fascinating entrants in the competition, like Liquiglide -- which promises to help you get that last bit of ketchup or mayonnaise out of the bottle -- and IoVista, a small device which helps residents of poor countries get a prescription for glasses.


Unearthing History in Waltham

By Ibby Caputo   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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June 18, 2012

WALTHAM, Mass. — Cairo has its pyramids. Rome has its ruins. But it’s not necessary to go so far away to see history unearthed. In fact, one archeological dig is only a bus ride away from Boston.
On a warm and breezy June day, archeology students crowd around their outdoor classroom: two rectangular trenches on the historic Gore Estate in Waltham. Sweaty and covered in dirt, they methodically dig into the ground, paying attention to every bit of debris.
Archeologist Dave Landon teaches a summer course that gives UMass students hands-on experience unearthing historical remains.
“We love projects like this because it really does kind of go straight at this misconception that archeology is always far away,” Landon says.
This summer’s underground target: a greenhouse built by the seventh governor of Massachusetts, Christopher Gore. It’s part of an innovative agricultural movement that took place in New England in the early 1800s. Co-teacher Christa Beranek says the students are likely to find a variety of artifacts under layers of soil.
“Probably down there there’s greenhouse structure, there’s destruction debris from taking apart the building, lots of brick and stone and mortar and remnants of things from the greenhouse, lots and lots of glass, planting pots, nails,” she says.
Technology provides clues
In the month before the class started, Landon and his team spent days mapping out the area using electromagnetic radiation. It’s an off-the-shelf technology used in an innovative way. And it spared Landon’s students from the arduous hit-or-miss process of figuring out where to dig.
Just as planes navigate by radar, sending waves out into the atmosphere, the electromagnetic detection machine sends microwaves into the earth. When they hit a rock or a patch of clay, they bounce back.
Using historical maps as a general guide, the precision of this data helps target the exact location of hidden structures. But the archeologist’s goal is to form a cohesive narrative about the past, and that can’t occur until what’s underground is unearthed.
Today’s big find
While some students dig, others sift through dirt as if looking for gold. They mostly find pieces of ceramic and glass, but every so often, something unexpected turns up. The big find so far today? The base of a flat-bottomed drinking glass, which, it seems, was used as a tool. The broken edges have been chipped in the same way a flint stone is chipped into an arrowhead.
Volunteer Phil Cook says the process of digging and sifting can be a little mind-numbing, but it is totally worth it when you find something unexpected.
“You're out here for 8 hours a day, especially in the heat,” Cook says. “Your eyes kind of widen when you see it sticking out of the ground and you really don’t know what it is at first.”
An understanding of history gives context to the dig, but some artifacts — like the broken base of the tumbler — yield more questions than answers.
“Someone was here making a tool out of broken glass,” Landon explains. “Why would there be this handmade tool here when they really had the ability to buy any tools they wanted for this greenhouse?”
Landon says a lot of times artifacts like these found in New England are associated with Native and African Americans. “So who exactly is working here and what kind of skill set are they bringing?”
The dig's next phase
The answers to the past will not come quickly. This portion of the excavation will round up at the end of June. Then the UMass team will spend a few months analyzing the artifacts before beginning the next phase of excavation at the same site in October.
“We’re going to use every bit of evidence we can get — any kind of historical evidence, or artifactual evidence, or archeological evidence — to try and understand, try and imagine the greenhouse when it was in use and people were moving in and out of it,” says Landon.
The story promises to slowly unfold. And right here in New England an archeological adventure is underway.

About the Authors
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

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