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International Health

MSPH Students Learn a Lesson from “Apollo 13”

Master's students learn how to develop standard operating procedures with limited resources in weekly seminar

Pablo Yori, a senior research associate in the Department, recently re-watched the movie “Apollo 13.” When he came to the pivotal scene where the astronauts needed to replace the capsule’s air filter to survive, he was reminded of what it can be like conducting research in the field. The filter on board was square, but the filter receptacle was round. Engineers on the ground had to figure out how to fit the square filter in the round hole, and quickly explain it to the astronauts. “We don’t have to worry about running out of oxygen, but the scenario made me think about many of the issues we face regularly in International Health. When unexpected problems arise, we often have limited time and resources to solve them. And sometimes, we can’t work on the problems in person,” explains Yori. “I wanted to find a way for students to experience that kind of pressure in the classroom before they ever met it in the field.” 

Water filter project
MSPH students Karen Pereira, Taylor Holroyd, and Kay Fishbeck
building a water filter for the weekly GDEC seminar.  (left to right).
Photo credit: Karen Charron.

Yori and Karen Charron, an associate lecturer in the Department, run the weekly master’s seminar for the Global Disease Epidemiology and Control program. With teaching assistance from doctoral student Josh Colston, they introduce first-year master’s students to a wide range of topics important to global health research and practice. One critical component for conducting research is developing standard operating procedures (SOP)—or step-by-step instructions that can be reproduced. The “Apollo 13” scene gave Yori an idea for an exercise to teach some important lessons for developing an SOP, including functionality, feasibility and the ability to replicate.

First, Yori and Charron divided the class into small groups and gave each one a box full of the same materials. The groups had 45 minutes to build a water filter using only what they had just been given.

Alex Moran
Alex Moran presents the filter he built with
Mallory Trent and Alvira Hasan.  
Photo credit: Karen Charron

During the same 45-minute period, students also had to write standard operating procedures. In the next class, different groups would then critique instructions and give feedback on reproducing the same filter. The materials in the box were a garden hose, an empty water bottle, an empty gallon milk bottle, two Ziploc bags, a bag of aquarium rock, a bag of sand, one black sock, zip ties, an X-acto knife, and metal mesh. 

“All the filters looked very different, but they all worked,” says Charron. “I was impressed by their ingenuity. They didn’t just think outside of the box, some of them used the box in their designs.” 

“But, a lot of issues surprised the class,” she adds. “Simple instructions caused problems. If you write, ‘cut it in half,’ which way does that mean, horizontally or vertically? If it states, ‘pour in the sand,’ how much does that mean exactly?”   

Alex Moran, one of the students in the seminar, recalls his group’s experience, “As we were writing the SOP, all of our instructions seemed clear and straightforward. Trying to understand the instructions two weeks later, however, proved more difficult. It really shed some light on the complexities of designing a concise, easily understood document.”

“I’ve been running labs and conducting studies in the field for more than 14 years,” says Yori. “No matter how well SOPs are developed, issues always come up. Our students need to learn to start anticipating pitfalls. And, just as important, they need to make sure they consider the situation from the other person’s perspective.”

You can watch students explain how they built their filters and see more examples of the finished products on the Department's Facebook page