Not many students can say they studied at an island paradise while working on cancer research. Christian Capanna, a rising senior biology and classical civilizations double-major, is calling Montego Bay, Jamaica, his home for 12 weeks this summer.
Through an international health program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, Capanna is conducting research on public awareness of prostate cancer in Jamaica. He, and another student from the program, will interview 600 Jamaican men about their knowledge of this serious disease by the end of their stay.
“I don’t think I’ve ever talked to so many people in my life!” Capanna says. “All I do all day is talk to people who are patients. Sometimes they actually think I’m a doctor.”
According to a 2012 study, prostate cancer affects more Jamaican men than any other form of cancer. When prostate cancer is caught early on, the patient has a high chance of being cured with proper treatment; the program aims to have more men getting preliminary testing.
Apart from conducting these interviews, Capanna also gives daily informational lectures on prostate cancer to the men.
Three to six months after Capanna completes the program, full-time researchers on the project in Jamaica will go back and contact the 600 interviewed to see if they have been tested for prostate cancer. This is meant to measure the effectiveness of the awareness program.
Capanna’s trip, for which he receives a monthly stipend, living allowance, travel expenses, and research expenses, is his first time travelling out of the country.
In addition to honing his interviewing and patient communication skills, Capanna has also been schooled on living conditions for Jamaican people.
“I have learned how to rough it and I learned how spoiled I was in America,” he says.
He says that ants are a “regular occurrence” and he is no longer fazed by the insects crawling on his skin. His trip to a rural clinic in the mountains opened his eyes to the quality of health care in the region.
“We drove an hour up some road that basically wasn’t a road,” he says. “[The clinic] was only one room and you had to bring the water to flush the toilet. We are used to working in big hospitals in this country.”
Although Capanna’s work was more focused on communication than science, he says his experience has been “a lot more relevant to the medical field” over all.
While in Jamaica, Capanna is also applying to several medical schools, in Chicago and beyond, so that he can pursue his dream of becoming a doctor after graduation.