Post image for James McClain

James McClain

July 9, 2015

This story, by Steve Hinnefeld, originally appeared in the Inside IU e-newsletter.

James McClain is leading by example. As chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Liberia, he knows well that the institution needs to step up its game when it comes to teaching and research. He is doing his part on both fronts by working to earn a Ph.D. at Indiana University.

And the field he is studying — environmental health — is an area where expertise is sorely needed in his homeland of Liberia, a poor nation just recovering from a deadly Ebola outbreak.

“We need faculty development” at the University of Liberia, he says. “That’s one of our greatest needs.”

McClain, 40, is at IU on a doctoral fellowship provided by the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. He arrived late last year and will spend two years on campus before returning to Liberia to conduct research, with a goal of finishing his Ph.D. in 2019.

The school created the fellowship as part of an ongoing partnership between IU and the University of Liberia to help build Liberia’s public health infrastructure. Candidates are also being recruited for two additional IU fellowships in epidemiology. Dean Mohammad R. Torabi and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Michael Reece traveled to Liberia in 2014 to arrange for the fellowships.

“The University of Liberia, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, was really interested in creating more academic programs to provide training and growth for their workforce in public health,” Reece says. “The university identified these two fields, epidemiology and environmental health, as areas where they wanted to start adding faculty.”

The collaboration grew out of a larger IU-University of Liberia collaboration called the Center for Excellence in Health and Life Sciences. Funded with a 2011 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, that project also involved the University of Massachusetts Medical School and included training community health workers and modernizing the university science curriculum.

A 14-year civil war, ending in 2003, tore Liberian society apart and made education all but impossible for many people of McClain’s generation. But he managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Liberia and secure employment teaching chemistry at the school.

After Liberia native Emmet Dennis became president of the university in 2008, he helped McClain return to school and earn a master’s degree in physical chemistry from Ravenshaw University in India. He became chairman of the chemistry department in 2013. Later that year, he spent six months as a University of Michigan African Presidential Scholar, working on an environmental engineering project.

On his return to Liberia, he says, progress was being made under the Center for Excellence in Health and Life Sciences project. With assistance from IU experts, the University of Liberia succeeded in modernizing its biology curriculum. And McClain guided a similar update of courses in chemistry.

But an outbreak in West Africa of Ebola — the largest and deadliest in history — set education back, much as the civil war had done two decades earlier. Nearly 5,000 people died from the disease in Liberia. The nation was finally declared free of Ebola in May of this year, but now new cases have been reported.

Schools were closed, and normal activities were suspended. McClain became a part of the University of Liberia Ebola response team, which went into local communities to hand out plastic buckets and bottles of chlorine for disinfection and instructions on preventing the spread of the disease.

“We were living in total fear,” McClain says, with friends and family members worrying about personal contact that would spread the disease, which was fatal in approximately half the cases.

McClain arrived in the United States in December and, because Ebola was still being transmitted in Liberia, underwent a mandatory 21-day quarantine period before beginning classes at IU. While he is dedicated to his studies, he says it is difficult being separated from his family: his wife, who is studying for a master’s degree in Nigeria, and their two children, ages 5 and 1.

“It’s very hard being away — especially from my two kids who are growing so much,” he says.

For his dissertation, McClain intends to return to Liberia to conduct research on issues related to water quality. According to the organization WaterAid, one quarter of Liberia’s population lacks access to safe drinking water and over 1,000 children die each year from diarrhea and other sanitation-related causes.

“When the civil war came, the entire water system broke down,” McClain says. “There is no capacity for potable water.”

Reece, the IU associate dean, says the devastation caused by Ebola provided a stark illustration of the importance of public health in a developing country like Liberia. And the academic fellowships and other collaborations, he says, show the value of Indiana’s global engagement — not only for IU faculty and students but, in this case, for the future well-being of the people of Liberia.