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New Student-Initiated Course Focuses on Kidney Disease

Two rising seniors who lead the UMD chapter of the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program bring interdisciplinary perspective to new SPH course

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Debbie Adam and Pali from KDSAP
UMD rising seniors Debbie Adam (left) and Swarnapali Keppetipola (right) are helping to promote kidney disease awareness in the School of Public Health this fall.

Two rising University of Maryland seniors are bringing their passion for kidney disease awareness and prevention to the School of Public Health with a new course, PHSC 388A “Special Topics in Public Health Science; Kidney Disease.”

Debbie Adam, who’s pursuing a double degree in physiology, neurobiology and Spanish, and Swarnapali Keppetipola, who’s majoring in neurobiology and physiology, are co-presidents of the UMD student chapter of the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program, a student-run, national organization that aims to provide college students opportunities for community outreach to raise public awareness and promote the early detection of chronic kidney disease. 

The Fall 2021 course is scheduled to be held in person once a week, and it is open to all majors.

Dr. Kendall Bustad, a lecturer for the Public Health Science major and the KDSAP UMD’s faculty advisor, has been a course guide. Cynthia Kershaw, who coordinates the SPH’s undergraduate teaching assistant program, is advising Debbie and Swarnapali, who will serve as student-initiated course facilitators. 

“As course facilitators, Pali and I designed and developed the course curriculum under the guidance of Dr. Bustad. We will also be teaching the course under her guidance as well," Debbie said.

"Dr. Kershaw has been helping us set up our ELMS page and providing tips for undergraduate assistant teaching and facilitating a class,” Swarnapali added.

Debbie said there are plans to bring in guest speakers throughout the semester to talk about some of the course topics. 

“We felt that students don't get the opportunity to hear from people who specialize in certain fields,” Swarnapali said. “We’ve created lesson plans and shared those with potential speakers so that they know what outline to follow.”

Kershaw said the course will also offer faculty/peer support for undergraduate research on kidney disease. 

“The students in the course can do research and a poster for research day that is faculty and peer mentored,” she said.

Debbie said during the summer of her freshman year, she completed a kidney disease undergraduate research program at Harvard University that left a major impact, encouraging her to talk to her roommate at the time, Keppetipola, about joining forces to establish a KDSAP UMD student chapter.

“That was my first experience learning about bodily diseases at the level of science and public health,” Debbie said. 

She shadowed different clinicians, learning about kidney health and helping others to learn about it. 

“I learned about KDSAP because the co-director of my summer research program was the founder of KDSAP,” Debbie said.

The founder, Dr. Li-Li Hsiao, discussed how prevalent kidney disease is, mentioning that kidney disease is a “silent killer.” Roughly 96% of people with mild chronic kidney disease do not know they have it, and roughly 40% of people with severe CKD are unaware, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I had the opportunity to volunteer at a kidney health screening run by the Boston University KDSAP student chapter and supported members of a local Haitian religious gathering center,” Debbie said. “I’m Haitian-American myself, and I felt empowered by my experience to make sure minority communities around College Park had the same opportunity.” 

For Swarnapali, her interest in kidney disease awareness sparked when she discovered that kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S.

“When Debbie came back from her program, she told me about her experience,” Swarnapali said. “We were both looking for ways to go out into the community, especially us being pre-health students.” 

Debbie told her about KDSAP and the work that student members do. 

“That's when I started researching kidney disease, and I found a wealth of information online,” Swarnapali said. 

“We did some research on Prince George's County and the metro area regarding kidney disease and diabetes since they’re pretty linked. That was the instigator for us forming the KDSAP student chapter, and we wanted to take that even further by combining it with public health,” she added.

Debbie and Swarnapali hope that the students taking the class will be able to look at the bigger picture of health and understand the various factors that lead to disease pathology. 

“Where that person lives, their socio-economic status, their race and more fall into the social determinants of health,” Swarnapali said. “When it comes to kidney disease, it's very stark, in terms of how many people are disproportionately affected by it, and we hope the class can leave an impact on the students.”

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