Headline of John Soltys' article in Contrapoder

s relations between the University of Colorado Denver and Guatemala continue to grow, a new partnership has arisen giving students on the Anschutz Medical Campus a direct voice in that nation’s media.

Some two dozen students have volunteered to write public health stories for Contrapoder, a glossy, new Guatemalan magazine with a focus on hard news, investigative reporting and lifestyle features.

The first student story, dealing with the intimate bonds between mothers and infants, appeared in the magazine last week.

“I feel excited that my piece has provided a foundation for the group to build on and will impact the health of a much larger audience,” said John Soltys, who wrote the story and is working toward a PhD in Neuroscience. “I want to communicate the complexities of science and medicine in a readily digestible format.”

But there are wider, more strategic objectives at work here.

“One of the mandates of a Global Health education is to do advocacy in the developing world,” said project leader Edwin Asturias, MD, director for Latin America at the Center for Global Health, part of the Colorado School of Public Health. “If we can advocate for reducing the C-section rate from 70 to 30 percent then we should. If we can advocate for eating healthier foods, reducing obesity, getting vaccinations then we should. That’s what global health is all about.”

Deepening Ties with Guatemala

The partnership is the latest example of a deepening relationship between the university and Guatemala.  Last year, Fernando and Gustavo Bolaños, who own a banana plantation in the Central American country, donated $1 million to the School of Public Health to build a medical complex on their property. A team of students from the College of Architecture and Planning helped design the facility, scheduled to open in January. It will be staffed and largely operated by the university.

At the same time, more faculty and students are traveling to Guatemala as part of their health care education. Others are learning Spanish at language schools in towns such as Quetzaltenango.

This latest venture, like the clinic project, is the brainchild of Asturias a pediatrician who grew up in Guatemala and has many connections there. As a former columnist for the newspaper El Periodico in Guatemala City, Asturias learned that a handful of journalists were about to launch a new magazine.

He asked the editor how they were handling health care coverage and then offered up students as writers.

“He was extremely interested,” Asturias recalled. “At first we considered having faculty write the stories but then decided it would be a great experience for our students.”

And so a six month pilot program was born.

Contrapoder, which means `counter power’ in Spanish, is dedicated to taking on major issues and sees itself as a check on government authority.

“These are serious, professionally trained journalists with a clear sense of creating a better nation,” Asturias said. “They are looking at issues like war, genocide, corruption, poverty and public health and asking the hard questions in a society finally opening up to democracy.”

Writers need thick skins

A few months ago, Asturias assembled an editorial advisory board of faculty, staff and students. They dubbed it LAPIS or Latin American Publication Initiative Scribers.

The group meets regularly to discuss, propose and assign stories on subjects like vaccinations, obesity and breastfeeding. Contrapoder editors contribute their own ideas including whether marijuana causes brain damage and the consequences of gastric bypass surgery.

Students immersed in the arcana of hard science learn to make the complex accessible to lay readers.

“I decided to participate in the editorial board because I am passionate about scientific outreach to the public whether in the U.S. or abroad,” said Toni Schwartz, a PhD student specializing in virology.

The stories are written in conversational English and translated into Spanish.

“My biggest motivation is to share scientific information with the public,” said Merlin Ariefdjohan, who is pursuing a Master of Public Health degree.  “This group gives me a platform to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.”

Writers need a thick skin since every story is reviewed by the entire editorial board which isn’t shy about voicing their opinions.

That hasn’t deterred Kristina Stoermer, a PhD student studying immunology and microbiology.

“My interest stems from a passion for global public health and infectious disease research,” she said.  “I want to educate the public about infectious diseases in terms of vaccination, transmission, symptoms, and treatments.”

The magazine runs about 50 pages and is aimed at an upscale, educated audience. The university retains the publication rights for its stories and Asturias hopes to provide them to Latino media outlets throughout the U.S. where readers often face similar issues.

“Our students are getting the chance to write for a Hispanic audience that has been historically difficult to reach,” he said. “We want this to be a learning seminar but you need to be committed. You must be comfortable with constructive criticism and editing. And perhaps most importantly, you must have good ideas and be proactive.”

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