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Case Competition Nurtures Passion

Brant Bonetti, VU '12, reflects on his team's path to winning the 2012 Vanderbilt University Global Health Case Competition.

It’s a beautiful Thursday evening in Nashville. But my friends and I aren’t headed downtown, we aren’t finishing up that last essay so that we can enjoy the weekend – we’re not doing any of those things that we would usually do on a Thursday night. Instead, we’re nervously munching on snacks on the top floor of the office building at 2525 West End, waiting for our assignment. This assignment will consume the next 48 hours of our lives.

That’s what happened last year when my group of five friends and I (Andrew Castillo, Cat Majors, Allie Thompson, KJ Blair, Tori Bates) competed in the first Global Health Case Competition at Vanderbilt in 2010. We were given from Thursday night until Saturday morning to come up with an interdisciplinary, sustainable approach to address acute malnutrition in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Then, Saturday afternoon, we were given fifteen minutes to present our solution to a panel of expert judges. After the presentation they drilled us with questions in an attempt to evaluate our understanding of the issue and the feasibility of our solution.

Believe it or not, we loved every minute of it. Ever heard of spirulina? It’s a rare algae that can be cultivated almost anywhere there is water – even in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. And it has amazing nutritional value and is almost completely tasteless. Our solution was to cultivate this algae in a scalable farming system that would be managed by Ethiopians. Community health workers would then travel the area educating the population on malnutrition and creating demand for the product. As the workers sold spirulina, they would also be able to earn a living from the profits. Those are the basics.

The judges loved our idea, only they didn’t quite love it as much as the idea of the team that got first place. After the awards ceremony the judges gave us some feedback. They weren’t convinced that the solution was culturally acceptable. Had we thought through the pricing structure all the way? And while we had researched those questions, our presentation didn’t capture the depth of our knowledge on the subject or the degree to which we had thought through our solution. I was impressed by their honesty and desire to help us improve. We committed ourselves, right then and there, to coming back next year. “Team spirulina forever!” was the rallying cry.

It’s amazing how fast a year can go by. And I’ll admit, my fervor for the case competition had died down a little. I was doing a full time internship and taking classes and had stretched myself thin in a lot of other areas. Plus, Saturday night was semi-formal for four of us. But when I really thought about, I knew that I couldn’t miss out on another year. I expected to learn a great deal about some new global health issue, I expected to be able to apply what I had learned from classes on international development and travel abroad, and most important for me, I expected to be able to do all of it with some of my closest friends.

I was not disappointed.

Our case this year was all about tuberculosis in the Russian penal system. We all tried to clear our schedules as much as possible for that weekend, and again, spent hours holed up together doing research, drawing on whiteboards, and taking dance breaks to keep the energy up. Our solution to this problem involved an initial push for total screening and treatment; specific, cost effective renovations to the physical buildings; and follow-up after release to ensure continued adherence to the treatment regiment after release. This time we also made sure to spend adequate time creating and practicing our presentation.

It all paid off as the six of us stood together in the front of one of the Light Hall lecture rooms, presenting and taking questions. We knew our stuff. I could not have been more proud of my friends or more thankful for the opportunity we had to compete together. There’s that feeling you have when you just nail it. That’s what we had. But we had also recruited several other friends to join the competition. Or maybe it was that they heard us talking about how much fun we had the year before and didn’t want to miss out. Either way, they had created their own teams and were competing against us. We knew we couldn’t count on a win.

As we waited in the lobby for the judges to deliberate we talked about coming back for year three. Or dreamed about coming back for year three. As seniors, we’re all going our separate ways after graduation. Tori and her fiancé are searching for work in international development; right now they’re thinking Samaritan’s Purse. KJ is taking a gap year before attending University of Chicago’s medical school. Ally is going to be at Vandy’s nursing school and Cat is attending Rice. Andrew and I are going to be working here in Nashville – he’s breaking into the healthcare industry and I’ll be working for a campus ministry called Navigators. But in our own ways, we’re all committed to global health. We were interested in it before the case competition, that’s what convinced us to compete the first time. But the experience of diving into real life health issues alongside your closest friends does something else – it nurtures passion.