Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Beyond Borders: Van de Water Researches Medicine in Low-Resource Settings

Day in and day out, a midwife in Sierra Leone fights death. In a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, where you live can determine whether you live.

Brittney Van de Water, Boston College Nursing professor, public health researcher, and BC ’09 and ’10, studies medicine in underprivileged areas, focusing on various countries across Africa. 

In Fall 2022, Van de Water collaborated with fellow BC Nursing Professor Ashley Longacre to create a support program for newly registered midwives—those trained to assist women through childbirth—in Sierra Leone, funded by a CSON grant. 

It was through this that Van de Water said she forged many connections and friendships with local colleagues, including one midwife from Sierra Leone who lost his sister during childbirth, she said.

“He’s a good friend,” said Van de Water. “This is always happening. It’s important to really understand what’s happening not at a population level or provincial level, but at the individual level.”

Aside from being a researcher and BC professor, Van de Water is also a pediatric nurse practitioner and mother. 

This May, she received three research grants—one from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), another from the Charles H. Hood Foundation, and a third from BC’s Schiller Institute.

“Most researchers would be over the moon for just one [grant],” said Longacre. “It’s a testament to her work ethic, which is very strong, and her passion for serving the forgotten tuberculosis patients and resource-poor settings.”

The NIH, a U.S. medical research agency, granted Van de Water $3 million over five years to fund her study of preventative care of tuberculosis (TB) in South Africa.

The Charles H. Hood Foundation, which supports child he  alth research, also funded Van de Water’s study of TB in South Africa, granting her $200,000 to research post-TB lung disease in children, she said. 

Van de Water received the NIH and Hood grants within two weeks of each other. 

“It was very exciting,” she said. “In the granting world, you never know what’s gonna stick, you apply for a ton and don’t expect to get many. I was quite lucky that last year was a good year. I applied for three awards in different time frames but found out that I got all three.” 

When Van de Water found out she received her first two grants, she was abroad in South Africa with a group of BC Students for a course called “Global Health Delivery and Health Equity: A South African Context.” The class traveled for four weeks, Van de Water said, visiting various healthcare sites, villages, and cities across the country.

Molly Hardiman, CSON ’25, was among the nursing students on the trip. 

“No one else could run the course except for her because of her time there and all the people she knew,” said Hardiman. “The entire country of South Africa, wherever she went, she knew people there who deeply cherished their relationship and were more than willing to come and speak with us because we were affiliated with Brittney.”

The class covered topics like the decentralization of health services, an effort that seeks to provide rural areas with health services that are typically only accessible in major cities. They also studied the prevention and treatment of TB, Hardiman said, and visited a harm reduction center that aided individuals suffering from drug addiction. 

“She instilled a passion in all of the students on that trip—a passion for social justice within all of us—to do something greater and push past the boundaries of what we are normally confined in at BC,” Hardiman said. “We all left with a hope of not being complacent where we are at. Professor Van de Water gave us that.”

Longacre said that Van de Water’s inclusion of undergraduate students in her research is what sets her apart as a researcher. 

“Brittney’s collaborative nature is best exemplified when you think about all of the different people she regularly works with—BC undergraduates, fellow BC faculty, faculty from other institutions, various academic consortiums, non-profits, community members in South Africa and Sierra Leone, etc,” Longacre said. “Rather than keeping things siloed, she recognizes the value of having diverse perspectives, expertise, and resources to work on these projects.”

When Van de Water attended BC as an undergraduate, she made annual trips to Honduras over winter break.

“I did service immersion with a village that had a children’s home, and we helped build a school,” Van de Water said. “We kept going back to the same place, year after year. Seeing the progress that was made was really inspiring and really exciting. But also, again, [it was] difficult to see the inequities of this village.”

During her time at BC, Van de Water also studied abroad in South Africa. At the time, HIV and AIDS were major epidemics, she said, with a death toll rising daily. In South Africa, Van de Water volunteered at a hospital where she interacted with patients who were diagnosed with HIV and TB. 

“In South Africa, the inequities on race and class were just very obvious because of the legacy of apartheid, which made me very interested in doing work there,” Van de Water said. “There was a brutal HIV epidemic and devastation on the whole healthcare system.”

After graduating from BC, Van de Water worked in adolescent medicine for a youth detention center through the U.S. Department of Youth Services. 

“I’ve always been drawn to more marginalized populations and trying to have more of an impact on communities that have been underserved,” Van de Water said. 

A few years later, Van de Water earned a Ph.D. in nursing with a certificate in global health from Duke. She now focuses her research in Africa on TB and HIV, working with the non-profit SEEK Development, a consulting group dedicated to global human development and social impact. She works in Uganda and Sierra Leone, helping with pediatric nursing projects. 

Van de Water’s research is primarily concerned with the implementation of scientific methods, she said—studying the most effective ways to apply medical knowledge to real-world situation.

“It’s most important in low-resourced settings,” Van de Water said. “A lot of lab-based or in-controlled settings don’t translate well into low-income settings. Instead of wasting time and resources to adapt what works in the lab to work in a low-resource setting, the best option is to figure it out in a real real-life setting.”

According to Van de Water, it is important to ask who is getting screened for TB, who is diagnosed, and whether or not different diagnostic tools are needed. 

By asking these questions, Van de Water said she aims to close the gap between knowledge of medicine and its implementation. 

“Some things we can’t change, but a lot of them we can,” Van de Water said. “Right now there are a lot of gaps in reporting systems. Our goal is to make reporting mirror what really happens.”

January 28, 2024