Academic Stories

Sam Boland: Ebola Worker, Truman and Marshall Scholars

Sam Boland’s third year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago was anything but typical. That’s because Sam wasn’t exactly here last year: After spending fall quarter on campus taking classes for his public policy major and human rights minor, he spent the following winter, spring, and even his summer in Sierra Leone working on the front lines in the fight against Ebola.

This kind of work wasn’t new to him, though. After high school, Sam had taken a gap year to work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in other parts of Africa on issues related to global health and maternal care. He also spent his summers in college continuing that work in Kenya. “It’s one thing to read about [issues like this] in the news, and it’s another to immerse oneself in that society and culture,” Sam explained.

“I knew I was interested in health in general, in a very vague sense in high school…I recognized I needed a more specific foundation for that vague sense of interest,” he added. “[A position with an NGO] was one of a small number of opportunities presented to me, and I decided it would be  far more valuable to jump in the deep end and learn to swim.”

Sam continued to immerse himself in causes related to healthcare and inequities when he matriculated at UChicago in 2012. He was involved in Peer Health Exchange, a student volunteer group that teaches students from local under-resourced high schools about making healthy and productive life choices. He also worked with the group Students for Health Equity and made global health access a focal point of his studies.

“The work I was doing and studying and papers I was writing were not written from an abstracted clinical perspective. They were grounded in a very, very real understanding of how this works and how these policies can make the difference in people’s lives,” Sam noted.

He returned to Africa each summer with funding from UChicago’s African Studies Research Grant and the Jeff Metcalf Internship program through the UChicago Center for Global Health. The summer of 2014, however, was when things really changed—not just for Sam, but for the entire continent of Africa.

“I planned to go to Freetown to work in Sierra Leone’s tertiary hospital because I thought it would be a valuable opportunity to work for a different organization in a different part of Africa, with a different culture and politics of healthcare,” he said. “The day after I arrived was the first case of Ebola in Freetown.”

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that escalates quickly and leads to internal and external bleeding as well as decreased functioning of the liver and kidneys. It kills between 25% and 90% of those infected and is spread by direct contact. More than 11,000 people have died from Ebola across West Africa in the recent outbreak that began in 2013.

Because of the travel advisories issued by the United States government, the University of Chicago, which was funding Sam’s work through a study abroad grant, decided to have him evacuate. He arranged to work with his previous organization in Kenya, but Sierra Leone was one of the areas hardest hit by Ebola, and Sam was determined to return.

After securing a position with an NGO called GOAL Global that works in humanitarian crises to bring support to those most in need , Sam moved back to Africa in January 2015 to work directly in the center of the Ebola outbreak. He was part of the disease surveillance support team, focusing on both logistics such as gas in the surveillance vehicles for the team members who would go through the districts and maintaining a log of and monitoring the health of family members whose relatives had been taken in for Ebola treatment.

“Disease surveillance is fundamentally the keystone of eradicating a disease when you don’t have a vaccine,” Sam explained. “It’s the eyes and ears on the ground. They develop the story of where cases are coming from and provide intelligence necessary to develop the response to that picture on the ground.”

Over the next nine months, Sam and his fellow team members watched as Ebola case numbers steadily dropped, as they worked to bring an end to the disease ravaging the country. He was one of several team members who received the Ebola Medal for Service in West Africa. “When I started, there were 500 cases in the country. By May, [there were only] five to ten,” he said. On November 7, in the middle of Sam’s first quarter back at school, there was zero: Sierra Leone was declared officially Ebola free.

“It was a moment of great joy and celebration, but it’s also a time to reflect on people that I knew that did get Ebola and die, and that happened,” he said. “It was very much a moment of…extraordinary gratitude for the incredible hard work of the Sierra Leone people I supported who don’t get nearly enough recognition for the work they did and continue to do.”

However, hours after the World Health Organization had announced that Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—the three countries most affected by the epidemic—were Ebola-free on January 14, the death of a woman in Sierra Leone was marked as a result of Ebola. Many health organizations had cautioned that there would be flare-ups of the virus in the future, but “the timing is a painful twist of fate,” Sam said. Because of his schoolwork, he does not plan to return to Sierra Leone in the immediate future—“though I can't deny there is a loud voice in my head badgering me to do so.”

“Right now, I have confidence and faith in those same friends and colleagues to ensure the response to this new case is done in a safe, effective, and dignified manner,” he said, though he added there is a “fairly good chance” he’ll return after his graduation from UChicago in June to help design and implement a sustainable disease surveillance network.

Sam will support the teams of international aid workers and Sierra Leoneans in research, practice, and spirit as he pursues a PhD in public health and a medical degree. (He believes the dual qualifications are necessary for comprehensively addressing the multifaceted issue of global health.) Throughout his graduate schooling, Sam wants to make multiple trips to Africa to conduct research about the Ebola response. He plans to do this through two recently awarded, highly selective fellowships: the Truman Scholarship and the Marshall Scholarship.

Last year while in Africa, Sam was named a Truman Scholar, a highly selective national program for student leaders in public service that provides funding for graduate school. Additionally, Sam recently joined the ranks of prominent CEOs, journalists, Supreme Court justices, and Nobel laureates as one of 32 recipients of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship. With this funding and admission to any university in the United Kingdom, Sam plans to begin his PhD candidacy in public health and policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this fall before continuing onto medical school.

Ultimately, he hopes to significantly improve maternal care in Africa in order to promote healthier generations for years to come. “Women and children are vulnerable populations. I think there is a huge ethical requirement to support them,” Sam said. “They are our future, quite literally.”

“People often ask why do I do this work and I don’t think it’s more complicated than having spent so much time in the emergency ward at the hospital watching a quite staggering amount of avoidable death, but also watching really wonderful hardworking colleagues,” he said. “Every cry of despair that [could be] one of joy when a life had been saved.”