Researching the Impacts of Coffee in Bududa

Kelly Austin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lehigh. She is in Bududa, Uganda this summer with a group of students pursuing her research in community health. You can see her previous posts here.

One of the key research projects I am working on here is looking at the hidden costs of coffee cultivation in Bududa. In this remote region, coffee is the only product that links Bududa to the international market. So far, I’ve interviewed over 20 coffee farmers, traders, and community leaders. For all but 2 of the interviews, I used Dezz’s assistance to translate and help co-conduct the interview. Sometimes, we walk out into the community and meet the farmers at their coffee garden. They are always very proud to show me their plants. Other times, Dezz organizes the interviews so that the participants come to the Zaale house to be interviewed. This has been the case with all the women I have interviewed, because if I had met them on their property, their husbands would have overseen the interview and I suspect I would have not gotten honest answers.

The gender inequalities with coffee are glaring. One of the key questions I ask is if they think that coffee growing benefits men and women equally in the community. All of the male growers I have interviewed contend that coffee benefits themselves and their wife (or wives) equally. They say they share all the money they get from selling the coffee with their wife or wives, and they use the money together to do things like pay for school fees for the kids, or buy clothes and other needed household items. However, when I asked the women and two community leaders this question, they give me a very different response. The women say that it is them who plant the coffee, maintain and prune the plants, bring

Kelly Coffee
Kelly Austin

water from the river to coffee gardens that are high in the hills, spend hours and hours harvesting the coffee, and carry the dried coffee beans to the trader; then the men send them home with the empty containers. They never touch the money received from selling the coffee, or even know how much money is made. Many of them contend that their husbands use the money for drinking, feasting, and even to have sex with other women. They are left with nothing – but a backache, or worse. During one interview, one women pointed to her face, displaying a significant scar from below her eye across her cheek. She says, “This is what my husband did to me when I quarreled with him about the money from coffee.”

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Malaria Outbreak Strikes the Compound!

Kelly Austin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lehigh. She is in Bududa, Uganda this summer with a group of students pursuing her research in community health. You can read her previous post here

Overall, things have been going well the past few days. Power has returned! Yay! Hopefully it will last several days without interruption. On Saturday morning, Mark & I took the students to go see one of the favorite weekend activities in Bududa – bullfightingBF 2! Bullfighting is not like we think of it in the US, with a red-clothed matador beckoning a bull, but rather, large bulls fighting each other until one of them runs off, concedes, or is badly injured. It is essentially chaos, with hundreds of people (mostly men and children) on a large pitch (soccer field) running around, yelling, following whichever bulls are in action. The crowd scatters for their lives whenever a bull gets tired of fighting or concedes a contest, taking out whoever is in his way. Luckily, we saw no human injuries, and Peter and Dezz Zaale kept our Mzungu group safe at the top of an embankment behind some very thorny bushes. At one point, the bullfighting settled a bit, so they brought out a female bull to rile the fighting male bulls up. Boy did that work!

The tone changed that afternoon when several of the Zaale grandchildren and members of our Lehigh team started to fall ill with fever and vomiting. I spent most of Saturday afternoon dolling out ibuprofen and Cipro (medication for bacterial infection), taking temperatures, and making my students ramen noodles. In total, 3 of 6 the Lehigh students were ill. They all started to improve slightly on Sunday, but 2 of them continued to have fevers at night. This is a common sign of malaria. I contacted my good friend, Dr. James Wafula, and he agreed that I should take all of those with fever to his clinic (which is one the other side of the Bududa loop) on Monday morning for malaria testing.

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Infrastructure and our research

Kelly Austin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lehigh. She is in Bududa, Uganda this summer with a group of students pursuing her research in community health. You can read her first post here

So let’s talk infrastructure. We stay with a local family, the Zaales. David Zaale is around 70 years old and has lived in Bududa his entire life (except for when he was forced to temporality relocate to Kenya for several months during the Amin era). David and Elizabeth Zaale have several children, the eldest is in her 40s, and the youngest, Dezz Zaale is in his 20s.

The Zaale compound is extremely nice and well-developed compared to the other homes in Bududa, which tend to be made of mud and dung (both inside and out). While we benefit20160616_111746 from having brick walls, cement floors, and some paved “sidewalks” that connect the guest rooms, other conditions are a bit more rugged. There is no running water, and the electricity is very spotty. We use pit latrines and take “bucket baths”, where we use water that is harvested from the river to douse ourselves clean (or clean-ish). As I wrote in the last post, the roads are very bad here, you are either fighting dust or mud, and it takes about 1 hour to go ~12 miles. We most often walk to where we need to be.

We are lucky enough to have 3 house ladies (or silent soldiers, as I like to call them) who work all day long, fetching us water, cleaning the rooms and latrines, cooking our food, washing our clothes in the river, washing dishes, etc. Of course, many members of the Zaale family chip in on these tasks, including Elizabeth herself. As I often notice here, the women work so hard all day long. Tirelessly hand plowing in the gardens, collecting fire wood, picking stones from uncooked rice, and tending their children.

Since we arrived in Bududa, we have had electricity about half of the time. We are in a bad stretch right now, having been without electricity for about 4 days. Of course, this makes working and doing research a bit challenging. Fortunately, Papa David Zaale has a generator (one of the only ones in the village) that he turns on for us for about 3-4 hours per evening so we can charge our computers, audio recorders, and phones. However, if we all plug in at once, it overloads the generator. So, it is a bit of a shuffle and negotiation of whose devices get priority in charging, based on what tasks each of us need to do the following day.

Another challenge to work here can be the noise. With so many people around the compound, including extended family members, young grandchildren, and infants of the house ladies’, the level of crying, playing, singing, and talking can be a bit intense sometimes. And Ugandans love music. The students and I sometimes sneak into the garden to find a quiet spot to do our interviews (when they are not at a health center or a community members’ house), and we’re trying to institute a couple of “quiet” hours from 3-5 in the afternoons to do the transcribing. Transcribing involves typing out word for word everything that was said in the interview from the audio recording. Transcribing typically takes about 3-4 times longer than the actual interview itself. While this task is arduous and time consuming, it is an absolutely necessary step of the qualitative research process.

Dezz Zaale is one of our key translators and community liaisons. Papa Zaale has amazing connections to many administrators and health workers in the district, as he was an educator in Bududa for over 50 years and Elizabeth has served in local political positions. Each year, Papa uses his connections to help us expedite the process of getting clearance from the District Health Officer to do research in the health facilities. Though, this still usually takes hours of sitting and waiting for an appointment or chance to talk to the DHO and get her rubber stamp of approval. Dezz does the hard work on the ground of securing community members, interview times and locations for us, as well as helping us to refine our interview guides before each interview to ask questions in culturally appropriate ways or ways that will make sense to the local population. Without the help and support of the Zaale family, my research would not be possible. I am deeply appreciative of all they have done to support my work and provide meaningful experiences for the students.

Resources for developing NIH grant proposals

For faculty developing NIH grant proposals, there are number of resources to help. The NIH itself includes successful proposals with comments with from reviewers, tipsheets, as well as other guidance on their website.

Beyond the NIH, there are many useful web resources for general grant preparation. The Foundation Center has a “short course” for proposal preparation available for free. Social Science Research Council also has a pamphlet on proposal writing that is applicable to all disciplines.

If you’d like to join a writing group of faculty at Lehigh developing NIH proposals email us at


Welcome to Uganda

My name is Kelly Austin. I am an assistant professor of sociology and I direct the Health, Medicine, and Society program. This is my 4th summer trip doing research and leading student teams in the rural district of Bududa, Uganda. I was asked to write this blog to get an insider’s view of what it is like to do research and work with students in such challenging, yet rewarding, conditions.

We arrived in Uganda about 1 week ago. There are 9 Lehigh folks in our team total, including 6 undergraduates and a Lehigh alumni that I am working with on a documentary project. After over 40 hours of car, plane, and van travel, we arrived safely in Kampala, the capital city. We rested for a couple of days, and the students did a tour of the major sites in Kampala. Mark (my husband and research partner) and I stayed behind from the city tour for a key objective – to buy a car. Buying a car is always a complicated process and it certainly was in Uganda. But we had success and are now the owners of a Land Cruiser Prado. Such a rugged rig is necessary in the unpaved, bumpy, and muddy roads of Bududa. And, owning our own vehicle has already come in handy for safety reasons…

On Saturday we set off for safari. We enjoy doing this excursion with the students at the beginning of the trip as a bonding experience. We hiked Murchison Falls, and were lucky Monkeyenough to see lions, a leopard, elephants, lots of variety of monkeys, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, and more birds, butterflies, and antelope than you can imagine.

On our last day of safari, our luck changed. One of my students became very ill. In sociology, we use the term “status set” to describe the different positions we assume in our social lives. On trips like these, I am a program leader, a researcher, a mentor or adviser, a friend, a community advocate, and oftentimes, a mom or nurse. I did everything I could to make my student comfortable and used my medical knowledge to treat what appeared to be a bacterial infection. These are common for students (and myself) to get here as our bodies are exposed to bacteria that we are not used to growing up in the U.S.

We arrived last night in the village of Bubiita, Bududa. The welcome was amazing. The entire Zaale family (who we stay with) as well as over 30 village members were there to greet us, yelling greetings, hugging, and bouncing with joy. The crowd included some young boys I helped to get medical treatment last summer.

Unfortunately, my student’s condition did not improve much over the 3-day course of StudentsCipro, so we are putting the car to good use and taking the student to a hospital in the nearest town, Mbale (one hour away, on an extremely bumpy road). As I sketch out this post, I am sitting in the waiting room of Mt Elgon Hospital waiting for test results. We have been here for about 2 hours, and had to stand in many lines and go back to the cashier between each phase of the process to pay for the next step (e.g. consultation, lab, diagnosis, consultation again, pharmaceuticals). The entire cost was about 100,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) or about $30. After the process, the student asked what happens to the extremely poor households he sees in the village that would never be able to afford private care. I explained that they would seek care at a government clinic, but these frequently have stock-outs (2-3 weeks per month) where no medications are available. They would be forced to pay out of pocket for the medicines at a local drug shop, which maybe they could or could not afford.

My student is handling the horrible illness with a brave face. I tell the student jokes and funny stories as they take his blood and we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs. I’m calling the student “Trooper” as a nickname now for being such an amazingly great sport about everything. There are local Ugandans all around us; sick children, limping elders, people in pain. We are the only “mzungus” (foreigners) at the clinic.  The results are in and it is indeed a bacterial infection. He’s prescribed a stronger antibiotic and we are on our way.

In Japan as a visiting scholar

Charles Stevens is an Assistant Professor of Management at Lehigh University. Below he details his travel overseas which is funded by Faculty Grant for International Connections through the Office of International Affairs at Lehigh

I am currently in Tokyo, Japan as a visiting scholar at the Nihon University College of Economics. Nihon University is a large private research university with campuses throughout Tokyo. To put its large size into specifics, the university has about 70,000 students, and even the college of economics has approximately 7,000 students, putting just this one college at a size even larger than all of Lehigh in terms of the number of students! In spite of these seeming differences, however, there are many similarities with Lehigh. Interacting with the students has been very rewarding, as they are intelligent and inquisitive. I know some Japanese from my time living in Japan, but even if I did not, the students have been proactive in interacting and engaging in dialogue with me in both Japanese and English. Many have an interest in studying abroad, especially in English-speaking locations like the universities. When I talk about Lehigh to the students here, their eyes light up when they hear about the challenging academic environment as well as the proximity to global cities like New York and Philadelphia. Likewise, Nihon University would be an attractive location for Lehigh students wishing to study abroad, as the university offers many classes in English, it too has a vibrant academic environment, and the university is situated in Tokyo, the exciting and important economic, political, and cultural heart of Japan. At a time when Asia is increasingly powerful in terms of its role on the world stage (note that China is the world’s second largest economy, and Japan is third), familiarity with this important region is of utmost importance for Lehigh graduates.

I received a Faculty Grant for International Connections to come to Nihon University for 3 weeks to help build the potential for faculty and student exchanges between the two universities, as well as to interact with students, deepen connections with faculty, present research seminars, and collect data for an ongoing research project. Before leaving Japan, I will give a seminar on one of my main areas of professional and personal interest: political risk. I look forward to engaging with the faculty and students on this issue.

Culture is another area of specialization for me, as it represents an interest that was cultivated when I spent time in Japan as a student and also working in industry. Working for a Japanese company in Japan was an unforgettable and rewarding experience, as I saw how culture permeated everything from individual-level interpersonal interactions to big-picture strategic decisions. As part of an active research project, my research team and I will use student responses to a survey to answer research questions relating to the impact of cultural values on outcomes of interest to organizations, such as trust, commitment, and cultural intelligence. I look forward to seeing how the Japanese students’ answers to the survey questions compare to the answers of students at U.S. and Chinese universities, who will also be completing the survey.

In sum, my time at Nihon University has been a very rewarding experience, and I am grateful to both Lehigh and my hosts at Nihon University for the opportunity.

Lehigh Faculty in the Summer

Lehigh faculty are making their mark in fields as diverse as religious studies, bioengineering and educational psychology, regularly publishing in academic books, producing monographs and winning prestigious grants. Inside these achievements is the hard work of data collection and analysis that happens every day.

This summer we will go behind the scenes of research following faculty as they do the work.  Faculty will take us along as they travel to collect data, do interviews, and visit the archives. Contributors will be reflecting on research travel, data collection techniques, and do early analysis of documents.

Follow along @LehighResearch


Establishment of an Unprecedented Protein Modification – Two is Better Than One

Marcos Pires is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lehigh. Below he discusses some of current work of his lab. 

In many instances, human pathology can be directly tied to the proteins that reside out the outside, on the surface, and within human cells. This in itself should not be surprising. After all, proteins are well established as acting as the workhorses of cells. Not only are proteins responsible for a high volume of chemical transformation that need to take place for cells to remain viable, they also have a series of additional roles in structuring biomacromolecules, inter- and intra-cellular communication, and storage. Through all these functions, diversity within the protein matrix becomes essential. After all, there are only 20-22k genes that encode human proteins in the human genome. The question that naturally arises is: how do human cells perform all the necessary and incredibly diverse tasks with such a limited set of building block?

During the past decade, intensive research in this area has demonstrated that following their biosynthesis, the structure of proteins is only an initial template. Proteins can be thought of as strings (of variable lengths) made with 20 building blocks. These building blocks are amino acids. All proteins in nature are made from the same 20 building blocks. Depending on one’s view, 20 building blocks to make all the proteins in the natural world (from complex human cells down to microbes) may seem like a small and insufficient number. In some ways, this may be true. One possible way to expand on the make-up of these building blocks may be to change them after the string has been assembled. And this is exactly what happens to many human cells. Following their assembly out of the biosynthetic machinery (ribosomes), they are heavily decorated with a number of chemical modifications. These modifications (or post-translational modifications) serve to diversify both the structure and function of proteins. Due to their role in controlling protein function, the aberrant modification of proteins has been heavily implicated in a number of human diseases.

My research group is interested in discovering modifications that were not previously described in this area. We rely on fundamental chemical principles, first and foremost, to evaluate amino acid modifications that have been discovered previously. Next, we predict what combinations of chemical modifications could be tolerated based on the chemistry involved. From this analysis, we concluded that two well known modifications (methylation and acetylation) should be tolerated within the same amino acid. In other words, it may be possible that proteins are getting doubly modified at the same site via two unique pathways. By mapping this out, we predict that we may unmask a previously unappreciated signal mode within cells. Furthermore, these modifications may play roles in the development and progression of human diseases.