Worldwide Connections - A UCSC Tradition
The iGEM Competition challenges teams to improve quality of life using synthetic biology. Creating change requires an understanding of what the world is asking for, and as the 6th UCSC iGEM team, we uphold the reputation of UCSC investing heavily in worldwide outreach to not only spread the word about our project, but to understand the impact of our project on a personal level. Through these personal connections, we evaluated and continue to evaluate potential issues related to our project, including stigma, price, ethics, safety, security, and sustainability. We created a brochure as a means to address common rumors and expand current knowledge about contraception.
Our map below details all countries we've contacted for input. Our questionnaire we used to gather information was approved by the Institutional Review Board and we changed names to assure anonymity of participants.
Before choosing a project, our team emailed over 50 World Health Organization representatives around the globe to determine the most pressing issues. The recent resurgence of the women’s rights movement in the United States prompted our team to open the discussion of women’s health at this year’s competition. We determined that many resource-constrained countries struggle with access to contraception because of stigma, location, and cost. Our goal was to focus on those countries to determine if they’d be interested in our new contraception method and willing to speak with us about their personal experiences.
Our outreach team contacted several organizations, associations, and foundations for help finding locals willing to speak to us. Not many of them got back to us, so we went an alternative route. We searched GoFundMe and found a group of women in Uganda called the Joy Women’s Group asking for money to help buy condoms for their community. They were funded through the Brighter Brains Institute (BBI), and we contacted the BBI who put us into contact with three local women’s groups in Uganda. Read More >>
Through our survey and close conversations with people from several countries, we gained a better understanding of the situations and challenges of women around the world. We received over 56 responses to our survey as well as personal testimonies from people regarding their perspective on birth control in their communities. In the stories below, names have been exchanged with popular names from individuals’ respective countries for privacy reasons. Check out our map and the stories below to learn more!
Jamie, Pediatric Doctor
Jamie is an Australian pediatric doctor. We asked Jamie about her and her patients' experiences with birth control. According to Jamie, "one of [her] patients would soak a sponge in lemon juice and place it in her vaginal tract to avoid pregnancy because her husband believed condoms were too socially stigmatized with prostitution”. Though prostitution is legal in some parts of Australia, it is still heavily stigmatized along with condom use. We hope to provide women a safe birth control method not associated with prostitution.
Gisele, Mother and Community Leader
Gisele, a mother of seven, knows many women who had to perform their own at-home abortions if an unwanted pregnancy arose, since abortions are illegal in Brazil. These abortions often resulted in medical complications, and women were sent to hospitals to receive treatment for the aftermath of these dangerous abortion attempts. Read More >>
Zhi, Former Chinese Citizen
We spoke with a former Chinese Citizen named Zhi. When Zhi lived in China, they witnessed first-hand the one-child-per-couple policy where women were often felt forced to have abortions or be sterilized; babies were often abandoned or given up for adoption, especially if the child was female . Read More >>
Yeraldin, Colombian Citizen
Yeraldin, a Colombian-born citizen, believes that our birth control method research is a meaningful pursuit. According to Yeraldin, “there are many unwanted pregnancies in Colombia, but it is a problem because there is no money to buy [contraceptives]”. Yeraldin believes that an easy, affordable birth control option could minimize the large amount of unplanned pregnancies currently in Colombia. She does not know of any specific rumors on birth control in Colombia because birth control is rarely discussed. We hope to prompt the discussion of birth control by contacting Colombian officials in charge of regulating contraception and ask them if/how they plan to combat the lack of discussion around birth control.
Maria, Universidad de los Andes
A few members of our iGEM team attended the 2018 BMES Coulter Conference. At the conference, they met a student named Maria from Universidad de los Andes. She helped us gain insight on birth control in Colombia. Read More >>
Zuleyka, Guatemalan Citizen
Zuleyka is a mother of eight from Mixco, Guatemala. She had her first child at the age of fourteen and faced several labor complications because she lacked the proper medical assistance to deliver her baby. Zuleyka birthed her baby on a dirt floor and relays that this is common among women in her area. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of pregnancy in South America due to their lack of access to contraceptives and prevalence of sexual violence . In her community, many people believe that their religious deity blessed every woman with their particular number of children, which makes many women question their use of birth control methods if it "interferes with God's plan". Zuleyka went through a similar internal conflict, as she wished she spaced our her children out to provide better financial support to her growing family. Hearing Zuleyka’s story further inspired us to create our brochure for distribution and work to create a safe, alternative birth control method for women in need.
Foundation for Mother and Child Health
Through a connection with our PI, David Bernick, we met Piyasree Mukherjee, CEO of the Foundation for Mother and Child Health in India. According Ms. Mukherjee, her community possesses differing views on birth control. Some deem birth control a “money trap” because it requires device replacement or multiple rounds of a prescription. Others are skeptical and/or not knowledgeable about birth control because of the lack of information. Our team knows that birth control is expensive, but this was the first time that we heard that women felt gouged by necessary recurrent purchases of birth control methods. We will continue to update this information when their questionnaire responses arrive.
Aurora, Previous Resident & Student
During her time in Italy, Aurora found it difficult to use her preferred form of birth control and was instead pushed to use an IUD. IUDs, although common, are accompanied by potential painful side effects; Aurora described her first IUD experience as “super painful”. Read More >>
Rosa, Citizen & Research Team Lead
Through our connection with the ITESG team in Guanajuato, Mexico, we interviewed women to discuss their experiences with birth control. We sent questionnaires to these locals and interviewed one woman named Rosa. Rosa described her younger self as “uneducated” on the proper use of birth control. As a result of her being unaware and her continued lack of birth control, she became pregnant at a young age and had a child she couldn’t properly care for. Read More >>
Ava, New Zealand Citizen
Ava, an alum from the University of Otago, shared that she often struggles to obtain birth control. In New Zealand, 15-minute appointments with a local health care provider are available to all citizens but are too short to be personalized enough to the patient, and while longer appointments are available, they are more expensive. This lack of personalization and Ava’s lack of funds deterred her from pursuing birth control forms that require a prescription, so she instead pursued condom use. Read More >>
Guillermo, Former Peru Citizen
Guillermo, father to three daughters, visits his family in Peru at least once a year. In the 70’s and 80’s, birth control was very expensive, and only people of higher economic status had access to it. Read More >>
Misha, Former Russian Citizen
Misha is a woman who spent the first part of her life in Soviet Russia. She tried for many years to obtain any form of birth control but only received her first IUD after having her first child at age 19. She couldn’t afford to purchase condoms, and most couples opted not to use any forms of contraception. Russia’s government did not encourage or supply cheap contraceptives. For a time, inexpensive abortions were available at state hospitals. Most women were aware of this and expected to have one to three abortions in their lifetimes. Abortion clinics shut down after a few years, which led to many Russian women to obtain illegal abortions, most of which were ineffective or dangerous. We didn’t realize the prevalence of illegal abortions in Russia and we hope to legalize our birth control method in Russia to prevent the need for these abortions.
Trinidad and Tobago
Tatyana, Trinidad and Tobago Resident
Tatyana is a mother of one. When we spoke to Tatyana about our new contraceptive, she told us she had believed condoms were the only type of birth control. Tatyana isn’t a fan of condoms anymore, as she experienced a condom that broke and resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. She relayed that she didn't believe condoms are reliable. Luckily, she was financially stable enough to care for the child, which is an issue many mothers in Trinidad and Tobago face. Condoms are commonly found in local pharmacies, but information about how to use them is severely lacking. Tatyana explained that women in the area need and want to know more about birth control. Our team hopes that our brochure will inform women of available alternatives to condoms and how to use them safely.
Basaliza Women Development Association (BAWODA)
BAWODA is group of women leaders spread all throughout Uganda. Our outreach team spoke with Joy Muhindo, the chairperson of BAWODA. She informed us that the stigma on birth control in Uganda arose because women began trying unsanctioned birth control methods with dangerous side effects. Many women heard of these side effects and assumed that all birth control methods had these potential dangerous side effects. Their group encourages condom use if women cannot access safer birth control methods. While the BAWODA women are willing to try our new method, they hope that we also encourage condom use on top of our contraception because of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in their area. We hadn’t considered that condom use is still necessary on top of our birth control since ours cannot protect against AIDS, so this was an important reminder for us.
Buhanga Thuligahuma Women's Group
Through the recommendation of Hank Pellissier of the Brighter Brains Institute, our team contacted a Buhangan villager named Masereka Sebastian. Buhanga is a rural village of 2,000 people, and all are members of the BaKonzo tribe. According to Masereka Sebastian, "you can't drive a car there - you have to walk 3 kilometers or take a dirt bike [to their village]". Since Masereka Sebastian owns a dirt bike and can access printing shops outside of the village, our iGEM team contacted him to print our questionnaires for distribution to the local Buhanga Women. Women later mailed us their responses. Read More >>
Joy Women's Group
The Joy Women’s Group is located in Western Uganda in the Nyamwamba Division of the Kasese Municipality. One of their group’s objectives is to promote nutrition, health, and hygienic practices in the community. All 25 of their group members wanted to participate in our research. According to participants, their community generally supports the use of contraceptives. Their community has access to contraception through a government healthcare facility known as Naigobya HC III. Naigobya HC III provides family planning services, maternal care, prenatal care, and post-natal care. Read More >>
Kabwe Rural Women Development Association (KARWODA)
Through the recommendation of Kabugho Beatrace from KUWA, we met Masika Annet of the Kabwe Rural Women Development Association (KARWODA). Beatrace informed Annet that we were looking for more information about birth control methods and/or family planning programs already in practice, and she told us that “most birth control methods are sold in hospitals, drug shops, and clinics but are inaccessible”. She emphasized that even though options are available, most are far too expensive for the average woman to afford. Read More >>
Kinywankoko United Women Association (KUWA)
Our iGEM team contacted Kabugho Beatrace through Hank Pellissier of the Brighter Brains Institute. KUWA is a women’s group based in the Kasese Municipality of Uganda. They assist marginalized women in the surrounding villages by providing them condoms, sanitary products, feminine hygiene education, and economic empowerment. They reside in the Bukonzo county which is “rated among the poorest counties where women live below poverty line and one [Ugandan citizen] survives on less than one US dollar a day” (Kabugho Beatrace, chairperson of KUWA). Read More >>
Our conversation with the Kyogha women was informative. Their chairperson, Esther, told us that her group has been on the search for advanced, safe birth control methods for a while now. Her group recently visited Makerere University in Uganda to see if they can “make an advanced birth control method that is also accessible with less side effects”. She’s spent many years implementing family planning programs and trying to address the stigma on birth control. As with other groups, she mentioned that people fear purchasing birth control because they fear "being laughed at". We hope that our new birth control method will contribute to the new market of affordable and safe contraceptives. We also want to design our packaging to be more discreet so Esther and other women feel comfortable using it.
Nyakiyumbu Widows Association
We reached out to the Nyakiyumbu Widow’s Association, they were interested in our contraception method. Muhindo Nyesi, chairperson of the NWA, stopped replying to our emails soon after. Our team wondered if her group lost interest, but we soon learned the reason for her absence; Nyesi’s nephew was hit by a car and, during recovery, was also brutally attacked by a group of boys. He was in the ICU for several weeks and underwent brain surgery, but he finally recovered enough for Nyesi to go to the local library to email us back. She provided us responses to our questionnaire and apologized for her absence. We are so grateful for Nyesi’s efforts for our project, especially in these difficult times for her family. Read More >>
Promote Africa Foundation
We discovered the Promote Africa Foundation (PAF) through the Joy Women’s Group. The PAF is a united women’s group that runs programs related to female reproductive health and women’s rights. According to Evelyn Lewsley, the leader of the PAF, they “encourage women to space their children because most children are abandoned by families who fail to provide for their children”. The PAF encourages birth control methods throughout the Kasese District, and are currently encouraging birth control injections; however, they struggle to find users since injections sometimes cause bleeding and therefore deter women from use. The PAF hopes our birth control method will be safer for the women in Africa.
Rita Women Development Association
The Rita Women Development Association resides in the Rwenzori region of Western Uganda. This group empowers women in their community and promotes contraceptives to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Through the recommendation of Kabugho Beatrace of KUWA, we met the Rita women. Masika Vicky, the chairperson of Rita, informed us of the stigma on birth control (primarily condoms because they are the only contraception available). Read More >>
Dr. Pam Lowe, Aston University
Our team spoke to Dr. Pam Lowe from Aston University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Lowe is the Senior Lecturer for the Department of Sociology and Policy at Aston University. Dr. Lowe is well known for her strong opinions on the unspoken ‘two-child policy’ in the United Kingdom. According to Dr. Lowe, the only stigma on birth control is not on those who use it, but rather on those who don't. Read More >>
United States of America
Family Planning 2020
Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) is a global partnership that supports women’s rights related to sexual and reproductive health. They are a subsection of the United Nations Foundation and partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to spread birth control information and awareness. By 2020, they want to expand access to family planning “information, services, and supplies to women in 69 of the world’s poorest countries”. Read More >>
The Population Council conducts research and works to address critical worldwide health and development issues. Through our connection with FP2020, we met John Townsend, the Director of Country Strategy for Pop Council. Specifically, he works in the women's health division to find new promising birth control methods. John was inspired by our project and offered to connect us with several colleagues in different countries, including other members of Pop Council. We discussed potential issues with manufacturing as well as which countries may be ideal to start product development. John helped give our project a route to development, and we are extremely grateful for our ongoing relations with his organization.
We created the brochure shown below as a way to educate others regarding birth control and address popular rumors about contraception. This brochure has not been reviewed or approved by professionals and therefore is not ready for distribution. Below is strictly a working draft of our brochure.
Silver Medal Requirements
We contacted family members, friends, and representatives of the World Health Organization to discuss current issues with birth control. We sent out questionnaires to several grassroot organizations and advocacy groups around the world to gauge their interest in our product and learn about stigma, cost, and access issues. We also presented to local classes and partook in a TEDx talk to teach people about iGEM and discuss potential ethical issues with our project.
Gold Medal Requirements
We took what we learned from our questionnaire and other outreach efforts to create a product tailored to our potential users. The women who returned questionnaires encouraged us to consider cost, location, and accessibility. We localized contraceptive production because we were informed that drugstores and hospitals are far away for women in rural areas. We will use discreet packaging for our product because several women are worried about being seen using birth control in stigmatized areas. We are also researching ways to get our product to market in several countries by collaborating with Family Planning 2020 and Population Council. Given that our yeast needs a food source, we collaborated with the ITESG research team and engineered our yeast to survive off upcycled dairy waste. Through our conversations, we determined that women even in rural areas have high accessibility to milk-producing animals, which makes our milk-surviving yeast plausible for most areas worldwide.
The PoPPY team would like to thank everyone who made this project possible, especially those described above. Thank you to every individual who participated in our human practices research by answering our questionnaire as well as those who allowed our team members to interview them on such personal matters. Without you, this project wouldn't be what it is today. Thank you!
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