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Bass Connections Student Stories: Sandra Batakana

Sandra Batakana picture

This experience has been life changing for me, not only because it fulfilled my wish to get a closer look at the fields of neuroscience and neurosurgery, but because it has actually altered my path in unexpected and exciting ways.


Chemistry '19

Project Team

Improving Neurosurgery Patient Outcomes in Uganda (2016-2017)

In my Duke application, I wrote my “Why Duke” essay about my aspirations to be a neurosurgeon. I knew that I wanted to get involved with Duke Global Neurosurgery and Neuroscience (DGNN), because I imagined this kind of experience would give me the opportunity to explore the field of neuroscience as an undergraduate. I didn’t know how lucky I would be when I was not only admitted to Duke but also given the chance to immediately participate on a Bass Connections team that featured a partnership with DGNN and resonated so closely with my interests. I also didn’t know how this experience might reshape those interests to make me who I am today.

Sandra Batakana

The summer after my freshman year, I became a member of the Improving Neurosurgery Patient Outcomes in Uganda team. Because I am Ugandan (my hometown is Iganga) and have firsthand experience with the place and culture, I knew I would not only learn a lot from this experience but also be able to contribute immensely. I wanted to enrich my undergraduate education by applying what I learned in my global health classes to the real world, and I wanted to put myself into a position to meet potential mentors.

Our team is broken into three smaller teams focused on different research questions and interventions. I worked in a small team with three other students and two mentors, which gave me the confidence and experience to work collaboratively and effectively in both an independent and a dynamic team-based environment. During our first summer in Uganda, our sub-team collected data at Mulago National Referral Hospital (MNRH) to evaluate the needs and barriers to patient-family education on the neurosurgery ward. We used this data in collaboration with our in-country partners to develop interventions to improve family caregiver education, which we then tested at MNRH the next year.

Through this, I gained the ability to enhance and integrate my communication and organizational skills and was able to maximize my efficiency and productivity. I also had the opportunity to help present our work at conferences and showcases, including the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, D.C., and be part of three manuscripts that are in the process of being published.

My Bass Connections experience has been unique from many of my other learning experiences at Duke. Though I have studied abroad in Spain and London and taken many classes, I have really valued the hands-on experience Bass Connections has afforded. I have learned to apply classroom material to larger research questions and gained new skills that I can use in multiple contexts.

Through this experience, I also learned that I prefer working in teams to tackling projects by myself. I learned to value the constant feedback that teammates can provide, and I know that I improved as both a researcher and student. I was always excited about talking through new ideas, applying my in-class knowledge to data collection in the field and putting collaborative ideas into action.

Being part of Bass Connections also enabled me to experience what it is like to be a doctor in the real world. Although my fieldwork mostly featured data collection, I was able to shadow physicians in both the Neurosurgery Ward and Operating Room at MNRH and at Duke Hospital. Because DGNN has such strong ties to MNRH, I felt like I could connect with the doctors as both a Duke student and a Ugandan.

Our partners always got excited about having a student on the team who was from Uganda, and I was able to make personal connections with some of the best doctors in Uganda who I keep in touch with to this day. It was incredibly rewarding to work with an organization that helped me advance my academic goals but that was also in my native country. I felt a personal connection with the work that we were doing and it was a great way for me to give back to my community while growing individually and professionally.

This experience has been life changing for me, not only because it fulfilled my wish to get a closer look at the fields of neuroscience and neurosurgery, but because it has actually altered my path in unexpected and exciting ways. After being part of this amazing program and because of my field experiences, I realized although I loved the research, I was not as excited by the practice of medicine as I used to be. I wanted to explore another part of my research that I have always been passionate about – math. As part of this project, I cultivated a great interest in working with quantitative data and exploring the statistics-based aspects of our work. So, while I am still interested in global health and majoring in chemistry, I have added a math concentration to my studies and hope to go to pursue a graduate degree in math in the future.