MUSC Center for Global Health team achieves best finish for University at Emory Case Competition

Adam Wise
April 17, 2023
From left to right: Mohamed Faisal Kassir, Shipra Bethi, Tammy Mahaney (Halladay), Savannah Skidmore, Kaylee Simon, and Adegboyega 'Tim' Adewale. All Photo Credits:

A team of six Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) students representing four colleges achieved an honorable mention at the Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition, essentially earning fifth place and MUSC’s best showing in its nine years of sending teams to compete in the annual case contest.

Pitting 30 teams representing universities across the globe against one another, the competition, which took place at Emory on March 18, challenges students to research, develop and recommend innovative solutions for a 21st-century global health problem. This year’s MUSC team featured team captain Kaylee Simon of the College of Pharmacy; Adegboyega 'Tim' Adewale, colleges of Graduate Studies and Medicine; Shipra Bethi, College of Medicine; Mohamed Faisal Kassir, colleges of Graduate Studies and Medicine; Tammy Mahaney (Halladay), College of Nursing; and Savannah Skidmore, College of Medicine.

Kassir, a fourth-year student in the M.D./Ph.D., program and originally from Lebanon, moved to Charleston in 2019 to begin his dual doctoral-degree program to become a physician-scientists.

2023 Emory Case Competition binder

After learning of the case competition via a student broadcast email in January, the scope and breadth of the challenge, paired with his background, quickly piqued his interest.

“In Lebanon, ever since I was a kid, I’ve witnessed global health initiatives that took place both with the local population, as well as the refugee population, and there are a lot of refugees with all of the conflicts in the area. I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of global health initiatives improving health care,” he said. “The fact that this was an international competition with teams from all over the world and the fact there would be CDC officials and experts in health care, global health and public health, I thought it’d be a great place to learn and to represent MUSC to the best of my abilities.”

Following an application process in January, Kassir and his five teammates were selected for the team, a process overseen and supported by the MUSC Center for Global Health. The students got to work. They organized a GroupMe team chat and got to know each other. While all team members have a strong interest in some aspect of medicine, they found other skills and experiences unique to each other to determine how they could individually contribute to the team.

Skidmore, a second-year student, participated in the Clemson University debate team during her time as an undergrad, competing in over 30 countries, achieving great success.

“It’s a big part of my background and something I don’t get to do a lot in medical school – utilizing public speaking or a bit more of the cerebral side of debate,” she said. “So, this was an amazing opportunity, where I got to use those skills.”

On March 10, one week prior to the live presentation at Emory, the team learned the challenge they’d need to solve. Using a mock budget of $1 million, case competition teams were tasked with drafting recommendations for how they’d improve maternal mortality rates in the central plateau region of Haiti, a rural, underserved portion of the country with limited access to health care. The MUSC team drafted an action plan that would achieve that goal while also improving the blood pressure of pregnant women and empowering delivering mothers and their matwons, or skilled birth attendants.

2023 MUSC Team Competes at Emory Case Competition

Given the remote area of this region of Haiti, Kassir and his teammates knew they’d need to identify solutions that would not only work but that would be reasonably sustainable to address the problem amid incredibly difficult socio-economic conditions in the region. So rather than flying in surgeons and nurses for months at a time or committing major investment dollars to infrastructure, such as building a hospital in an area that is regularly ravaged by hurricanes, they sought more economically feasible medical interventions with long-term promise.

“Preeclampsia is one of the highest contributors to maternal mortality, especially in this area where they don’t have access to blood pressure screenings, so what’s recommended is to teach matwons how to do manual blood pressures,” Skidmore explained. “These women would already be in the homes, involved in the pregnancy, so it’s easier to teach these people than to send nurses in.”

Also, the team noted a published study involving a biomarker test utilized in southern India, similar to a home pregnancy test but using droplets of blood and not requiring a lab test. These strips would be easy to deploy to the community to diagnose associated health risks.

“The test will tell you whether or not you have positive or negative markers for preeclampsia – a test that has been shown to detect it in as early as 13 weeks gestation, which is months earlier than we can detect high blood pressure,” she said. “We think this marker is going to become commonplace the same way we use home pregnancy kits. Since it was piloted in southern India, we have good data of it being used in a low-income setting.”

Leading up to the competition in Atlanta, the team gathered for hours each night to work through their presentation. During a recent debrief meeting of the team, all members noted how impressed they were with Kassir’s graphic design skills and the impact that had on the quality of their presentation. Kassir made a clear connection between his experience as an MUSC student and his contribution to the team.

“As a Ph.D. student, one of the major challenges is we are doing very complicated stuff in the lab, but all of this stuff is worthless if we aren’t able to portray and relay it to the lay person,” he said. “During my Ph.D. experience, I’ve been trying my best to have graphical presentations so that anybody can digest without losing the content.”

At the competition, the team presented to an initial panel of judges, receiving positive feedback on the concepts in their strategy, eventually earning an honorable mention. While members of the team might argue that their presentation was the best and most realistic compared with those of their fellow competitors, they were all proud of what they helped to achieve, which was the University’s best placement yet.

“As a Ph.D. student, one of the major challenges is we are doing very complicated stuff in the lab, but all of this stuff is worthless if we aren’t able to portray and relay it to the lay person,” Kassir said. “During my Ph.D. experience, I’ve been trying my best to have graphical presentations so that anybody can digest without losing the content.” 

“I had never worked on a team that had the level of respect and continuity that we did,” Skidmore said. “It can be a challenge in our professional lives, working with people of different knowledge sets and skills, but this team really had such a high level of respect for each other. We worked together, split up tasks; nobody was sitting on the side. I was so proud of everyone.”

Kassir said the team couldn’t have achieved such success without the contributions and guidance provided by MUSC Center for Global Health leaders Michael Sweat, Ph.D., and Kathleen Ellis, who are faculty director and executive director of the center, respectively.

“Dr. Sweat met with us a couple of times. He couldn’t provide input in terms of ideas, but his feedback was essential. He has on-the-ground experience in similar settings, so he could say what’s realistic and what isn’t, which really helped our approach,” Kassir said. “Kathleen was great with her organization and in managing our deadlines and submissions. These were things we didn’t need to worry about because she was on top of it all.”

Ellis said she enjoys getting to work with student teams each year for the case competition, but this year’s group was particularly motivated and excelled working together. She was so proud of their performance.

“Students tell us it’s one of the best educational experiences they have here because they get to actually solve a challenge by developing a health intervention,” she said, “and they’re getting an opportunity to package and persuade others about why this is a good solution. It is one of our favorite programs we offer."

View more photos from the case competition team's experience at Emory by visiting the Center for Global Health Flickr page.