Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Brown Boosts Immunity

This month we spotlight a faculty-student collaboration that seeks to increase public health awareness around vaccinations
March 4, 2021

Toni-Marie Achilli PhD ‘14, Lecturer in Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology, has taught at Brown since her return in 2017. A graduate of the doctoral program in Biomedical Engineering, Achilli regularly teaches BIOL 1070: Biotechnology in Medicine which “introduces undergraduates to the main technological advances currently dominating the practice of medicine.” This fall was the fourth time Dr. Achilli taught BIOL 1070, a course which regularly enrolls over 100 students each year. However, this fall, the course saw a unique development arise out of the collaboration between faculty and students. Achilli, alongside the leadership of her teaching assistant, Rebka Ephrem ‘21, and two students enrolled in the course, Isaiah Dawkins ‘23 and Roshan Sapkota ‘23, started an organization aimed at engaging with the greater Rhode Island community. As a recent profile in the Brown Daily Herald explains, “After Achilli alluded to the rise of vaccine hesitancy at the conclusion of one lecture in September, then-students Sapkota and Dawkins stayed after class to ask questions and discuss the subject further.” The project that emerged, Brown Boosts Immunity, “is seeking to raise awareness for vaccine efficacy and promote the increased uptake of vaccinations within the Rhode Island community.” 

With the support of Dr. Achilli, the three students applied for startup funding from the Swearer Center’s Engaged Course Development Grants. Working with community partners and experts to survey hundreds of community members in multiple languages, Brown Boosts Immunity has created a series of social media campaigns and advertisements (employing testimonials, infographics, statistical data, fun facts, and weekly debriefs) focused on altering public perception of vaccines. The efforts of Dawkins, Ephrem, and Sapkota in collaboration with Dr. Achilli allowed the course to shift in order to address an identifiable community need. One of the utmost importance in the midst of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Situating the community-engaged project within the course allowed the students to expand their learning, writing in the grant proposal, “Students enrolled in this course would take part in critical analysis of the intersectionality of cultural and socioeconomic factors that influence attitudes towards vaccination, while taking into account the role that popular media plays and the larger context of ‘social responsibility.’”