In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

November 7, 2022

My Turn: Jason Underkofler on learning the value of environmental stewardship, conservation in Uganda

By In the Loop
Jason Underkofler

Jason Underkofler, a clinical research coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Florida, shares his perspective on what he learned about the value of stewardship — a core Mayo Clinic value — during a volunteer trip to Uganda.


Jason Underkofler, a clinical research coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Florida, made a trip to Uganda a year ago to volunteer with New Nature Foundation, a nonprofit organization. The organization connects children to the natural environment and conservation by helping them explore their national parks.

Underkofler shares his perspective on what he learned about the value of stewardship — a core tenet of Mayo Clinic's RICH TIES values — during his time in Uganda.


"Life is hard but sometimes simple," noted a young boy who accompanied us while walking through their grandparents' farm near Fort Portal, Uganda. These were the genuine words of an 8-year-old surviving in a part of the world with overwhelming barriers to basic human rights. The intelligence and candidness of this young boy, who labors more than four hours every day helping grow tea, coffee and food crops, has inspired me to continue my part in upholding the Mayo Clinic mission of "inspiring hope and promoting health through integrated clinical practice, education and research."

Traveling throughout Uganda and uncovering vast differences in activities of daily living compared to my counterparts back home was astonishing. I became compelled to share my experiences and lessons learned overseas. Developing a greater understanding of people's lives from drastically different backgrounds than one's own can only improve the impact on local communities, including having a direct impact on the lives encountered at Mayo Clinic every day.

So, why Uganda? Why did a country halfway across the world inspire me to write this article for colleagues back at Mayo Clinic? It is simple: The work of the New Nature Foundation.

Mayo Clinic's core value of Stewardship is to "sustain and reinvest in our mission and extended communities by wisely managing our human, natural and material resources." Our value of Stewardship is closely mirrored by the mission of New Nature Foundation. Working at a global enterprise that provides world-class health care to patients with serious and complex illnesses improves lives and communities everywhere. Mayo Clinic's direct impact reaches beyond the walls of the clinic. The core values of our institution instilled daily in our work pervade all areas of our lives.

New Nature Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded 20 years ago by two American college students, Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern. Goldstone and Stern returned to Kibale National Park in Western Uganda after completing their thesis research. Their goal was to help make a better connection between people and wildlife and to help show Ugandan citizens why foreigners love their country so much.

The foundation conserves wild animals and places through education that helps people live in harmony with nature. "We brought 1,000 kids into the forest that year — 90% of them had never been before," Stern says. New Nature Foundation takes a multifaceted approach to conservation and health. Volunteers conduct educational programs in five village Science Centers and help implement sustainable energy initiatives such as using eco briquettes — recycled clean wood products used in wood-burning stoves — and tree planting, and efficient stove building within local communities. 

The safer and more eco-friendly methods of cooking and daily activities promoted by the foundation aid thousands of Ugandans in the surrounding areas. Cleaner and more efficient rocket stoves — or portable wood stoves — have been proven to be beneficial for both respiratory and eye health. Additionally, rocket stoves have drastically reduced burns in the kitchen — an all too frequent injury within rural Ugandan communities. Nearly 98% of people living within these communities rely upon biomass as their only energy source.

When Ugandans visit forests to collect firewood, they are exposing themselves and their loved ones to dangerous wild animals that may carry many zoonotic diseases. Efficient rocket stoves and biomass briquettes can eliminate or drastically reduce any forest incursions, decreasing the likelihood of contracting zoonotic diseases. Providing people with the opportunity to stay clear of wild animals and possibly contracting zoonotic diseases, will not only directly protect local Ugandans, but will also protect human beings around the world from contracting communicable diseases and potentially preventing the next pandemic. 

I cherished our time assisting with meaningful conservational projects surrounding Kibale National Park. 

I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the beautiful people of Uganda. During my two weeks of travel throughout the "Pearl of Africa," I was overjoyed by the hospitality and mutual respect shared during every interaction.

We have an obligation to our fellow human beings around the world to help in any way that we can, and it all starts with us.


Editor's note: Jason Underkofler's trip to Uganda was several months prior to the recent outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in Uganda.

Tags: Jason Underkofler, Staff Stories

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