Undergraduate Uni, Linda Cao, Trinity ’14, interviewed our distinguished alumna, Anna Brown, Pratt ’11, to find out what she was working on during her gap year in the United Kingdom. Read on to learn about Anna’s experience as a University Scholar, her summer travels with the program, and her on-going excitement for interdisciplinarity in Durham and beyond.
Linda: Can you give us a little background about yourself?
Anna: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado before I attended Duke. In May 2011, I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) from Duke with a major in Biomedical Engineering and a minor in Chemistry. I am currently pursuing a research-based Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Oncology at the University of Cambridge, and will attend the Duke University School of Medicine starting in August 2012.
Linda: Could you briefly highlight your experiences – academic and otherwise – at Duke?
Anna: My experiences at Duke were centered on service, health, and the pursuit of shared knowledge. I dove into the service aspect of my Duke career even before I officially started classes, as a Project BUILD participant. I later served as a small-group Crew Leader for this service-oriented pre-orientation program in 2009. In both of the years that I was a part of Project BUILD, my team (or “crew”) helped out organizations and individuals in Durham through numerous service projects in town, including some at the drug-rehabilitation and self-empowerment organization TROSA and other noteworthy centers. I engaged in other service activities with the organizations Duke Lutherans, Society of Women Engineers, and Engineers Without Borders.
Since I pursued a premedical curriculum at Duke, I was also very interested in combining my interests in service and health. Several volunteer opportunities I pursued reflect both interests, including volunteer positions at the Duke University hospital and at the Children’s Hospital in Colorado. Moreover, at the beginning of my sophomore year at Duke I founded the organization Project HEAL: Health Education and Awareness in Latin America with the ultimate goal to reduce health disparities in the developing world, particularly in Honduras. I had traveled to Honduras in August 2008 with an Engineers Without Borders team to conduct a site assessment prior to construction of a maternal health clinic in the small mountainous community of Las Mercedes. Struck by the abject poverty and lack of adequate health infrastructure in the Honduran countryside, I became determined to return to Honduras to lead health education programs with children and give them a fighting chance to take ownership of their own health in areas where the medical infrastructure failed them. With a lot of hard work and vision during my sophomore year, Project HEAL launched its first immersive service and research project in the summer of 2009 with DukeEngage funding and five students total. We reached over 160 children and dozens of adults that summer with our health education programs, and interviewed 45 community members in El Porvenir, Honduras about health and environmental conditions. I continued to serve as President of Project HEAL until I graduated from Duke, and returned to Honduras four more times to successfully lead two more immersive summer experiences and two site planning visits during my spring breaks.
This past summer was definitely Project HEAL’s most successful year thus far, and with a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant we were able to supply the local clinic with necessary medical equipment such as an autoclave, a female examination lamp, and numerous surgical materials. We reached hundreds of children and adults through our health education initiatives with a collaborative effort from 8 Duke students, the local health clinic nurses, and secondary school teachers in the village. Our focus was on women’s health this past summer, and the new leaders of Project HEAL will continue to address this important topic in future visits to the village and other villages in even more dire need of health initiatives.
Beyond my strong commitment to projects and opportunities at the intersection of health and service, I also pursued several opportunities and positions that were more purely health-oriented. I was the Healthy Living Chair for the co-ed selective living group Maxwell House, and I served as a Healthy Devils Peer Educator for three years in the ESTEEM (Educating Students To Eliminate Eating Misconceptions) branch before it became incorporated into other branches of the organization. I have also shadowed three Radiation Oncologists, two of which work at the Duke University Hospital, to learn more about the profession I hope to specialize in after medical school.
Many of the other activities I was involved in at Duke were related to the pursuit of shared knowledge. Having been strongly influenced by teachers that challenged me to perform to the best of my abilities in middle school and high school, I place great value on the power of knowledge and sharing information effectively. To this end, I tutored college and high school students throughout my time at Duke and remain committed to mentoring and coaching peers and younger students in this way. I served as a Peer Tutor at Duke in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Spanish, and also tutored high school students back home in Colorado on various school vacations.
True to my interdisciplinary nature as a Uni and despite the stereotype that engineers detest writing, I found a way to pursue my passion for writing through the DukEngineer magazine and by taking a creative writing class during my junior year at Duke. In my senior year, I was the Head Editor of the DukEngineer magazine and was an associate editor and writer for the three previous years, and during this time I wrote two of the magazine’s cover articles. Some of my writings were also published in the Chronicle and Synergy magazine. In addition, and perhaps more immediate to my respect for teaching and influential teachers, I was a co-instructor for the house course “Technology and International Development” in Fall 2010. I had taken this course in Spring 2009 and found it very exciting to be at the heart of interdisciplinary discussions about development that blended perspectives from economics and engineering majors and other fields. It was a real treat to lead some of those discussions as one of the course’s instructors in my senior year, and honestly they were some of the best discussions I’ve witnessed at Duke (besides some of the USP seminars, of course!)
Beyond contributing insight to the USP at symposiums and seminars, I was also a Grand Challenge Scholar and through that program thematically combined interdisciplinary interests to address the National Academy of Engineering grand challenge “Engineering Better Medicines.” The most important intensive academic activity I pursued at Duke was my research project through the Pratt Undergraduate Fellows Research program. I wrote a thesis on the development of a medical imaging add-on tool that would allow surgeons to visualize tissue oxygenation levels to better characterize the tumor microenvironment in cancer patients. This project formed the basis for a second thesis that I wrote for the Grand Challenge Scholars program and was very interesting for me to pursue since it was at the intersection of radiation oncology and biomedical engineering. This research project and the Pratt Fellows program in general gave me a lot of perspective on the dynamics of academic research, and also equipped me with the knowledge and skills I needed to perform well in my current research position at the University of Cambridge.
Linda: How did the University Scholars Program fit into your undergraduate career?
Anna: The USP really fit into an important niche for me at Duke, providing academic and social opportunities that I wouldn’t have had the chance to explore otherwise. As a Uni I really enjoyed the friendships and connections I made, not just with other Unis but other Scholars as well. In fact, my roommate of 3 years in the Maxwell section was an A.B. Scholar. The mentoring aspect of the program was also a really nice feature since I met with my mentor fairly regularly and we typically made a trip to Target as well (which was incredibly helpful when I didn’t have a car on campus and felt rather isolated from Durham). In a more academic sense, the USP seminars and annual symposiums were really meaningful for me since these interdisciplinary forums helped me understand more about the world beyond the realms of science and engineering. I felt the tingling excitement of crossing new horizons of ideas in these seminars that I had previously felt in my high school AP English classes, and this feeling was much harder to replicate in technical classes that were engineering or science-focused. Finally, at the beginning of my senior year when I was applying to medical school and scholarship programs for my year between undergrad and medical school, it was incredible to have Tori as a mentor and source of support to help me navigate through the paperwork and interview processes. The Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows (OUSF) was also a very helpful resource during this time, providing mock interviews and other advice for the daunting application and interview procedures. I have been so blessed to be part of the USP and have gained so much from being a Uni. The academic and social support the USP offered was truly unparalleled during my Duke career.
Linda: How do you see your involvement in the University Scholars Program affecting your future endeavors?
Anna: My future career goal to specialize as a Radiation Oncologist necessitates cross-disciplinary communication with physicists, nurses, other doctors, scientific researchers, and patients and their families to provide the best care possible for cancer patients. Developing skills to communicate with people outside of my field, and to respect others’ perspectives, will be a very valuable takeaway from the USP seminars and discussions. The mentoring aspect of the USP was also a very valuable source of support and will encourage me to seek mentors and role models at each stage of my future career. It helps to have someone to talk to about unique challenges within a particular field or discipline.
Beyond these more tangible benefits of the USP, I have also gained so much from understanding in a more intangible sense the nature of balancing interdisciplinary interests in disparate fields. My life goals are not just limited to becoming a specialized doctor, and I’ve learned during my time at Duke and after graduation that life is about so much more than work. I aspire to run a marathon, write a novel, and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in the future, as well as balance my career with a family and home life. I also aim to serve Spanish-speaking patients in my career, and to continue fighting for health equality throughout my medical career. Through experiencing a more varied perspective of academic life from the graduate and professional students in the USP, and through talking with students with a wide variety of interests and goals, I know that it will be possible to pursue my varied interests and to really live a life of passion and not just necessarily one of success or what others expect of me. The more intangible but incredibly valuable sense of the USP is that interdisciplinary pursuits, even potentially uncommon or rare pursuits, are possible and actually very important in the world, as is the ability to bridge gaps between different fields and specialties. Rather than shying away from my wide variety of interests, I have learned to consolidate and focus my interests on key passions and to combine them in a meaningful way.
Linda: What is one little-known aspect of Duke/Durham that all students should be privy to the moment they step on campus?
Anna: I’m a huge fan of discounts and deals, so I definitely encourage everyone to sign up for the Durham Groupon and LivingSocial deals, and to be aware of Local Yogurt’s weekly deals. On the other side of the spectrum, afternoon tea at the Washington Duke Inn is rather expensive but it’s a very nice setting and perfect to enjoy an afternoon with friends, especially towards the end of a semester if you have leftover food points. Also, the Nasher is a really nice place to go for brunch on campus, and food points are accepted! In the summer, there are also some jazz/dinner events at the Nasher that are really fun. The store Vaguely Reminiscent on Main Street also has super cute items like earrings and tongue-in-cheek magnets and random accessories. Of course, I encourage everyone to get involved with Project HEAL as well! Beyond the summer initiatives in Honduras, the club also collaborates with the local Latino resource center El Centro Hispano to bring health education lessons to Spanish-speaking residents in Durham as well. It’s a great club to get involved with if you’re passionate about global health and reducing health disparities, particularly within Spanish-speaking communities. (Shameless plug, I know, but it truly is a great group to get involved with and perhaps not as visible as some of the big global health groups on campus).
Linda: If you could trade lives for a day with any other University Scholar – past or present – who would it be and why?
Anna: This is a tough question, mainly because I am friends with a lot of other Unis from my graduating class and have so much respect for many of the Unis I knew that graduated before me. One of the first former Unis that comes to mind, however, is Jane Chong. She graduated from Duke in 2009, and single-handedly won a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to implement a mobile education program in Africa. Jane was also selected as a Hart Fellow and is now at Yale law school. Although her interests differ from mine substantially, I think it would be really awesome to trade lives with Jane for a day to experience the world through a different point of view that is centered more on the political and societal structures of the world rather than on science and medicine. It is really awesome that the USP has such a diverse collection of people and interests, and I could really trade places with any Uni and experience a totally different perspective on the world for a day. I think it would be especially interesting to change places with Jane, however, because she is on a similar professional career track but has approached it by pursuing a curriculum almost polar opposite to mine, with majors in English and Economics. Thus, it would be really intriguing to experience the world with different “tools” for communication and wielding power and influence than the technical knowledge I’ve gained from my engineering and pre-medical curriculum.