Sunday, October 8, 2017

Peace Corps to Fulbright

It has been three years since I returned from serving in Lesotho, and it still takes effort to censor its repeated mentioning in my everyday conversations. The two years were such an inspiring culmination of humbling and extraordinarily unique moments that I really cannot foresee many future experiences being as influential. Sometimes, I even wonder if the richness of that time has dulled anything else I have experienced. They say returning from the Peace Corps is more challenging than actually acclimating into your original host country’s foreign culture, and in my experience, that has been true. I am happy to have returned, but it has been challenging to have lost the sense of purpose and meaningful work, which I felt daily as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I will admit, getting adjusted has been far from easy, but don’t worry, I haven’t been sulking the entire time! In fact, here is what I have done (and what I consider worth mentioning) over these last three years:
  • I traveled quite a bit - Took a selfie off a cliff in China with some locals, had little fish eat my feet in Cambodia, passionately sang Wagon Wheel at the only pub in Ireland that served alcohol in Easter, and played Pokemon Go all over Spain. 
Buddhist Plank Walk
  • I got a tattoo after biking naked in a summer solstice festival. (Well, we were painted…)
  • I outfitted my apartment in Philadelphia to be “smart” – smart fan, thermostat, lights, bed, shoes – which is voice controlled via SIRI or Alexa (both unintelligent)
  • I joined the MD/PhD Program at Drexel University in 2015, and I completed the first two years of medical school (with several lucky passes) and just started the first year of my PhD in Biomedical Engineering.
The only picture you will find me in a uniform. I still try my best to wear flip-flops and shorts.
  • I have become influenced and inspired by Shark Tank to try my best to tinker with things. 
  • I befriended the Amish donut folk in Philadelphia and brought edible aid to the homeless and myself during the winter months.
My friends and I would bring donuts to the homeless at Project Home in the winters, not the healthiest, but certainly the tastiest! 
  • I didn’t vote for the current president.
  • I attended an adult summer camp in Albany where a group of bright neuro-engineers gathered, exchanged ideas, and learned a lot about brain machine interfacing. We also won trivia an impressive amount.
  • I talked about how amazing Virginia was, again.
  • I didn’t become vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, paleo, or any more into coconut oil that would be considered average.
  • I have essentially forgotten Sesotho, but Spanish has trickled back into my brain, so I’m sure the Sesotho is still in there sometime, for the next time I need it.

I joined the Peace Corps because I knew it would be an enriching and valuable experience. I originally saw it as a two-year freeze to my very unrelated career path in medical technology research—but that couldn’t have been more wrong. One aspect of the developmental model that the Peace Corps follows emphasizes the importance of community integration. Developmental work is more sustainable and impactful when the community is the prime decision maker that wants and designs any change – we as volunteers can help facilitate, but we cannot lead the change.

For example, in my first year in Lesotho I assumed a peer tutoring program between the Secondary and Primary Schools would be effective. After all, that was my experience working at VCU as a tutor. However, teachers did not want to do that extra work after a long day, and only helped out of the kindness of their hearts because I was the new foreigner in town. However, after a few weeks, the project dissolved. I lacked knowledge and insight about what the community really wanted and needed. By the end of the year, I gained enough community trust, spoke Sesotho better, and waited until I was approached by community members for projects they saw helpful. Our solar panel project has been running three years strong now, and by creating energy, provides teachers with access to printers and phones as teaching aids, a study room late at night for final year students preparing for their big exams, and the savings in petrol continues to feed a large number of orphans and vulnerable children.
I will miss my village and my students, and while keeping in touch has been challenging, the things I learned will remain with me for a long time to come. 
The importance of community integration and asking people what they want and need is just as important for the work I plan on doing. For example, researchers not too long ago sought ways to provide mobility to paraplegics with spinal cord injuries, a truly noble goal. However, if you ask those patients what three improvements in their lives they would need to be happy, many respond with, 1) Bladder control, 2) Sexual performance, 3) Walking. It makes sense, in our developed areas after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act became law, wheelchair mobility can be adequate enough to make walking not as imperative as we who are mobile might have thought. Medical Education in the states has also followed suit, where we are trained to work with patients to accomplish individual healthcare goals taking into consideration economics, culture, practicality, and sustainability. 

Because of my experiences in the Peace Corps, and my firsthand experiences in what makes sustainable, meaningful change, I sought to become a MD/PhD because I knew I needed the MD knowledge and experience to understand what patients want, and what is feasible in our healthcare system, in order to develop the technologies patients can benefit from.

I am happy to announce that this pursuit of meaning and purpose has shaped my next step in my career and life. Earlier this year, I was awarded a Fulbright to conduct a rehabilitative neuro-imaging study at the Oxford Institute of Nursing, Midwifery, and Allied Health Research. I will be living in England for roughly a year, and I will be writing about mostly random observations and comparisons about my life and work here, again in a new culture along with a few interesting stories. With Peace Corps a few years behind me, I am excited to again be conducting meaningful work and to be able to share some of these experiences with you all through this blog.
Being a lab rat for a colleague