Johns Hopkins Gazette | December 8, 2008
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 8, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 14
Two Named Marshall Scholars

Rishi Mediratta in Ethiopia, where he is working to improve the health care of children.
Photo courtesy of Rishi Mediratta

JHU students are among 40 selected nationwide for honor

By Amy Lunday

Kurt Herzer and Rishi Mediratta are both heading to the United Kingdom next year to further their separate research interests in improving global public health.

Herzer and Mediratta were selected by the British government Dec. 1 as Marshall Scholars, two of only 40 scholars named nationwide. Funded by the British government, the scholarships provide American students the opportunity to study at any British university for two to three years, covering university fees and living expenses as well as travel fare to and from the United States.

"I am thrilled by this news," said John Bader, associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the Krieger School and national scholarships adviser, who coached both students through the application process. "These very special young men have already brought great honor to our university. They are inspirational public servants, leaders and scholars. Winning the Marshall, a crown jewel of higher education, only makes it more obvious that they are poised for greatness. I will watch that unfold with pride and pleasure."

Herzer is on track to receive his bachelor's degree in public health studies in the spring. Mediratta earned his bachelor's degree in public health studies and anthropology in May and is currently living in Ethiopia, supported by the Florence "Meg" Long Walsh Second Decade Society Leadership Award he received as a graduating senior. The award affords the recipient one year of postgraduate study abroad to further test and develop his or her knowledge and leadership skills in a broader international context.

Herzer, 21, plans to enroll in Oxford University's Evidence-Based Social Intervention master's degree program within the Department of Social Policy and Social Work. He is interested in advancing public health interventions related to health care quality and safety that are firmly grounded in scientific evidence. Herzer eventually hopes to pursue a medical degree in addition to his research degree.

"The academic independence that the university offers is an excellent match with my preferred approach to learning and scientific inquiry," Herzer wrote in his Marshall application essay. "I am eager to form the lifelong mentorships and friendships for which Oxford is famous. And, as I always make time for hobbies, I would consider it an honor to join the university's highly regarded cycling team or audition for its orchestra."

Herzer's work is informed by his own experiences with a visual disability discovered during his childhood. Legally blind as a result of a genetic condition affecting his retina, Herzer says that one of his earliest memories is of an ophthalmologist telling him and his parents how the disability would limit what he could accomplish in life. Undeterred, Herzer found creative ways around obstacles that would have kept him from his schoolwork or childhood hobbies. Today, he is an advocate for better academic accommodations for students with disabilities, volunteering to teach computer skills to younger legally blind children. Most recently, he collaborated with the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland on legislation making it possible for visually impaired students to receive large-print textbooks at the same time as their sighted peers, rather than weeks after classes begin. He testified for the Maryland General Assembly, which later passed the bill. For Herzer, solving problems requires both an understanding of the social reality of those affected and the skills to find solutions at a higher level.

Kurt Herzer and his mentor, Peter Pronovost, with a patient at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Photo by Keith Weller

Herzer says he will use this scholarship opportunity "to bring real-world problem solving to health care," relying on both his own personal experiences as well as his technical, clinical and political skills.

Through a Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowship and with support from a Merck Global Health Scholarship and the Bander Family International Fund, Herzer has studied health care quality and patient safety both nationally and internationally, traveling abroad to work with patient safety leaders in the United Kingdom and at the World Health Organization. In the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Herzer works on a number of perioperative safety initiatives centered in the Weinberg Operating Rooms. He has presented much of this work at national and international conferences and recently delivered a talk on health care quality in Mexico at an inaugural medical congress.

Herzer's mentor, Peter Pronovost, a patient safety expert and a professor of anesthesiology, critical care medicine and surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, describes him as "a true star."

"Kurt is something magical," Pronovost wrote in his letter of support. "He is a visionary thinker who sees making a huge social impact in the world as his primary mission. But he is also a systems thinker, who sees the end game and the bumps and hurdles along the way as something to be managed. It is not just big ideas and dreams — Kurt executes and delivers."

Mediratta, 22, will study medical anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Public Health in Developing Countries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is interested in how families recognize and label childhood illnesses and how the public health community can mobilize families to seek health services.

"Studying medical anthropology and public health will be a critical step for me to address the root causes of social inequalities in health care," Mediratta wrote in his Marshall application essay. "Understanding the socio-cultural dynamics in communities will equip me to champion more effective child health programs."

The scholarship will allow Mediratta to continue to pursue health programs for developing countries battling pediatric infectious disease.

Since 2006, his focus has been on Ethiopia, where diarrheal diseases are a leading cause of death in children. He is the founder and president of the Ethiopian Orphan Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of orphans in Gondar, Ethiopia, where he is currently working. Mediratta first became interested in working in Ethiopia after a chance meeting with Richard Hodes, who trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, in the Detroit airport. They exchanged e-mail addresses, discussed their mutual interest in Third World medicine, and Mediratta eventually used funding from three university programs — a Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award and a Framework Program in Global Health award — to travel to Ethiopia and work in Hodes' clinic during several visits, beginning in January 2006.

Mediratta studied how widespread misconceptions in child care caused mothers to unwittingly harm their children suffering from diarrhea. He interviewed 440 mothers about the risk factors and management of diarrheal disease and discovered that the majority of mothers gave their children less food and fluids when they were ill — the opposite of the standard treatment for diarrhea. He then devised a pictograph and coached a youth drama group in a program he designed to reframe mothers' cultural beliefs about how to treat the disease. It's an experience he hopes to bring to other impoverished regions as a physician and public health practitioner.

Writing in support of Mediratta's Marshall application, James Goodyear, associate director of the undergraduate Public Health Studies Program at Johns Hopkins, said, "Mr. Mediratta's focus on Ethiopia and his long-term commitment reflect a seriousness of purpose reminiscent of a young Paul Farmer, who started his early career as a medical anthropologist in Haiti. Like Dr. Farmer, Mr. Mediratta is in this for the long haul. He has been developing a skill set that not only involves patient contact but community organizing, fund raising, research and publishing. It is a powerful record of professional achievement and academic performance that he will bring with him as a Marshall Scholar next year."

According to Bader, this year's pair of scholars brings the university's total Marshall winners to six in the past eight years.


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