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Junior honored with $25,000 Watson Fellowship

By Tina Ou     3/31/11 7:00pm

This week the Rice Thresher sat down with Hanszen junior Drake Lebrun, a recent recipient of the Watson Fellowship. As a Watson Fellow, Lebrun will receive money for a project in a foreign country.

The Rice Thresher: What is the Watson Fellowship?

Drake Lebrun: The Watson Fellowship is a $25,000 grant given to about 40 graduating seniors each year, providing them with the financial means to independently pursue a research project of their own design in countries of their choosing. These projects can involve all sorts of topics, from hip-hop to sword dancing to fly-fishing.

RT: What was the application process like?

DL: The application process involved writing a 1,500-word personal statement, a 1,500-word project proposal and an interview with the director of the program. The project proposal, which entails where you're going to be traveling, what you're going to be doing in each country and how you will survive alone for a year, requires a lot of time. I started planning in May and didn't finish until September.

RT: Why did you choose to apply for the Watson Fellowship?

DL: Throughout college, I've explored surgery in a variety of academic settings, but what I haven't done is actually go out into the world and see the realities faced by people who don't have access to surgical care. The Watson Fellowship was one of the few programs that would give me the liberty to pursue a project like that on my own terms. Another reason I applied was because when I found out that I was a Rice-Baylor Scholar, I decided to graduate in three years and then take a year off to do something totally crazy and memorable. The opportunity to travel the world through the Watson Fellowship fulfills that goal.

RT: What are your plans for the year as a Watson Fellow?

DL: I'll be working in clinics and NGOs in Uganda, Bangladesh, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago, and I'll be studying different surgical diseases in each country. In Uganda, I'm going to work on the surgical ward in the largest hospital in the country and then travel to a rural obstetric fistula clinic to investigate maternal conditions. In Bangladesh, I'm going to look at pediatric conditions like cleft palate, clubfoot and certain types of blindness. In Peru, I will first focus on injuries in the capital city of Lima and then branch out to rural regions of Peru to investigate the effects of socioeconomic disparities on the indigenous Peruvian people. In Trinidad and Tobago, I am going to study the broad connections between race and surgical disease in microcosm.

RT: What do you hope to gain from this experience?

DL: I hope to gain an understanding of the "human" symptoms of surgical disease in the developing world. Surgical disease not only causes morbidity and mortality, but it can also lead to extreme psychological trauma, place undue burdens on families and in general, drain communities of livelihood and economic productivity. Using what I learn, I want to be able to identify and implement sustainable and culturally appropriate public health interventions that holistically target surgical disease in the developing world.

RT: What do you hope the the medical community will be like in 20 years?

DL: I would like to see more of an emphasis on preventive health measures that broadly improve community health. I would also like to see more of a focus on surgical disease in the public health community. I think the global burden of surgical disease, particularly in resource-poor nations, has been overlooked for too long.

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