To Isabelle Loop ’21, strangers are only friends she hasn’t met yet. And “strange” places are only places where she will meet them. It’s how the biochemistry major from rural Spencer, New York came to enroll at Stony Brook University, a campus that is ten times the size of her hometown, and more diverse.
The summer before high school, Loop pored over a book about the bubonic plague, AIDS and smallpox. The book inspired her to learn about infectious diseases from the common cold to cholera, and also factored in her decision to pursue biochemistry.
“I knew Stony Brook had a good reputation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and I was interested in understanding the biological basis of disease,” she recalled.
That set the stage for Loop to travel to Ileret, Kenya, at the Turkana Basin Institute Study Abroad program in Spring 2020.
“Our field school consisted of students from around the world, including the United Kingdom, Finland, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Africa and Kenya,” said Loop. “My hometown is rural, but Ileret is remote. I began to appreciate a way of life vastly different from my upbringing, and this experience fueled my desire to support health in developing communities while being conscious of their cultural heritage.
Beatrice, the Iteret clinic’s only nurse, explained to Loop how she provided general medicine and maternity care for the Indigenous Daasanach community. “She told us that the latest malaria outbreak infected 5,000 people in the area,” Loop said. “She pointed to a small stack of medicine bottles and I felt a sinking feeling. She did not have the resources to treat a fraction of those 5,000 people.”
Loop’s only regret about her Turkana Basin study abroad experience was that she didn’t take the time to learn how to speak Swahili before arriving there. “Learning Swahili would have helped me connect with members of the broader Ileret community,” she said.
Ultimately, said Loop, “the biggest takeaway from studying abroad in the Turkana Basin was that I realized I want to focus on the health of communities in developing areas globally rather than public health within the United States. This influenced my decision to select a graduate school outside of the United States.“
Loop enrolled in a Master of Science program in Global Health at National Taiwan University (NTU) for the fall, and began studying Mandarin this summer in preparation. “I completed a beginner’s course through the Confucius Institute at SBU,” she said. “At NTU, I will continue with courses until I reach proficiency because I recognize the value of a shared language when connecting with a new community.”
After leaving Turkana, Loop became fascinated by a mosquito-borne disease in Asia caused by Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV). When Loop attends NTU in the fall, she will be mentored by professor Dr. Yi-Chin Fan on a project that seeks to understand why one strain of JEV has replaced another strain circulating in Taiwan.
“This project will help me get an intimate understanding of the pathogen, while coursework comprising the global health program will set me up with the skills to model the impact of JEV and other diseases in communities within the field of epidemiology,” she said, adding that she is eager to advance her mathematical understanding of epidemiology and partake in coursework that applies these models to health care research. “NTU excels in extending learning beyond the classroom. For example, one course examines indigenous community health followed by a visit to a Taiwanese Indigenous village and hospital.”
Whether it be Ileret or Taipei City or an unknown destination, Loop’s desire is to connect with people around her.
“Serving communities affected by disease is critical to bringing about change,” said Loop. “Global health workers should be adaptable to their surroundings and be conscious of diverse socio-economic backgrounds. I embrace the challenge of facing new environments and experiencing different cultures in order to be a positive presence in global health.”
— Glenn Jochum