The road to Rhodes


While pursuing research on illnesses in India and Ghana, newly anointed Rhodes Scholar Lipika Goyal recognized the connections between economics, politics and health care, especially for children.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

A third of the way through our interview, Lipika Goyal (C’01) got a feeling of déjà vu. “I feel like I’ve said the same quotes in every publication that’s come out,” she said in response to a question about her summer research in India and Ghana. She’s been answering similar questions in one interview after another since her Rhodes Scholarship award was announced.

One of 32 Rhodes Scholars for 2001 from across the United States, Goyal will spend her years in England studying development economics at Oxford as part of her long-term goal of delivering better health care to children in developing countries. She has already spent summers in Delhi, India, and in Ghana, conducting research on malaria and sickle cell anemia, among other illnesses.

This commitment to Third World health care issues may seem only natural for Goyal, a daughter of Indian émigré parents who is majoring in the biological basis of behavior and is interested in medicine as a career. But she said her parents had nothing to do with her developing this commitment. Instead, the seed was planted in talks she attended at Penn, which led her to make some valuable connections.

Q. Had you come to Penn with an interest in Third World health?
I didn’t come here with an interest. I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but what that meant I didn’t really know. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor in suburbia, I didn’t know if I wanted to be an academic [with] an M.D./Ph.D. and working someplace like Penn, I didn’t know if I wanted to work with the developing world. I think it’s just a series of classes and influences at Penn.

Q. Such as...?
I had a class on medical anthropology, which really examined medical pluralism and different cultural morals that exist in Asia and Africa, and that was inspiring.

Q. What is medical pluralism?
Medical pluralism is where you have different models coexisting in a culture. You can have the biomedical model, which is just people dispensing medications and pharmaceuticals, and then you have the cultural models where maybe you have herbal doctors and shamans who are dispensing herbal medicines, or you have spiritual models. It’s really important as Western researchers [that] you understand the different models, because you can’t presume that the biomedical model is the best one or the one that everyone accepts.

Q. How did you decide what sort of research you wanted to do?
I went to a few lectures at Penn that were just very inspiring. I went to a lecture on malaria and sickle cell disease by [Professor of Infectious Diseases] Harvey Rubin, and I went through two lectures on AIDS in Africa. And when I was young, I used to go to India every other year during the summer, and so this sort of combined my interest in medicine and helping underprivileged people.

Q. Who at Penn helped you get started on your research projects?
I had gone to the International Health Symposium and met the dean of international programs at the Medical School, Dr. Donald Silberberg, and he was very gracious and said, Oh, if you’re interested, just come and meet with me. I met with him, and I told him what my interests were, and he said, [Professor of Pediatrics Kwaku] Ohene-Frempong is doing research on sickle cell disease and malaria. So I went to go meet with him, and it was just the perfect project. And he had sent students [to Ghana] in the past, which makes all the difference in the world when you’re doing international health.
Then a year later I went to Dr. Silberberg again and I said, I’m interested in going to India, can you give me the names of some professors who are doing research in India? He recommended Dr. Vinod Bhutani, [clinical professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania Hospital,] and I was in India three months later.

Q. What were some of the most important things you learned in India and Ghana?
One thing I came away with was, it’s not healthy to look at children like sort of — they’re not Ghanaian children or Indian children or American children. They’re just children, and you have to demand equal access and equal quality of care for all children. It’s easier when you start thinking of children as poor children or underprivileged populations, because then you start accepting some sort of substandard care for them. You’d say, Oh, well, at least they have primary care, and you don’t worry so much about giving them perfect care for perfect health.

Q. What would that mean in practice? I mean, how would a system where all sorts of goods are distributed unequally be able to overcome that barrier with health care?
That’s the kind of question [the Rhodes committee] would ask. It’s a matter of the attitude of people in power and what kind of commitment they have to bringing equal health care to their citizens, and if you have people in power accepting an inferior level of health care for the citizens, then that’s where the problem comes in.
So it’s a matter of using the money efficiently, maybe not throwing it into technology, and getting everyone primary care. That is a little in conflict with what I just said, but it is an issue of using money efficiently and
really having sincere people at the top who are pro-health care.

Q. That sounds like a recipe for studying politics and economics as much as medicine. Do you plan to do any of that on your Rhodes Scholarship?
That’s exactly what I’m doing on my Rhodes year. I’m going to be doing a degree in development studies, and that entails studying the economics, politics, history and social anthropology of developing countries. So it’s actually quite removed from health care … but I really want to get a theoretical grounding in the issues that are involved in Third World health care as opposed to just the medical, public health aspects of it.

Q. Both Ghana and India were once British colonies. Did that influence your decision to go for a Rhodes?
No, no, no no. But one of the things you look forward to on the Rhodes is understanding and learning about British culture, because Britain is such an important part of the colonial history of many of these developing countries. And I think that in itself will be a learning experience, to understand where these people, where everyone’s coming from.

Q. What would you envision as your life’s career?
This is a common question I’ve gotten used to — “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I know it’s going to be in the developing world, and I know it’s partly going to be in America. Where I’m going to strike that balance, I’m not sure. But I know I want teaching to be a part of my career and I know I want initiating public-health efforts to be part of my career. Exactly how I’m going to marry all my passions I’m not quite sure yet, but I know the general direction is international public health with attention to developing countries.

Q. Maybe even run for office? A lot of Rhodes Scholars have done that.
Right. [laughs] Right. I don’t see myself running for office, not really. I want to be more in the field than on the policy end.

Q. Do you find any irony that you’re going to be in—
In the colonizer’s country?

Q. Not only that, but the recipient of a scholarship named for a great colonial—
Sure. Exploiter, sure, I see the irony in that. But I estimate that the scholarship makes up for his wrongs. And a lot of the people who’ve won it have had some great influence.

Originally published on January 18, 2001