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From Cell Proteins to Smoking Cessation

Some Woodrow Wilson Fellows pursue a single topic over several years. Others, like Karthik Rao, spread their research wealth around.

Rao, a public health studies major, started his work at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering during his freshman and sophomore years. In the lab of Valina Dawson, Rao spent roughly a year and a half investigating poly ADP ribose polymerase’s (PARP’s) role in the regulation of cell death in neuronal pathways—work that may lead to the development of novel therapeutic techniques in the neurodegenerative field of medicine.

Rao would have continued with cell work, but then the field of public health drew him in. In summer 2009, to prepare for an upcoming semester abroad in a rural area of South Africa, he used his funding to explore different types and uses of traditional medicines at the Samueli Institute in Alexandria, Virginia.

His independent study project in South Africa centered on analyzing the social dynamics that play a role in the high level of violence in rural areas. Rao spent a month living in the rural village of Eshowe while volunteering and working with doctors at the provincial hospital.

Rao says that the level of poverty he witnessed took him by surprise. On his first day of rounds, he went to the home of a frail woman who suffered from HIV, TB, and high blood pressure. The woman, who lived alone, had medications that were mislabeled; her floor was infested with insects, her windows stood broken in their frames, and her roof was thatched hay with gaping holes. In her kitchen was a wood-burning stove, with crackers the only food in sight.

Emotionally challenging experiences like this one inspired Rao to continue working on international health issues. With the assistance of faculty at the University of Stellenbosch School of Medicine in South Africa, Rao crafted a pilot study, conducted last summer, to determine the extent of tobacco dependence in a sample of adult smokers who are representative of the lower socioeconomic class of South Africans. His study also evaluated smoking cessation interventions.

He concluded that tobacco cessation clinics were vital to the health of South Africans and that implementing them as an intervention in public hospitals has the potential to create lasting benefits for patients.

“What’s been especially rewarding for me is that I have been able to see this project through all phases of its development,” he says. “The success of this project has motivated me to continue with this and work to start our first tobacco cessation program at Tygerberg Hospital, located just outside of Cape Town.”

Explore Further:

The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program awards grants of up to $10,000 to incoming freshmen and up to $7,500 to rising sophomores for original, independent research projects in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Students use the grant throughout their undergraduate careers to pay for equipment, travel, or other research expenses. Here’s what some of the fellows have been doing.