The first-year student isn’t waiting to complete her schooling to tackle pressing issues in developing countries.
For Hemali Batra, education is a two-step process. First, there’s information gathering. Then, there’s action taking.
“I like to roll up my sleeves and get involved in the issue,” says Batra, a first-year student from Clive, a suburb of Des Moines. “Information alone does not interest me. I want to take action to gain knowledge.”
That’s why in high school she got involved with activities like debate and Model United Nations, and why she jumped at the opportunity to complete an internship program that allows high school students to work alongside world-renowned researchers tackling problems like food security and malnutrition.
During the summer of 2007—before her senior year of high school—Batra spent eight weeks working at the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center, also known as the World Vegetable Center, in Taiwan. She was awarded the internship through the World Food Prize Foundation, a Des Moines-based organization that honors individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world.
During her internship, Batra conducted a risk assessment study on the impact of Bt toxin ingestion by the diamondback moth, a target pest of cabbage. The study was part of a project that aims to eradicate hunger and poverty by providing farmers in developing countries access to affordable seeds of insect-resistant plants.
“Everyone was shocked when they saw me, because I was the youngest person ever working there,” says Batra. She doesn’t blame them; she was a bit shocked, too. “Being involved with that type of research, being able to see the impact of that type of research, at the age of 16—you just don’t think it’s possible to be a part of something like that.”
Batra’s duties included growing plants, extracting and analyzing DNA, and collecting specimens from rural areas of Taiwan. The full study won’t be completed until 2012, but the results of her research project won the Grand Award in Plant Sciences (worth $8,000) at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May 2008.
She also gained a new perspective on research.
“During that experience, I saw that science has the ability to transcend the walls of the laboratory and really impact people’s lives,” she says. “It truly was life changing, and it allowed me to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Her goal? To work as a physician in developing countries, and get involved in forming integrated health care and development policy on an international level.
“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor—both of my parents are doctors. But if it weren’t for the internship, I wouldn’t be on the path that I’m on now. It’s instilled in me a sense of responsibility. I’ve been given the opportunity to learn, and now I should channel my passions to contribute to this world,” Batra says.
Although she now calls Iowa home, Batra’s family immigrated to the United States from India when she was 3 years old and moved around the mid-Atlantic region before settling in the Des Moines area about five years ago. Batra stays connected to her heritage through classical Indian dance and biennial trips to India to visit family, and enjoys soccer and composing music with her younger sister. But it’s human rights issues and activism that really get her fired up.
She plans to pursue a medical degree and either a Master of Public Health or Master of Public Administration degree. She’s not waiting until she completes all that schooling to take action, though. Batra is already in the process of forming a student group that will address the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to improve education, health care, and economic development in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa that’s among the world’s least developed and most densely populated. She chose to focus on Malawi because it has a relatively stable political environment and its official language is English.
Batra hopes that the group, Iowa Students for Socioeconomic Development, will become an official student group at The University of Iowa, but if it doesn’t, she plans to make it an independent nonprofit organization instead. Batra wants the group to go beyond fundraising, and send students abroad to conduct field research and establish programs.
“Even though we’re students, we can still make a difference,” she says. “For example, I can’t write prescriptions yet, but I can promote preventative measures, like distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets to help prevent malaria.”
She plans to spend part of her summer break in Malawi meeting with community leaders to discuss their needs and the types of programs they’d like to see the group implement. Then she’ll return with other UI students during winter and summer breaks to start setting up programs and initiatives..
“This is the work that I want to do for the rest of my life,” Batra says. “I’m just too impatient to wait until I’ve finished my degrees. I want to start now.”
Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Tom Jorgensen.
May 18, 2009