Rising with Janice Bonsu: The Making of an Interdisciplinarian
By Janice Bonsu
A child of Ghanaian immigrants, I started at Hopkins as an English major intent on completing my mastery of the language. Then I heard a lecture by the famous “Dr. Q.” And I began a journey that has changed my life.
Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s path to working in the operating room at the world-famous Johns Hopkins Hospital started in an unlikely place: a cotton field. He came to the United States from his native Mexico at the age of 19, penniless and unable to speak English. Hearing his story of perseverance against all odds and his dedication to helping others inspired me. So moved was I by Dr. Q, I decided to major in neuroscience and set out on a new path. I joined his team in the brain tumor and stem cell lab, where I would eventually receive my first co-authorship.
That was only the beginning. While pursuing the interdisciplinary neuroscience major, I had numerous opportunities to explore additional ideas that at first seemed unrelated, but eventually came together.
Under the mentorship of Lisa DeLeonardis, the Austen-Stokes Professor in the History of Art Department, I studied art of the Ancient Americas and began to piece traces of the past with realities of the present. Learning how Native Americans interacted with medicine sparked an interest in studying the disease of addiction (both a neurologic and public health issue) and how it contributes to some of the challenges facing cities today.
This drew me to the university’s interdisciplinary 21st Century Cities Initiative. The initiative unites great thinkers from across Hopkins schools with partners in the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and local and state governments. Together, they are developing research-based solutions to endemic problems in our cities — poverty, failing education, infrastructure, climate change, the future of the arts. I serve on the steering committee for the initiative now, and my hope is to continue to work with the initiative in some way as I become an alumna and continue my career.
Studying Native American medicine also reminded me of traditional Ghanaian practices. With Professor DeLeonardis’ support, I received a grant from the William F. Clinger Family and the chance to study cultural practices and medical treatment in my parents’ home country, Ghana. I arrived in West Africa on the heels of the Ebola outbreak.
Though my project did not address Ebola, its threat encouraged Ghanaians to discuss their theories of disease. I spoke with mothers and fathers who told me how spirits, bad luck, or curses cause disease. I visited an 11-year-old boy in the hospital, yellowed, shivering, and suffering from malaria in 80-degree weather. And I saw a surge in cholera cases due to a 17-day shortage of running water. While in Ghana, I realized what a profound interest I had not just in medicine, but also in public health. And that interest is leading me in my next steps.
My Hopkins experience has taught me to understand problems from a variety of fronts. I’ll bring this perspective as an “interdisciplinarian” with me as I begin my Masters of Public Health studies at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. I don’t know where my journey will finally take me, but I find that prospect exciting. What I learned at Hopkins was not what to think, but how to think. I now look forward to joining a community of alumni nearly 200K strong, committed to finding solutions to these and other problems facing our world today.
June 26, 2017
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