Advocate for global health

During a semester abroad, Alison Mehlhorn ’11 got a glimpse of maternal health care in rural South Africa. She was troubled and inspired.

Now, the 2011 Wheaton graduate has won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship that will allow her to follow her dreams of improving health care for women and children, particularly in the developing world.

Mehlhorn, who graduated summa cum laude with a major in biology, will be enrolled next fall at the University of London, working toward a master’s degree in reproductive and sexual health research at its School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Camden, Maine.

“Due to gender discrimination women and girls are generally the most marginalized members of any society and therefore are often the poorest both in terms of economics and health,” Mehlhorn said, explaining her interest in the field of study.

“I am interested in understanding the global health issues facing women today, the policies that have been developed to address these problems, and the implementation success of such programs aimed at improving women’s health.”

The native of Nobleboro, Maine, says she arrived on the Wheaton campus aspiring toward a career in medicine, but not convinced that it was within her reach.

“It wasn’t until Wheaton and my experiences during college that I realized it was something I was truly passionate about and something I could realistically achieve,” says Mehlhorn, who is currently working as a research assistant in a neurology lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Mehlhorn developed as a scholar through deep immersion in her subject. She served as a research assistant to Professor S. Shawn McCafferty, conducted genetics research as an intern at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and completed an honors thesis involving genetic analysis of grey harbor seals. She also held positions at Wheaton as a teaching assistant and a tutor in biology.

The Wheaton Trustee Scholar says that her experiences while studying abroad in South Africa helped to crystalize her growing fascination with public health issues for women and children.

“Through the program I performed a study project which allowed me to work in the maternity ward of a rural hospital and get a glimpse of maternal health in this still racially divided country,” she said. “This glimpse contrasted drastically with the view of health I had when interning at a local women’s clinic in my hometown during the previous summer.”

Study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will fit her interests particularly well, says Mehlhorn. “This program focuses study on the developing world and it is a great introduction to policy-relevant research.”

The purpose of the Ambassadorial Scholarships program is to further international understanding and friendly relations among people of different countries. While abroad, scholars serve as ambassadors of goodwill to the people of the host country and give presentations about their homelands to Rotary clubs and other groups.-