Pioneer Scholar Spotlight: Cecilia

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Cecilia website photo

“I’m interested in using existing knowledge to impact the system through policies for higher level changes.”

Pioneer scholar Cecilia, from Chengdu, China, is passionate about healthcare. When she was first thinking about applying to the Pioneer Research Program, she thought biology should be a choice for her research area, since that’s what she intended to study in college. However, after a little reflection, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity to study something new and applied instead for sociology and anthropology. The result changed her thinking entirely.

Cecilia’s research concentration was in nonverbal communication, and she wanted to link this somehow with her interest in healthcare. After a lot of brainstorming with her professor and independent research, she devised her creative research topic: a comparison of the nonverbal communication between doctors and patients in Chinese hospitals offering Western medicine and those offering traditional Chinese medicine.

Cecilia had some personal experience as background for her research. She says she was sick a lot when she was a child, and didn’t have a strong immune system, and was taken to both kinds of hospitals for treatment. She became aware that she was treated and spoken to differently at the different kinds of hospitals. Also, as an older child, she would notice how doctors and patients were interacting when she walked by the many clinics in her neighborhood.

Cecilia’s Pioneer Research Program provided the opportunity to add an academic dimension to her personal experiences. Because her program was in 2016, pre-pandemic, she was able to visit hospitals, shadow doctors, and observe interactions. She found there were clear differences. Chinese medicine hospitals tended to be less crowded, and the doctors spent more time with their patients and were more likely to have ongoing relationships with them. On the whole, the patients were better satisfied with their treatment. “Patients generally feel like they are treated more as a human when they go into traditional Chinese medicine.”

Doing this work changed Cecilia’s mindset. Rather than focusing entirely on biology in college, Cecilia is now in her last year of a dual degree program in the University of Pennsylvania biology department and the Wharton School of Business, where she is studying computational biology and statistics in healthcare management.

Participating in a research program on hospital management in Nairobi, Kenya in her freshman year, and doing an internship with the National Institutes of Health in her sophomore year expanded Cecilia’s thinking even more. She now has two principal interests. One is maternal health. Cecilia has observed that treatment of pregnant mothers tends to focus on the health of the child rather than the mother, and wonders if there might be a better approach to maternal health. She is also interested in working on ways that would help different countries improve their healthcare systems’ response to pandemics.

In the long term, Cecilia plans to focus on healthcare policy and global health. Before that, a Schwartzman scholarship at Beijing’s Tsinghua University will bring her back to China next year.

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