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Dartmouth student named 2002 Marshall scholarship winner

Posted 12/14/01

Dartmouth College senior Esther Freeman grew up in a household of health professionals, where disease outbreaks were the stuff of dinnertime conversation. Now, with the assistance of a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, Freeman will pursue her home-grown interest in public health issues at a British university renowned for its program in that field.

The highly competitive Marshall Scholarships, valued at approximately $50,000 each, allow U.S. students to study at the British university of their choice. Freeman will use her scholarship to study for two years at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which boasts one of the world's top public health programs.

A native of Newton, Mass., and Boothbay, Maine, Freeman credits her father with inspiring her interest in health and wellness issues. An epidemiology professor at Harvard, he often would share case studies of disease outbreaks and other public health puzzles with his family over dinner, and, with her brother, Freeman would try to solve these mystery epidemics.

Her mother was also a doctor and public health professional, so sometimes even family trips became field seminars, Freeman remembers. When the family traveled to China, for example, a visit to a scenic lake also became the occasion for a discussion about water-borne parasites.

"It took me a long time to realize that no one else's father quizzed them on schistosomiasis (a human parasitic disease that is widespread in Africa, Asia and Latin America)," she said.

On the same trip, Esther and her father visited a Chinese medicine market, examining alternative treatment choices available there, including items such as antlers, dried sea horses and dried ants. The market was adjacent to a hospital that advertised both western and eastern medical treatments under the same roof. The experience impressed upon Freeman the importance of respecting local healing cultures and traditions.

"To develop successful medical interventions in other countries, we need to respect the health practices they already have, and work with those systems, not around or against them. If we're familiar with the cultural issues, we can tailor health interventions to that specific group, which should result in improved care," she said.

A romance languages major at Dartmouth--she speaks Spanish, Italian, French and English--Freeman spent last summer working with the Mexican National Institute of Public Health. While there, she assisted in a project that analyzed the health effects on pregnant women of pesticide use, even performing her own research which she is analyzing now through a Dartmouth independent study class. She also helped organize and carry out a project with local midwives to provide Pap smears to impoverished rural women. The experience had a profound effect on Freeman, reinforcing her special interest in women's reproductive health in developing countries.

"What I loved more than anything else was sitting down and talking to the women. I always came away stunned. The patients would pour out their stories to me, stories of teenage pregnancy, abuse, infant death, botched hysterectomies and cancer," she says. "That personal connection was what really convinced me that I wanted to spend my life working in international public health. By listening to them, I realized that improving health care depends on addressing societal factors like the economic and political situation," Freeman added.

Her lifelong involvement in sports also fired Freeman's interest in women's issues. An internationally competitive skier, she participated in her first National Championships at the age of 12, joining the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team at 15. As a six-year member of the national team, she skied in World Cup competitions throughout her Dartmouth career. She was also a member of the College's national champion women's sailing team.

"As a woman competing in primarily male-dominated sports, I always had an interest in the role of women in athletics and in society. I think that (interest) has affected my career choice. I want to stay involved with women's issues while making positive changes in healthcare," she said.

After her two years in London, Freeman will decide whether to pursue a medical degree or perhaps move directly into a public health career.

Financed by the British government, the Marshall Scholarships were established in 1953 as a gesture of thanks to the United States for assistance received after World War II under the Marshall Plan. This year, 40 Marshall scholarships were awarded out of approximately 800 applicants. In addition to intellectual distinction, the selectors look for individuals who are likely to become leaders in their field and make a contribution to society.

Over a thousand young Americans have received Marshall Scholarships since the program's inception. Prominent past Marshall Scholars include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Duke University President Nannerl Keohane, Pulitzer Prize winning author Tom Friedman of The New York Times, and noted inventor Ray Dolby.

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