With plans for a career as a physician, Rachel Johnson will no doubt make a positive impact on many lives. And as far as the denizens in an emerging Nicaraguan village are concerned, she’s off to an excellent start.
The third-year Honors student, who will graduate from the University of Georgia in May 2013 with a degree in microbiology, has spent the last several summers working in Nicaragua, serving in a variety of roles ranging from “construction manager one day to tour guide the next" under the auspices of an international nonprofit.
“I’m a pre-med student, and that’s where I got the idea and my passion for medicine, through working in Nicaragua," says Rachel, who is also a Spanish minor. "My goal is to be involved in a Doctors Without Borders situation, working in rural parts of the world with very little access to health care.”
Working this summer with the organization’s water and sanitation team, Rachel was among those who played an integral role in providing some 275 families in the village of El Chonco with clean running water.
“We’ve been working since last year on building a water system for El Chonco,” says Rachel. “It’s a 30-year-old community that has never had running water. The average family there spends 40 percent of their income and 30 percent of their day just getting water.
“So for the last several years, we’ve been working in this community, digging trenches and laying pipeline. It’s been a huge project because it’s a really large community. I’m sorry I won’t be there when they turn the water on because I’ve worked on it for the better part of two or three months digging. The kids there have never seen running water before.”
A CURO Apprentice for the last two years in the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, Rachel has been involved in infectious disease research with Dr. David Peterson and this fall will begin work as a CURO teaching assistant. Rachel also took a short break from her labors in El Chonco this summer to present at a CURO-sponsored symposium in Costa Rica.
“There are so many wonderful opportunities in the Honors Program, and CURO has been a huge part of my experience so far,” she says. “From my very first semester at UGA, I’ve been doing research, and that’s a unique thing for a first year. The Honors Program connects you with faculty and mentors you through the whole process. It’s been one of the highlights of my UGA experience. I love my lab and everyone I’ve been able to work with.”
Rachel says that being associated with Honors has helped make a large university seem like a more intimate gathering.
“With UGA being such a big school, some of my high school peers were concerned with being around a million people,” she says. “But with the Honors Program, there’s a chance to be part of a smaller community, with Moore College and Myers Hall.”
In her third year at UGA, Rachel plans to focus on preparing for the Medical College Admission Test, and when she’s not working on her studies she’ll be on the recruiting trail for Sigma Alpha Omega, a Christian sorority found on 19 college campuses across the country, and volunteering at Mercy Health Center, which provides medical and spiritual care to low-income residents in Athens.
“Volunteering at Mercy Health Center is something I love to do,” she says. “They provide medicine to uninsured residents in Athens and probably have between 300-400 volunteers rotating in and out of there. It’s been very rewarding to work there to experience the health care field and help out in Athens at the same time.”
And it should come as no surprise that she plans a return visit to Nicaragua next summer. “Oh, I’ll be going back to Nicaragua,” she says. “I don’t think I can make it through a year without going there.”
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