Academic Stories

Fourth-year to study HIV prevention as Marshall Scholar

Research work at UChicago, abroad inspires Sarah Nakasone’s graduate studies in the U.K.

Fourth-year in the College Sarah Nakasone is one of two UChicago students selected to receive a Marshall Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom next fall. Second-year law school student Christopher Crum was also selected.

Announced Dec. 3, the highly competitive national scholarships will enable 48 American students to study in the United Kingdom in any field of their choosing. Twenty-seven people affiliated with the University of Chicago have now won a Marshall Scholarship since 1986.

A global studies major, Nakasone plans to pursue a career in disease control and prevention, specifically looking at how to better engage women in HIV sexual health programs—work that was first inspired by her research at UChicago and abroad.

“I’m curious about how women draw on their social networks to spread sexual health information, and how we as researchers and medical providers can assist those networks, instead of fearing them,” Nakasone said. “Making sure women have the information they need, from people they trust and on whom they already rely, will allow for more effective health programs because it will give women the strength and resilience to advocate for themselves.”

Crum intends to use the Marshall Scholarship to examine how governments can use law to combat threats that the internet poses to individual privacy, the integrity of elections and quality of public discourse. He will pursue a master’s degree in the social science of the internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. He will take two years away from the Law School and then return to finish his final year.

Nakasone will pursue two degrees: a master of science in control of infectious disease from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, followed by a PhD in epidemiology and population health from University College London.

“We are tremendously proud of Sarah,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “Over the last century, University of Chicago faculty, students and alumni scholars have successfully confronted the most important problems of our times. We are delighted the Marshall Scholarship has recognized Sarah’s extraordinary talent and commitment.”

Research at UChicago inspires career path

Raised in a military family, Nakasone knows the value of community and the vital role it plays in providing support in times of need. It was this appreciation that first sparked her curiosity in how support networks can spread health information.

“In HIV work, like the military, the idea of community takes precedence over everything. Members here protect themselves from the trauma and stigma of health concerns and in doing so, become a family,” Nakasone said. “I have positioned my research to elevate community voices in policy discussions because the people for whom I fight operate under my childhood tenet: If you want to help the individual, you have to enrich their community.”

Nakasone first began her work on HIV as a graduate research assistant at NORC at the University of Chicago, where she worked with the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination to research the effectiveness of peer change agents in educating communities about HIV prevention.

“The idea that networks of friends could accomplish something with which the medical establishment was struggling, particularly resonated with me,” she said.

Thanks to a grant from UChicago’s study abroad office, she traveled to South Africa to work as a research assistant with the Africa Health Research Institute, designing tools to investigate rural health care workers’ perceptions of HIV prevention methods for young women. This past summer, Nakasone received a grant to work in the U.K. as project director for the Women2Women Project, where she worked alongside community activists to design a study that examined how minority women share sexual health information.

“The Marshall Scholarship allows me to return to the U.K. as they lead one of the most exciting moments in HIV prevention in decades,” said Nakasone. “I was lucky enough to build connections with activist groups this summer, especially at a moment when they are concerned about bringing women in the U.K. into the HIV movement, and now I will have the time and funding to learn more from them.”

Nakasone credits UChicago’s global studies program for helping teach her to look in a broader context. “It was one of those programs that taught us to look at problems in a different light and not see the global and local as completely separate spheres. It’s how I have been able to learn lessons from South Africa and London and bring them back to Chicago.”

After her time in the U.K., Nakasone hopes to return to the United States and work in the deep South—which bears the burden of new HIV cases—as a researcher for an HIV outreach organization. Ultimately, she intends to manage legislative affairs for a state department of public health.

“Receiving this scholarship is a validation of the work in which I so greatly believe. It is a confirmation of my view that communities can save themselves, with the tools we already possess. We can end HIV now, not just in some future world where we have a vaccine that absolves us of listening to the voices of those affected.”

Both Nakasone and Crum secured University nomination and received application support from the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which guides candidates through rigorous processes for nationally competitive fellowships. Additional support is provided by the UK/IRE Awards faculty nomination committee; its ongoing service is a critical part of student success at the national level.