Meet Lia: She just won the world’s most elite scholarship

November 27, 2018

The first time Lia won a prestigious award, she thought it was a prank.

“I didn’t think the Truman was for people like me,” she said. “When the Chancellor called me to let me know I’d won, he had to spend a few extra minutes convincing me it was not a joke.”

The application process for the Truman prepared Lia for her next step: winning a Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most celebrated international award.

“Putting together all I had done in writing, that moved me to continue the work, and showed me there was a purpose to all the madness.”

Earning these honors was a journey. She’s accomplished so much: she moved here from Ethiopia and immersed herself in a whole new culture when she was young; volunteered; earned double majors in economics and neuroscience to set the groundwork to become a physician; conducted research around the world and for prestigious institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins and MIT; and even took on several leadership roles on top of her work.

For the Rhodes, she had to boil all that down to a 2-page essay, then wow the judges in an intensive 2-day interview process.

To give herself confidence, she’d recite a poem that made her think about how human perception can shape the world.   

“In the interview, I didn’t have much control. But you have to be so comfortable in your own head. So I thought about that poem, and the philosophical position that the world is the mind’s creation.”

It didn’t completely keep her from being nervous, but it helped.

As a Rhodes Scholar, Lia will earn an additional degree from Oxford. She’ll study computer science and philosophy, because she wants to influence healthcare with data, “the tool of the times.” But she also wants to approach the human side of that data ethically and thoughtfully.

“You can do something that is of service to the world, but you should also think deeply about it and reflect on it. Building systems without a cultural perspective is creating the most salient issues of our time.”

On one hand, Lia sees the power in data: it can help her diagnose future patients, and give her work as a researcher more credibility.

But she also worries that in the wrong hands, or without the right context, that same information can be misused.

“Data can be a double-edged sword. How much should digital representations come to represent our physical lives? How do we create a market for data that has respect for human rights, like privacy and agency?”

Lia will get to explore these complex challenges at Oxford.

We can’t wait to see what she does with whatever she discovers!


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