A Global Take on Medicine

Cindy Ko (BS ’07) always knew she wanted to study medicine. So when she applied for and received the Watson Fellowship during her senior year at Caltech, she designed it to expand her love for medicine globally by applying to study the relationship between indigenous medicine and Western medicine in a number of countries, including Peru, Chile, South Africa, Ghana, Benin, India, and China.

“I tried to pick locations where there was a site or particular kind of medicine that showed the day-to-day interplay between indigenous medicine traditions and Western medicine,” Ko says. “There are countries where the relationship is harmonious, like in India or China, and there are countries where the relationship is antithetic. Patients with a range of mild to serious illnesses have to do their own navigation between the two worlds, and it’s always changing.”

She had already taken a nontraditional undergraduate path to a career in medicine by majoring in mechanical engineering instead of biology. “I liked the idea of building and creating new solutions,” she says. And this experience prepared her to boldly and creatively tackle problems she encountered throughout her Watson year.

“Being a Mech-E student taught me to appreciate many ways to solve the same problem,” Ko says. “The human spirit is inventive, resourceful, and playful.” Her resourcefulness came in handy many times during her travels, such as when a computer charging cord snapped on a remote island in Chile. A replacement part was out of the question, so Ko fashioned her own repair using whatever was lying around, including the cap from her pen.

After the Watson, the transition seemed almost seamless to medical school in New York City. “New York is the best place to come back to, post-Watson,” says Ko. “I could get all my favorite West African foods just one train ride away, hear seven different languages being spoken while working at a hospital in Queens, and interact with a diverse patient population while learning medicine.”

Though indigenous medicine can sometimes be radically different from Western, the experience didn’t necessarily revolutionize Ko’s perspective on medicine. “I didn’t really have a fixed view of medicine or engineering before I left that was drastically changed by my year abroad. It felt more like I was adding to a big tapestry of things I learned and wanted to learn. Every experience has been transformative—from Caltech, to the Watson, to medical school itself.”

Ko is currently a resident in radiation oncology at the University of Wisconsin. “From my Watson experience, I’ve learned that the patient drives their own care no matter who they are seeing as their doctor,” she says. “I’ve had cancer patients who want to participate in both Western and non-Western treatments. It’s our job as physicians to keep our eyes, ears, and minds sensitive to our patients and help them find their best path.”

Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Ko