Talking to a multifaceted Forty Acres Scholar
At the University of Texas at Austin, there are artists who stare at the horizon, researchers who never leave the lab, and self-starters who will probably be CEOs before they graduate. Bronwyn Scott, a junior from Houston who is triple-majoring in biochemistry, history, and Plan II honors, is all of these people rolled into one. As a Forty Acres Scholar, she is using her background in medical research and her artistic spirit to question everything.
I heard somewhere that you taught yourself French at a young age. Can you tell me about that?
My house always had books everywhere, and one day I was poking around in the attic and I found my mom’s old high school French textbook. It was a rainy day and I sat down at the kitchen table and started sounding out the words. At that moment I thought, you know what? I’m just going to sit here and teach myself French. It’s a beautiful language, but another reason it interests me is that it’s the main language of so many medical organizations. It’s one of those uniting languages.
In addition to your majors, you are also pursuing a certificate in strategic health communications. How will you use that?
Outside of research, I’m interested in the broader aspects of public health, like communication. How do we communicate with people effectively and help them make healthy decisions? A lot of this stems from my background in theater. You have to get on stage and actually communicate without pontificating to the audience. You have to make a connection. I’m interested in how that can translate to the medical field.
I’m also interested in figuring out a way to finance research for diseases that aren’t normally looked at. We have a lot of money for breast cancer and prostate cancer because there are lobbyists who fight for it, but there is not a lot of effort going into things like finding new antibacterials, because they aren’t profitable. That’s the kind of thing that interests me—how we distribute resources so that great research can happen. It’s also a little personal.
Why is that?
Well, I have unique eyes. (Laughs.) And not just because they’re blue.
They are really striking; do people tell you that a lot?
They do. I have extreme myopia, which is basically very high nearsightedness. Without my contacts, I can’t see my hand until it touches my nose. I’m still quite a bit away from legally blind, which is reassuring, but I can’t function without glasses or contacts. The contacts I use are very expensive because not a lot of people have my combination of astigmatism and extreme myopia. But there is some really interesting research happening nowadays, particularly with cataracts.
I imagine you had a lot of options for college. Why did you choose UT?
The majority of my decision was made because of the Forty Acres Scholarship. It was very attractive, especially knowing that I wanted to get into medicine. I was drawn to the opportunities the scholarship afforded me to delve into medical research, study abroad, and pursue philanthropic projects.
You seem to have an interesting left-brain/right-brain thing going on. Has that always been the case?
I suppose I’ve always felt like the bookworm who likes science, too. They say you make time for the things you do best.
So it’s a rainy day and you have no obligations. What are you going to make time for?
Reading. But my reading is pretty varied. I like to read biographies. Recently one of my friends turned me on to Atul Gawande, who is a great physician who writes about being a doctor and what that means, especially when things go wrong. I like to read about science, and I also like science fiction and classics.
Is there a big problem that you’d like to tackle one day?
The problem of cancer really appeals to me. There’s a lot of ways you can go about attacking it. Cancer treatment really hasn’t progressed a lot through the years. Other areas, like cardiology, have come a long way, but when it comes to cancer, we’re still kind of stuck at chemotherapy, which has been around since practically World War II—and that’s a little frightening. Is that because we haven’t been looking at it in the right way? Also, the way that hospitals function could be modified.
Anything specific you’d want to change?
The way the charts are set up. In France—you can tell I have a thing about France—they use the Carte Vitale, which is like a credit card that contains all of your medical information. With privacy laws in the U.S., that could cause a lot of issues. When you go to the doctor, you hand them your card, they plug it into a machine and out pops all of your information. In the waiting room you don’t write anything down, it cuts down on so much time and administrative costs. It does mean that your doctor will know if you got that nose job 10 years ago, but knowing that might actually be useful.
Who is one of your heroes?
I’ve always really liked Henry Kaplan. He was the guy who first figured out a way to attack Hodgkin lymphoma and pin down a systematic way of treating it. Before Kaplan, cancer was—and still is—a very general disease. For example, pancreatic cancer and a glioblastoma in your brain are both cancers, but they are completely different animals. The amazing thing that Kaplan did, which looking back is so simplistic, is he took the patients and categorized them from early onset, to stage 1, etc. That way of thinking—this is how the cancer looks now and this is our attack plan—was very innovative. By doing that, creating a simple, organizational chart, he was able to save people’s lives. And these days people have a fairly good chance of surviving Hodgkin lymphoma.
One last thing: I understand you are a competitive ballroom dancer?
Yes, it’s something that I always wanted to do—I’m an old movie buff. I was a band and theater kid in high school and had no previous dance experience before I got to UT. But last year I agreed to try Latin dance with an experienced dancer from Taiwan. Because of his experience, he wasn’t allowed to compete at any of the lower levels, only silver. So I tried really hard and I was able to compete in the silver level competition, which was pretty crazy.
So you’ll just try anything!
That’s kind of my mindset. Whenever you try a new thing, whether it’s research or dancing, there’s always a little bit of a hump you have to get over where you have no idea what you’re doing and you probably look like a fool. But once I get over that, I’ve always had really amazing experiences.
Scott is a recipient of the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation Forty Acres Scholarship, supported by Jeanne L. and Michael L. Klein.
Photo by Anna Donlan.
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