Gilman Scholar Studying Botswana Culture

March 19, 2013

Eva Gao ’14
Eva Gao ’14

Harvey Mudd College student Eva Gao ’14 received a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad this spring in Botswana.

The $3,000 award will help defray the costs associated with Gao’s participation in the Pitzer Botswana Study Abroad Program, which offers a cross-cultural learning experience organized around language training, field projects and a core course on Botswana and regional development.

“To fully understand the impact of my work, I need to understand how people from different cultures interact with disease and medicine,” said Gao, a joint chemistry and biology major who hopes to pursue a medical career. “Medical research is not just about science. There are many social, political and economic considerations that come into play.”

While in Botswana, Gao will have the opportunity to stay with three different host families, each representing a different region and socioeconomic class—village, small town and city.

In January and February, she lived with a family in the rural village of Manyana. Next she will spend a month with a host family in Lobatse, Botswana’s first established town. She will spend the remainder of the semester in the capital city of Gaborone.

Gao with her host family in Manyana
Gao with her host family in Manyana

“I really enjoy this aspect of the program,” she said. “To really understand a culture, you need to understand what everyday life is like. My host family in Manyana taught me how to cook Setswana food, how to wash my clothes by hand and how to speak the Setswana language. I was also able to observe gender roles in Setswana society and the role of religion in different families.”
In addition to learning Setswana, Gao is taking a course about Botswana’s history and socio-cultural issues. For her independent study project, she plans to pursue research centered on the social aspects of HIV/AIDS.

Her inspiration sprang from taking the course, HIV/AIDS: Science, Society and Service, taught by chemistry and biology Professor Karl Haushalter. Gao hopes to connect what she learned in the classroom with the reality of the AIDS epidemic in Botswana. In particular, she aims to learn more about the country’s health care system, the impact of HIV/AIDS on its citizens and current research underway there.

In Lobatse, she will intern with Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, a collaborative research and training program between the Botswana government and the Harvard AIDS Initiative. The work will include a project focused on how to improve the health of infants who have HIV-positive mothers but are not HIV-positive themselves.

Gao will remain in the country during summer break to work at the Botswana Vaccine Development Institute, which is developing a cattle disease vaccine.

For the Botswana program’s Follow-On Service Project, she plans to do presentations at HMC about her experience to illustrate the interaction between science and society.

“Part of HMC’s mission is to help students understand the impact of their work on society, and that includes the global society,” said Rhonda Chiles, director of HMC’s Study Abroad program. “Eva’s experience shows just how valuable STEM skills are to the global community. Students who earn STEM degrees here can apply those skills and knowledge working anywhere—in or outside the United States.”

Gao hopes her project will encourage more students to study abroad so they can experience different cultures and customs.