Helen Jack, Yale ’12, Oxford ’14

Senzeni Mpofu
By Senzeni Mpofu March 18, 2012 03:04

Helen Jack, a MCDB and International Studies double major, is one of this year’s recipients of the Rhodes scholarship. Courtesy of Michael Marsland

How does one double major in fields as unrelated as Biology and International Studies, create maps of mental health workforce distribution for Ghana’s vice president, serve as the captain of the Yale Road Running Team, and campaign to increase U.S. support for global health initiatives, while still taking on life at Yale?

According to Helen Jack, a recipient of the 2012 Rhodes scholarship, success comes through taking work seriously and disregarding all limitations. As she reminisces about washing glassware in her father’s plant biology lab at Dartmouth College, helping her mother volunteer in soup kitchens, and working to aid New Haven drug addicts, the sparkle in her eyes and satisfaction in her voice is unmistakable. It is evident that she not only takes her work seriously, but also enjoys it immensely.

Jack knew before coming to Yale that she was interested in science and wanted to be a doctor, especially after having watched her mother battle anxiety and depression before eventually succumbing to breast cancer. During this period, she observed how great an effect doctors had on her mother’s health. She also noticed how much even the smallest things that she helped with eased her mother’s condition. This experience of encountering medicine at such a close angle, coupled with an inherent urge to effect change around her fueled her interest in medicine.

As a freshman, Jack was torn between majoring in International Studies or Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), fearing that she would hate college science and would have to plough her way through premedical requirements to become a doctor. To her surprise, not only did she enjoy her science classes but she also excelled in them, enjoying the intellectual juggle of science problem sets and international studies papers. “With science, you always have a correct answer,” she explains, “but with international studies, there might be many answers, and in some cases, no answer at all.”

By double majoring in MCDB and International Studies, Jack hopes be sufficiently academically empowered to tackle leading topics in global health such as mental illness and substance addiction, both at the molecular level and at the public policy level.

With the Rhodes scholarship, Jack intends to pursue a two-year second B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics before attending medical school. The second B.A. is one of Oxford’s strongest programs and was originally designed to train politicians. She has already begun to receive medical school acceptances but will be deferring her admission for two years in order to complete this program.

Jack gives a talk to an Amnesty International group doing human rights work. Courtesy of Helen Jack.

Among many other things, Jack is grateful to Yale for the numerous summer opportunities it made available. She explains that her career interests have evolved each summer that she has spent as a Yale student, both in the US and abroad. One of her most influential summers was spent in neonatal clinics in Kumasi, Ghana, working on patient data collection, training nurses to use computers to manage patient records, and designing an initiative to promote hand-washing. This experience motivated her to continue to work in low-income countries. Drawn to Ghana’s people and culture and already familiar with its health system, she chose to return to Ghana the next summer to do research on the nation’s mental health workforce for her International Studies senior essay.

After graduation, Jack intends to return to Ghana once again to continue her research and policy advocacy on mental health prior to completing her degree at Oxford. She then plans to proceed to medical school, hoping to balance both policy work and medical practice after she graduates.

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a phrase commonly used to criticize those with widely varied interests — but Jack has managed to fulfill the former part of this phrase and shun the latter, mastering the art of juggling her diversified interests through careful thought, purposeful rhythm, and altruistic aims.

Jack says her work in Kumasi, Ghana on infant health and malaria patients has been one of her greatest influences. Courtesy of Helen Jack.

Senzeni Mpofu
By Senzeni Mpofu March 18, 2012 03:04