Commencement 2014: URI senior to graduate from URI with eyes open to medical, global possibilities

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KINGSTON, R.I. – April 15, 2014 – Austin Demers enrolled at the University of Rhode Island planning to become a doctor. But then she traveled to India, started learning to speak Arabic, captained the URI equestrian team, and had her eyes opened to different cultures, communication styles and new ways of thinking.

As the Charlestown resident prepares to graduate from URI in May, she says her wonderfully varied experiences at URI opened up so many career options that she hasn’t yet picked one. And she hasn’t yet ruled out medicine.

“It all started with a class on emerging infectious disease, which opened my mind to different things I could do with medicine, like global health, and the role culture and economics play in health care. It was fascinating,” Demers said.

She decided to further explore what she had learned by traveling to India through Child Family Health International, with funding from a Metcalf Scholarship from the Rhode Island Foundation. In January she spent four weeks in Mumbai, observing surgeries, visiting slum clinics, and talking to doctors who treat patients with AIDS and leprosy.

“Learning about leprosy was the most interesting part,” said Demers. “There is such a cultural stigma attached to it. The people are marginalized. They get the disease because of their circumstances, and it grows so slowly that by the time they realize they have it years down the road it may be too late to reverse the damage it caused.”

That experience was the first to get her thinking about the role of culture in medicine, and it was the first time she began to question her previous plans to become a doctor.

“I learned so much from a social and cultural standpoint,” she said. “And I learned what it’s like to be a foreigner and the difficulties of being from somewhere else. It was truly eye opening and exciting.”

A URI resident assistant and a member of the URI equestrian team for three years, Demers has enjoyed the time she spends every week shadowing pediatrician Lynne Fasenello in Taunton, asking her questions and observing her interactions with patients. But as she does so, Demers finds herself more interested in how the doctor communicates with her patients rather than in the diagnosis or treatment she prescribes.

“Science and medicine are all about questions and answers; it’s a way of thinking,” she said. “I’m growing more and more interested in science literacy and science communication. People see science as a cold thing, but there’s so much more to it than that.”

Her interest in communication grew when she decided to take classes in the Arabic language.

“My friend showed me her Arabic homework, and it looked so fascinating, so beautiful,” Demers said. “I’m interested in how, in this country, people don’t want to understand Arab culture, they just want to attach fears to a certain nationality or to a certain demographic. I wanted to really study Arabic, to learn the role Islam plays in the language, and so much more.”

She plans to continue studying Arabic after she graduates, and has applied for a grant to allow her to spend the summer studying it in Amman, Jordan. But she can’t seem to let go of her lingering interest in medicine.

“I know that being a doctor would be amazing,” she admits, “but I also see all sorts of other pathways I’d like to take. Maybe it will be medicine, maybe some other aspect of health care. So many things are possible.”