URI senior wins fellowship to study emergency medicine in South Africa

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Jennifer Pigoga to travel throughout African continent

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 20, 2015 – In a few months, Jennifer Pigoga will fly 7,787 miles across the Atlantic to work and study in South Africa, thanks to a fellowship that supports emergency care on the continent.

The 21-year-old University of Rhode Island senior is still “over the moon” after winning the award from the African Federation for Emergency Medicine, based in Cape Town.

Over the next year, she’ll work as a paid intern and study at the University of Cape Town, considered one of the most prestigious universities in Africa. She’ll come home with a master of science degree in emergency medicine.

“I can’t wait to get over there,” says Pigoga, of Exeter. “It’s a great opportunity for me to combine my passion for public health, emergency medicine and epidemiology. I also get to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Medicine and helping others has interested Pigoga since she was a little girl volunteering in local hospitals. After graduating from Exeter-West Greenwich Senior High School, she enrolled at URI to study science.

“I looked at other universities, but thought URI had the best program and it was right in my own backyard. It doesn’t get much more attractive than that when it’s great and close to home.”

She’s excelled academically during her fours year at URI. She’s a member of the Honors Program and is expected to graduate summa cum laude next month with two bachelor’s degrees – in cell and molecular biology and in biology. She also received the University Academic Excellence Award in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology and was selected to receive privately funded scholarship support, including the Norris Wood Microbiology Award and the Dr. Joseph DiMase Scholarship in Pre-Med Studies, awarded for academic merit.

Back in February, she applied for the South African fellowship, thinking it was a long shot since she was competing against hundreds of students throughout the world. She had two rounds of Skype interviews, including one with the federation’s president.

“I don’t even know if there are words to describe how excited I was when I found out I won,” she says. “I hadn’t even Googled Cape Town to learn about the city because I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

Emergency medicine is in her blood. She’s a licensed emergency medical technician, with advanced training in cardiac care. For the last three years, she’s volunteered with the Hope Valley Ambulance Squad, and she also works for a private ambulance company.

Her fellowship in South Africa will focus on developing emergency care. The United States launched emergency care after World War II. That wasn’t the case in Africa, where people suffer because they can’t get proper medical care quickly. “I want to change that,” says Pigoga.

Cape Town will be her home base, but she expects to travel to many countries, including Ethiopia, Egypt and Chad. Her job will include writing educational materials about emergency care for nonprofits, and she’ll study emergency medicine at the University of Cape Town.

“I’m excited about the new cultures I’m going to see,” she says. “I’ve studied in Spain, but this will be a different eye-opening experience that will change me forever.”

She’s also looking forward to helping people who are less fortunate. For the last two years, she’s volunteered at Clinica Esperanza, a free health clinic in Providence founded by URI researcher Dr. Annie DeGroot, Pigoga’s mentor. “I see what’s falling through the cracks here,” she says, “and can only imagine what’s happening in less developed places.”

Pigoga will return in August 2016, then pack up again to move to Emory University in Atlanta, where she’ll pursue a master of public health in global epidemiology from the Rollins School of Public Health, one of the top programs in the country.

“I’m getting a great start in my life thanks to URI,” she says. “I’m so grateful.”

Pictured above: Jennifer Pigoga, of Exeter, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, won a fellowship from the African Federation for Emergency Medicine to study and work for a year in South Africa. Megan Banner ’12 and Bridget Griffith ’11 won fellowships last year. Photos courtesy of Jennifer Pigoga.