CHICAGO – During her first two years on campus, University of Chicago student-athlete Yifan Mao first became involved with sickle cell disease as a health mentor for STRIVE Mentoring. Each week, she would help lead an after-school program for children with sickle cell disease at nearby La Rabida Children's Hospital. The program helped improve the kids' health literacy by holding educational discussions on their disease, pain management and advocacy, in addition to helping them with their homework and playing games.
Now as a graduating senior, Mao looks to continue to help those afflicted by sickle cell disease. She will be heading to Nigeria to work in the field after being chosen as a Fulbright Scholar for the fellowship year of 2020-21.
Mao recently wrapped up her collegiate athletic career as a freestyle swimmer for the Maroons the past four years. She earned All-University Athletic Association (UAA) honors twice and was an All-American in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Mao will be graduating with a double major in biological sciences and neuroscience.
"I am going to be doing sickle cell disease (SCD) public health research at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) in Lagos, Nigeria under Dr. Kalejaiye," Mao said. "The purpose of my study is to assess patients' disease management, study healthcare disparities, and identify gaps in public knowledge about SCD that may lead to lower health outcomes (non-compliance to prescribed medications, high frequency of ER visits due to acute manifestations of SCD). I will be doing an educational intervention with patients at the SCD out-patient clinic at LUTH to help improve their knowledge of SCD and hope to improve the aforementioned health outcomes."
Along with her health mentor volunteer work, Mao gained more interest in the field after receiving the Ted Mullin Fund internship – a summer research program that funds research in the Department of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at UChicago Medicine. She stayed in Dr. Beyer's lab for the three years since then and greatly enjoyed her involvement in SCD research.
Mao will use her gap year to go to Nigeria as a Fulbright Scholar. She is also applying to medical school and hopes to continue doing sickle cell disease research in the U.S. or stay involved with the patient population in another way as a medical student and physician.
"I knew I wanted to continue working with sickle cell disease patients, so I chose Nigeria because it has the highest rate of SCD births per year, so I felt like I could make the greatest impact in this country," Mao said. "Part of Fulbright's mission is cultural exchange and for the scholars to act as cultural ambassadors, so I'm also very excited to be in Lagos because I'll be teaching swim lessons. I have gotten in touch with Crawford Swimming and SwimPro Nigeria – two swim clubs in the area that I will be working with as a swim instructor.
"As healthcare accessibility in the U.S. has been an increasingly salient issue, I hope to see how certain strategies used by Nigerian hospitals can lead to positive outcomes despite limited resources, and how they may be applied to areas in the U.S. that are also grappling with healthcare disparities and inequities," she continued. "I hope to learn more about the complexity of patient care and the effects of healthcare disparities on patient health outcomes. And from teaching swim lessons, I hope to teach water safety and help prevent the high rates of ocean drowning, and, in exchange, to learn Nigerians' perspectives on teaching."