Pooja Kumar found her passion while attending a lecture about the Rwandan genocide.
"I think everyone has to sit down at some point and ask themselves: What are the most important questions or problems out there in the world?" she said. "Where do my strengths, passions, and abilities lie? And where are the intersections?"
Author Philip Gourevitch's lecture, during Kumar's sophomore year at Duke, made the answer clear.
"(Gourevitch's) book served as the instigation for me to delve further through my classes, thesis work and work abroad into what happened in Rwanda, why, and what the major health issues were," she said. "This led to my becoming completely absorbed in the broader issue of health and war."
Kumar graduated with distinction from Duke in 2001 in Program II, having created her own curriculum in health policy and social values. During the summer of 2000, she worked with the Save the Children Federation in East Timor, devising a plan for a national maternal and child health outreach program. After commencement, Kumar accepted a Hart Fellowship to work with internally displaced persons (IDPs) through the International Rescue Committee in Azerbaijan.
In 2004, Kumar was one of 32 Americans to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which recognizes high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness and leadership potential. This fall, she will interrupt her studies at Harvard Medical School to begin pursuing a master of philosophy degree at the University of Oxford. She hopes that this training in international relations will add perspective to her work in improving humanitarian aid and health services to people affected by conflict.
Her goal is to become a practicing physician in the U.S. who works for a non-governmental organization or international policy agency.
"She is obviously a brilliant woman, but what distinguishes her is her passion for what she does," said Kate Whetten, assistant professor of public policy studies and community and family medicine and director of Duke's Health Inequalities Program. Whetten served as Kumar's advisor.
"She is able to both create a vision in her head for what should be and work around constraints that are currently in place," Whetten said. "She is incredibly focused and driven by her desire to make the world a place that is better. It is what her life is about."