For much of her life, Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez BSx’24 never imagined leaving Colombia. She felt that the change she could bring to the beautiful, sunny streets of her hometown of Cali had only just begun. But after a series of experiences in high school showed her the large equality gap in access to health care around the world, especially among women of color, she decided she needed to do something about it.
Betancourt’s interest in public health began when she read Harold P. Freeman’s Why Black Women Die of Cancer. Following that, for a project during her senior year of high school, she studied the conflict between traditional and modern medicine among women in the city of Buenaventura.
“What we found was that there were two barriers,” says Betancourt, who is double majoring in biochemistry and global health at CALS. “There isn’t easy access to medical facilities in Buenaventura; women must travel long distances in boats or buses to get to my city, Cali. On top of this, they are also treated differently, which brings attention to the racism in the medical field.”
Based on her experience with the study, Betancourt feels that a better understanding of discrimination in the medical field is fundamental to addressing it. “We found that even if [these women] had the opportunity to reach out to a physician and go to hospitals or official medicine facilities . . . [they encountered] a problem with racism,” she says. “There’s been a lot of attention here in the U.S. towards limiting these health inequities. But in Colombia, there hasn’t been enough.”
As she was wrestling with these issues, one of Betancourt’s high school teachers told her about UW–Madison’s King-Morgridge Scholarship Program. The program was created as an opportunity for students with a passion for poverty alleviation from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia to receive four-year scholarships to study at UW. It drew her to Wisconsin.
Filling out the application felt like second nature, she says. It gave her a chance to express her desire for reform in Colombia’s health care system and talk about the work she had already done in the field. “I just spoke from my heart; and, turns out, it worked!” she says.
Betancourt’s quest for health care equality has inspired many, but especially AI4Afrika project lead and chief engineer Sheriff Issaka. AI4Afrika aims to bring artificial intelligence (AI) technology to communities where it’s lacking. The group’s first project is a chatbot, run through an organization called Care International, that is designed to educate girls in various Ethiopian communities about sexual and menstrual health, topics that can be considered taboo in these areas. Betancourt leads the AI4Afrika team that curates and verifies the data used to train the AI on how to better answer the girls’ questions.
“We have a term we use, which we call the ‘Ubuntu’ spirit, which is the guiding principle for this organization, and it’s about the whole idea of community and humanity and openness to others and putting others before you,” says Issaka, a UW senior majoring in computer science. “Natalia is an embodiment of that spirit, for me. She just reminds me of the whole Ubuntu concept.”
And this spirit is guiding Betancourt as she plans her future career. “I thought I was going to stay in Colombia and go to a university and study medicine, because my passion is saving lives and keeping people healthy,” says Betancourt. “But I’ve noticed with the passing of time that, although it’s a wonderful career, there’s a ton of doctors out there already. If I worked to be a doctor, I could only treat patient by patient. If I go into public health, or a similar career, I could impact thousands of people.”
Scholars Against Poverty
King-Morgridge Scholars are selected for their drive, academic success, and commitment to addressing issues of poverty in their home countries. They receive a full-time, four-year scholarship to UW–Madison funded by gifts. More at admissions.wisc.edu/international-scholarships.
This article was posted in Class Act, Economic and Community Development, Health and Wellness, Summer 2022, Undergraduate student scholarships and tagged AI4Afrika, Biochemistry, Global health, King-Morgride scholarship, Natalia Betancourt Rodriguez, Sheriff Issaka.