Rachel Serafin (Class of 2018)

  • photo of Rachel Serafinhonors senior Biochemistry major, with a Premedical Studies co-major
  • minor in Global Health
  • from Boulder, CO
  • University Academic Scholars Program (Premedical Scholar)
  • Miami Chemical Society (President); Oxfam Miami (President);  Alpha Omicron Pi sorority (Community Service Chair); MEDLIFE and 4Paws for Ability service organizations
  • studied abroad and service learning experiences in Peru (January 2015), Nicaragua (June 2015), and Uganda and Zambia (Summer 2017)
"Get every experience that you can. Try to see things from a different perspective and see the big picture. If you are lucky enough to study abroad, don't just hang out with Americans. Try looking at other people and their lifestyles from their perspective!"

Why Miami?

"I'm from all the way in Boulder, Colorado, but I've always wanted to travel and explore places far from home. I chose Miami because it has really great undergraduate research opportunities in the sciences and also values a high level of academic rigor. This was very important to me, and I figured what better place than Miami to experience something totally different — and when you actually visit, it's hard to say no to this beautiful campus!

"Coming to Oxford, Ohio was honestly a bit of culture shock at first, but my first year was quite fun. I really loved my roommate and a number of other girls in Swing Hall. Making close friends really made the difference, making the difficult out-of-state transition all the better. On top of that, I joined a number of student organizations that also really helped make a difference in me loving it here.

"I had wanted to be premed, and I chose my Biochemistry major almost at random — going into the sciences when you're just out of high school means you don't quite yet know what any of the sciences actually are. With biochemistry, I got super lucky, as I ended up loving it. It gave me in-depth view of the building blocks of everything, and it also helped me feel more involved in other sciences like biology and geology. I intend to go to graduate school for biological science, and I think my basis in biochemistry will be helpful.

"At some point during my freshman year, I heard about the Global Health minor and went to an information session. I realized that biochemistry and global health together were pretty much everything I'd wanted out of my studies. The Premedical Studies co-major provides a good science background, but I realized that global health work is really what I'm passionate about. The curriculum is so adaptable that you can make what you want out of the experiences, and I felt I gained a different view of healthcare that I don't from premed. This was really awesome, so I declared the minor my second year."

Best Miami Experiences

Rachel Serafin with young canine friend in 4Paws for Ability service organization

"To me, the best things about Miami are the people I've met and the organizations I've joined. I am president of both the Miami Chemical Society and Oxfam Miami. On top of that, I'm a community services chair for Alpha Omicron Pi sorority and a member of MEDLIFE and 4Paws for Ability.

"Travel is really my thing, so I've been fortunate to have a number of study abroad experiences through Miami. My first was during freshman year, when I embarked on a mobile medical brigade in Peru through the MEDLIFE organization. I also studied abroad in Nicaragua to improve my Spanish, and most recently I had my global health immersion experience in Zambia this past summer, when I also spent time in Uganda. In all of these I've met great people and had awesome experiences that will forever shape me.

"Key people include professor of anthropology Cameron Hay-Rollins, who we call Dr. Hay. She is in charge of the global health minor and got me interested in the program. She knows what I'm passionate about and gives me the kind of advice that I need to pursue these opportunities. I've never met a professor who cares so much about her students and her own work, which is really fascinating, and that led me to work with her on a research project in Zambia over the summer.

"Other professors include Gary Lorigan, who is the John W. Steube Professor in chemistry. Joining his research lab during my freshman year was such a defining moment for me that I'm still in working with him there!

"Aside from faculty, a key person for me at Miami is my friend and freshman year roommate, Ellie Sidler, who's a biology major with a premedical studies co-major and the president of the student organization MEDLIFE. We've lived and traveled together throughout our years at Miami, and she is one of the people who always inspires me."

Miami and the Liberal Arts

Rachel Serafin with fellow students from the Global Health Case Competition

"I'm heading to grad school in immunology and have taken the GRE. My professors have helped and given me the best advice on what kinds of experiences will help me the most — especially for a job that is complicated and demands a lot of hours! I've learned to think about things from a lot of different perspectives, whether as a leader of an organization, learning about something new and foreign to my field of study, or contributing to my research team in Zambia.

"All these experiences have made me more flexible and versatile; taking on a variety of problems is key to helping you to grow as a person. That's what the liberal arts mean for me. I tell myself that after college, when again am I ever going to have such a great opportunity to learn the things I want to learn? The best thing I've done in college is take those extra classes that don't necessarily count for a requirement — but if it's something you're interested in, it can lead you to something that you did not know that you'd want to do!

"Aside from my academic requirements, which have helped me develop new interests, I made it a goal my freshman year to always take one class just for fun as well. I've probably ended up taking more classes outside my major than within it! But that's the point — each year at Miami I feel I'm learning things that make everything from the year before makes more sense. It's a really fascinating way to look at the world, and I would like to apply even the smallest things I learn to the work I'll be doing someday as a professional immunologist.

"My global health minor has been just as important to who I am as my biochemistry major. Together these fields give me a slightly different perspective than what a biology major would have. They add a more cultural context on the things that I care about and give me a much more meaningful and applicable purpose.

"For example, in global health there are three 1-credit hour seminars on different subjects. I've taken nutrition, theater, and child and maternity health, and they all have very real-world applications, often culminating with an online research project that is presented at a conference.

"Another example is my CHM 430 course, Special Topics in Chemistry, which was taught by senior lecturer Heeyoung Tai. This course encompassed biochemistry, genomics, health, and diseases and changed how I saw all the connections between the different sciences. Dr. Tai is one of the people who helped me with a lot of advice on my academics and graduate school."

Applying Scientific Principles and Cultural Perspectives to Real Problems Home and Abroad

"In the summer of 2017, I embarked on two very different experiences in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, I worked for two weeks with a nonprofit organization called Oxfam International, and then in Zambia I assisted for 7 weeks on a research project in soil science and geology with a Miami alum and Fulbright Scholar connected to the University of Zambia.

"Oxfam International works for global hunger and homelessness relief, and we have our own chapter on campus, Oxfam America at Miami. Several years ago our organization, working with local Ugandan officials, cofounded a school in northern Uganda that has now expanded to teach students up to grade 5 (generally 11-year-olds). Oxfam Miami's former co-president and 2016 alum, Briana Deer, played a big role in this project in summer 2014. The school, Otwee-Miami School of Hope, has grown to serve over 450 students, and we help fund them to make sure that the education is affordable and high quality. This year we were particularly focused on making sure that the teachers have good wages and the supplies that they need.

"On a related note, Oxfam Miami held our yearly free event called the Hunger Banquet in November. It was held during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, serving as an active simulation of global hunger and poverty to raise awareness. The event was very successful, and we fundraised over $600, which will be used to build new desks and chairs for the children at the school in Uganda.

Rachel Serafin petting an elephant in Thailand

"After Uganda, I headed directly south to Zambia to the city of Kabwe, home of around 200,000 people. Dr. Hay had put me in touch with a Miami alum, Dr. Samuel Mutiti (MS 2003 and PhD 2009), who is working there as a Fulbright Scholar with a hydrogeologist at the University of Zambia to examine the city's lead contamination. It was a very multifaceted and complicated project, involving 4 different universities, and despite my lack of direct experience in soil science and geology, I felt I could contribute due to my background in global health and my experience with scientific research.

"The lead in Kabwe was left over from mining activity, as one of Zambia's main industries is copper mining. My job was to help conduct a number of health surveys with the local people to understand the health implications rising from all these lead particles in the dirt, air, water, and food, which is often grown in that contaminated soil. I worked with one of the students from the University of Zambia, who conversed with the locals in their language. I noted their interactions and analyzed the health data on the affected community, particularly anything that might be related to lead poisoning. We also collected environmental samples to determine the link between the psychological and behavioral health data and the local living conditions.

"Since then, we've been compiling the data and deciding what meaningful aspects we want to publish. It was fascinating to be in the community and observe how everyone is living a normal life, except that I realized that if this were in the United States the living areas would likely be declared a disaster zone and something would have to happen. The people of Kabwe don't really have the option of moving away from these polluted areas.

"Obviously, lead contamination can lead to acute poisoning, especially in children, where it can deposit in their soft brain tissue and inhibit their ability to learn and memorize things. For example, you might tell a child that you placed a toy on the table, and then the next day you ask them where the toy is, and they won't be able to remember. Some symptoms of lower level lead poisonings include memory loss and decreased cognitive ability, but there also can be gut and kidney problems.

"The heartbreaking thing I realized is that children in that community have so many obstacles to attaining a good education. Many can't remember how to read. In looking at all the data, including school test scores and survey responses, we were trying to find a correlation between people's responses and the cognitive and memory problems that we were examining, and if they could be attributed to lead."

Advice to Students

"Whenever I come back home from my global trips, everyone always wants to hear me say how lucky I am to have all the luxuries that we have in the United States. I do feel that of course, but what I've realized is more important is that so many people can happily live without all these things. The value that we place on air conditioning and other modern conveniences is a little bit ridiculous when there are so many people who are living a perfectly happy life without them.

"Too often, people seem to look past the bigger problems, such as educational crises due to children having lead poisoning and not being able to go to school because they have malaria. These were issues that I was actually dealing with in Uganda and Zambia. It's the big picture that I took away from my experiences, whereas many people want me to say, 'Isn't it nice that we all have iPhones?' My global experiences gave me a different sense of appreciation for what we have. I want everyone to be able to go see a culture that is vastly different from their own, anywhere that values things differently. People who never leave the US cannot fully imagine what other people think, and for me, that's the most important thing to take out of traveling experiences.

"Therefore, my advice is to get every experience that you can. Try to see things from a different perspective and see the big picture. If you are lucky enough to study abroad, don't just hang out with Americans. Try looking at other people and their lifestyles from their perspective!"

[December 2017]