By Ayaka Hasegawa, '19

Melisa Quiroga-Herrera, ’18, was driving up a winding dirt road to Pasorapa, Bolivia on a cold day. The area is known for the prevalence of Chagas disease, which is caused by tropical parasites, and Quiroga-Herrera was there to participate in a health clinic examining the government’s prevention programs for the disease and helping with screening trials to diagnosis patients.

For Quiroga-Herrera, Pasorapa actually wasn’t just any rural town. It was where her grandmother had lived. This one-time visit also allowed her to reconnect with her grandmother who had passed away from an infectious disease. Quiroga-Herrera attributed her initial interest in science to her grandmother.

Quiroga-Herrera’s experience in Pasorapa was a part of an internship with Hospital Universitario Hernandez Vera, a social service hospital in Bolivia. She spent two months working with the obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) department and the National Tuberculosis Treatment Program. A Burhans Civic Fellowship supported her experience.

In the OB/GYN department, Quiroga-Herrera served as a scribe for the doctors, writing the prenatal signs and other information about pregnant mothers. She sometimes measured their stomachs, found the baby’s heart rate, and felt its position. For the National Tuberculosis Treatment Program, Quiroga-Herrera conducted research on tuberculosis treatment and health care reform. She traveled to a nearby low-income community and interviewed the underserved population — including women, children, and indigenous people — about their experience and the general efficacy of the health care reform passed by Bolivia’s president. She discovered that many felt that there was improved treatment for the children but not for adults.       

The blend of clinical care and health policy development aligned with Quiroga-Herrera’s majors in healthcare studies and leadership studies — both fields she didn’t expect to study when she first came to Richmond. Biology was her intended major. She participated in the University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience (URISE) the summer before her freshman year, which further sparked an interest in hard science and research, particularly around infectious diseases.

Quiroga-Herrera pursued those interests through research with biology professor Kristine Grayson. She studied the effect of sub and supra optimal temperatures in Southeastern Asian front with gypsy moth. While the research was more environmental in focus, Quiroga-Herrera sees a link between environmental science and health care.

She also believes in scientific research as a force for change. Still, that summer in Bolivia revealed that her interests extended beyond the lab.

“My internship in both urban and rural settings in Bolivia was the defining factor in my decision to pursue a healthcare studies major,” Quiroga-Herrera reflected. “Through interactions with disenfranchised communities and health professionals, I was able to experience firsthand the effect leaders have on the citizenship of a person. This provided me with a different approach to my studies that incited my interest in the connections between health care and leadership.”

Quiroga-Herrera is also a part of the Science Leadership Scholars Program offered through the Jepson School. By discussing reading assignments and attending lectures, she saw clear connections between her majors — and began contemplating her future.

Quiroga-Herrera is considering becoming a field worker in developing countries upon graduation. “I’m interested in pursuing a master of public health degree,” she said. “I could connect my health care and leadership majors to assess the role of public health in the nation-building processes of Latin America.”