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Yifan Mao will research sickle cell disease in Nigeria starting next year as Fulbright scholar


Some students travel Europe or pick up new hobbies during their gap year.

Yifan Mao, a 2016 graduate of Lake Oswego High School and 2020 graduate of the University of Chicago, will be spending her gap year before medical school as a Fulbright scholar in Nigeria.

The Fulbright Program — led by the United States — partners with over 160 countries to offer international educational and cultural exchange programs. The program offers a grant to study, teach or conduct research in a different country.

Mao will be researching sickle cell disease at Lagos University Teaching Hospital.

"It's going to be mostly public health research," she said.

She chose Nigeria because of its unique relationship with sickle cell disease.

"I found that Nigeria has the highest burden of sickle cell disease births a year," Mao said.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder that causes ones red blood cells to be hard, sticky and sickle shaped. Sickle cells die earlier than health red blood cells which causes a shortage of red blood cells in the body.

Her research project will involve investigating health care disparities and conducting educational intervention with patients at the hospital she'll be working at.

She'll provide educational intervention during a patient's routine visit and reevaluate health outcomes after the intervention.

During her time in Nigeria she will also work as a swim instructor at two swim clubs.

Nigeria is on the coast and Mao said she wants to help reduce ocean drownings by providing swim lessons.

"I've been swimming for 16 years and I've been teaching (it) for seven years so it's like a huge passion of mine to teach swimming," she said. "A big part of the Fulbright mission is to be a cultural ambassador."

While at the University of Chicago she majored in biological science and neuroscience. As a freshman and sophomore, Mao worked in an after school program in Chicago for children with sickle cell disease at La Rabida Children's Hospital where, in addition to helping them with homework and playing games, she assisted with their health literacy and educational conversations on their disease.

She also did sickle cell research on campus for three years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed her program by a few months. She hopes to be able to start her research in January of 2021. "And even that is not set in stone yet," she said.

Mao said the current cohort had to evacuate in mid-March, cutting their program short.

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