Benjamin Oelkers, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, is among a select group of graduating college seniors nationwide to receive the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which provides a $40,000 grant for one year of independent study and travel outside the United States.
Members of the 55th Class of Thomas J. Watson Fellows have proposed a broad range of projects to explore, including contemporary African art, disability care innovation, coastal resilience, entrepreneurial inclusion, urban animals, and modern opera.
The program is designed to produce a year of personal insight, innovation, and leadership. Watson Fellows do not affiliate with an academic institution or hold formal employment, and they decide where to go and when to change course.
Oelkers’ project is titled “Desertion of Pediatric Cancer Care,” with proposed destinations of South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, and the Philippines. He seeks to immerse himself in healthcare systems and community organizations to understand why a pediatric cancer patient would choose to stop lifesaving treatment.
Oelkers, who is from Metairie, LA, was a St. Jude Summer Plus Fellow in 2021 and 2022, working with the St. Jude Children’s Hospital anesthesiology department to identify risk factors for airway devices in pediatric cancer patients.
“During my time at the hospital, I understood the global nature of medicine and realized that there are other ways of treating patients,” said Oelkers. “Medicine is more than just learning medical terminology, and it is crucial to understand the different barriers that patients face globally, including limited access to care, nutrition, race, or religious beliefs. I hope to understand how a patient’s community can influence a patient’s experience during treatment.
“The Watson fellowship will allow me to write a new chapter of my life. The unique thing about the Watson year is that no one will have the same experience. I will be traveling on my own, choosing who to talk to and which places to explore. Not only does this provide a great deal of freedom and independent design, this will be the only time where I can truly write my own story.
“Rhodes has provided me with so many unique opportunities to explore my potential and allow me to actively think outside the typical mold. This has allowed me to push the barriers of what I thought was previously possible and hopefully help create a better tomorrow. Without Rhodes I would not be in the position I am today.”
In addition to working at St. Jude, Oelkers has been one of the students in Prof. Shana Stoddard’s Molecular Immunotherapies Research Lab who conduct innovative research focused on therapeutic agents for treating coronaviruses. On campus, he is the president of the service organization Lynx Club and on the leadership team for the Reformed University Fellowship.
After completing a year as a Watson Fellow, Oelkers plans to attend medical school to pursue a career in global pediatric oncology.