Oxford on her horizon

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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 07
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Oxford on her horizon

Photo Astrid Christoffersen-Deb, McGill's newest Rhodes scholar

| What a difference a call makes. One minute, on November 25, Astrid Christoffersen-Deb was a fourth-year medical student rushing out of her parents' Montreal West home to catch a plane at Dorval airport. It was a Saturday, nothing out of the ordinary, other than a scheduled trip to Vancouver General Hospital to complete an internship.

The next minute, with her foot literally out the door, Christoffersen-Deb received an unexpected call informing her that she'd be leaving for British Columbia as McGill's newest Rhodes Scholar. One could say the news sent her flying, in all senses of the word, to her destination.

"All I could do was cry out of joy throughout my entire plane trip," recalls Christoffersen-Deb, her voice giddy with emotion, during a call from B.C."I expect being a Rhodes Scholar will be like starting a new life."

And how. Once Christoffersen-Deb graduates from McGill next June, she'll be off to England to study in the philosophy, politics and economics program at Oxford University. She can hardly wait to devote two years of her life to reading, writing and studying on the other side of the pond. "It will be like living in a bubble, or a completely different world, for a couple of years."

Christoffersen-Deb believes her Rhodes Scholarship will be the perfect preparation for her ultimate career goal: to work as a doctor in developing countries.

"Studying in philosophy, politics and economics will provide me with the foundation I'll need to help build societies and advocate for others," she says, adding her Rhodes-sharpened skills could even assist in securing future employment with humanitarian groups including Médecins Sans Frontières or UNICEF.

The only thing Christoffersen-Deb isn't sure about yet, upon her return to Canada in 2003 for residency training, is whether she'll specialize in general surgery or obstetrics and gynecology. Both specialities appeal to her, but she is leaning towards obstetrics and gynecology because she's eager to work in women's health.

Indeed, after completing her Rhodes term and residency, she plans to help establish women's and children's health clinics in India's Himalayan mountains. It was during a 1998 medical "stage" in Aarohi, India, that Christoffersen-Deb, who is of Indian and Danish parentage, cemented her ambition to work with the underprivileged. The experience taught her that a doctor could do much more than heal; she could also help people improve their health by spearheading projects to enhance such basics as water quality, sanitation and education.

"I've found I'm happiest when I'm doing a little bit of everything," says Christoffersen-Deb of her Himalayan experience. "In developing countries, I can be part healer, lobbyist, counsellor and community resource person, while learning about another culture and its people."

That striking determination to aid the disadvantaged, says Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier, a member of the University's Rhodes selection committee, helped push Christoffersen-Deb from Rhodes applicant to actual scholar.

"Astrid is a warm and gentle individual who genuinely cares about the plight of others," says Jukier. "She really wants to devote her life and surgical skills to help underprivileged people in India."

Her CV groans under the weight of multiple volunteer efforts over her four years at McGill. Examples include a position as chair of the WHO Health Assembly at McGill's Model United Nations Conference, president of the United Nations Student Association of McGill University, admissions committee member for the Faculty of Medicine, and a half dozen other projects.

Despite spending nearly 30 hours a week on these activities alone, Christoffersen-Deb still found time to launch the Bedtime Stories Program at the Montreal Children's Hospital in 1999, where volunteers regularly read stories to patients. Of the program, which continues to run, Christoffersen-Deb says, "Storytelling was used to create a world where these children could exist without the threat of suffering."

Justifiably, Christoffersen-Deb was rewarded for her efforts earlier this year with a prestigious YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award.

Shree Mulay, a professor of medicine who is also director of the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women, says Christoffersen-Deb's commitment to extracurricular activities is unusual for students in her discipline. Yet those activities haven't prevented her from being an outstanding student, she says, "with sterling humanist values, who will benefit greatly from the opportunities that will come her way from being a Rhodes Scholar."

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