DegreeBiology and Public Policy ’19
The following remarks are excerpted from Kushal’s informal talk for the Duke Parents Committee on April 6, 2019.
My first year at Duke was in the midst of the Zika outbreak of 2015, which closely followed the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Vaccines were being rapidly developed to help but there were regulatory and production barriers to quickly moving them to market. In a conversation about this with a Duke law professor, he asked me if I wanted to come to his graduate class, which turned out to be a Bass Connections class. There, I started my wonderful three-year journey with Bass Connections of working on a timely issue at the intersection of science, law and policy. This issue was the very ethos of Bass Connections, as we created new tools for helping vaccine developers to better share their resources and streamline the process of getting a new drug to patients in need.
During this time, I helped organize conferences in DC, Chicago and Durham. We developed a set of legal tools called the Master Alliance Provisions (MAP) Guide that law firms and universities could use to facilitate technology transfer. I also received several other grants to support a follow-on project studying access provisions and licensing practices at the university level. Additionally, our team was contracted by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help map out the pipeline of drug candidates for their priority pathogen list to support preparation efforts for future outbreaks. The goal of this work was to try and proactively identify people and products and then foster connections between them.
Part of the Bass Connections mission is to bring together people who don’t normally talk to, or interact with, each other in order to create something really new and disruptive. That mission was embodied in our work too. We were talking to all of the people who are doing really interesting research and making sure that if an outbreak does happen, we’re not scrambling to find a vaccine—one is already ready.
This project was a great way to take my science interests and connect them to the policy realm, which became a common thread through my Duke experience. For my second Bass Connections, I was interested to see how these principles manifested themselves in my local community, and applied to the North Carolina Medicaid Reform Advisory Team.
Following the 2016 election in North Carolina, the change in the administration was accompanied by a change to the health system, leading to an overhaul of the Medicaid program. I got involved with the team at Duke that was tasked with studying it. What was really special about this project is that it wasn’t just public policy researchers–there was someone on our team from the Law School, the Nursing School, the Graduate School, the Medical School. We had a businessman, a doctor and a lawyer, all working together on a single project. It was different from a normal policy study because we weren’t trying to just publish our findings, we were trying to turn them into an existing policy. Over the past few years, I’ve been able to host public conferences, lead individual meetings with stakeholders and actually see some of our recommendations become state policy, which has been an incredible experience.
To wrap up, I’d like to highlight three big lessons from my Bass Connections experience.
The first lesson from Bass Connections was changing the way I approached my education at Duke. A lot of students pick up majors by accident, but my decision to double major was made with purpose. I have a major in Biology and a major in Public Policy. The two departments are on opposite ends of campus and ordinarily don’t overlap, but because of Bass Connections I’ve been able to identify unique connections between them and carve out an academic niche at their intersection. That intersection is where I hope to stand in my future career, influencing my decision to pursue both graduate school and medical school.
The second big lesson is learning how to finish. I think as Duke students, we’re really good at starting things, but we’re not really good at finishing them. This is because college is so short and there are so many exciting things going on all the time. However, Bass Connections is a comprehensive experience that is built for a real person in a real field who needs real knowledge and evidence to make a decision. My project gave me the stamina to write two theses and to be able to perform well in internships and interviews, because my Bass Connections experience taught me how to start something and then finish it.
And the third big lesson was to look beyond what I’m doing, to figure out what I don’t know and find people who can help me learn it. At Duke, all graduate and professional schools are a five-minute walk away from the undergraduate campus, but just because they’re close by, it doesn’t mean you'll necessarily walk through their double doors. However, because of Bass Connections, I’ve met somebody from every single graduate school at Duke, someone who opened incredible opportunities, not just for me, but for all my peers. Now, whenever I have a science problem, the first person I talk to is a law professor, who asks me if I've thought about it in a particular ethical or policy lens, and similarly, when I have a policy problem, the first person I talk to is a business student, because I want to make sure that when I design new ways of treating patients, they’re affordable and efficient.
I’m grateful to Bass Connections for changing my perspective on what it means to be a student and what it means to be able to do scholarship and service.