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Biostat student travels the globe as UW Bonderman Fellow

Natalie Gasca overlooking Lake Titicaca in Bolivia
Natalia Gasca overlooking the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca after a steep hike.

For eight months, Biostatistics PhD student Natalie Gasca traveled solo through Latin America and Asia, exploring small communities, connecting with people and learning about their local culture. She expected the trip to be a life-changing experience but could not have foreseen the impact it would have on her personal, academic and career perspectives.

Gasca’s journey was courtesy a UW Bonderman Travel Fellowship, a program that aims to expand students’ understanding of themselves and the world by underwriting independent international travel. Bonderman Fellows decide where they want to go but must visit at least six countries in two or more major regions of the world and cannot travel with an organized group, conduct any formal academic projects, or travel to cultures similar to that of the U.S. (e.g., Australia, Western Europe).

“I came up with an itinerary based on cultures I was interested in getting to know; places that might be more community-centric versus individualistic and more indigenous-centric than euro-centric,” said Gasca. “And places whose food I loved because food is very important to me. And places with dance traditions, something I grew up with and which is very different than the day-to-day experience here.”

Latin America was a natural choice for Gasca as her father is from Mexico and she earned a Spanish minor as an undergraduate.  Beyond that, she took the advice of previous Bonderman fellows to really push herself and think broadly about where else she wanted to go and what else she wanted to see. The final result included stops in Samoa, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

Gasca traveled January through August 2018, and returned to UW last fall. She talked about the ways in which her Bonderman experience has transformed her life.

How did you learn about the Bonderman Travel Fellowship?

I was actually aware of it even before I came to UW. As an undergraduate, I attended a conference in Seattle where one of the session panelists had just received a Bonderman Fellowship. She talked about this chance to travel all over the world, completely paid for, and I thought, wow, what an opportunity!  So I knew if I ended up going to UW, I better apply for this. Although, I was strategic about when I applied. I made sure to pass my qualifying exams and get through all my classwork then apply for the Bonderman as my “prize.”

Unfamiliar foods can be daunting for a lot of people but not for you?

I’d say I was choosy but adventurous about trying different foods. When I got to a country I would start off going to a few local restaurants to get my palate warmed up to the different spices and cooking styles. Then I’d go to the grocery store and buy a few different food items, then try out smaller mom and pop shops. And then I would go into the stalls and get street food. I also sought advice from people I knew in the area like my Airbnb hosts.

Photo collection of Natalie's favorite food vendors when traveling abroad
From left to right:  (1) In Malaysia, a favorite street vendor named "Uncle" sold waffles (crepes) with a peanut filling and an optional creamed corn topping. (2) Frog leg stew at a restaurant in Hue,Vietnam; (3) Food vendor at a Bangkok street market.

Do you think the experience has made you a better biostatistician?

This experience has given me a lot of perspective and background as to what different forms of health and well-being mean to a lot of different cultures and communities. For example, if something is important to a certain group, like going to a temple, I would bring that up as an intervention or health tool if it hadn’t already been mentioned.

Large crowd of people on annual pilgrimage to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Thaipusam
Tamil Hindus make their annual pilgrimage to the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Thaipusam.

Have your travels had an impact on how you view your future?

While traveling, I was able to meet people who were in different professions and careers; people who were very invested in helping others, whether it was their family or community, at whatever level they could. And that gave me inspiration and more motivation to continue my goal of helping as many people as I can with my career. Also, I am now able to better articulate this and focus in on this goal as a worthwhile endpoint.

Natalie Gasca posing with families she stayed with while traveling
Gasca's warm and generous Airbnb hosts welcomed her into their families in (1) Armenia, Colombia, and (2) Jujuy, Argentina.

And it broadened my view of different places to work. I used to have more of a priority toward local health for underserved communities. But I came across several people in my travels who knew or were involved with statistics. One setting that really stood out for me was Doosra Dashak in India. It’s a non-profit that has an incredible mission, part of which is to empower youth in rural communities to advocate for themselves.

They had fantastic data. They tracked every student they’d been in contact with at such a degree of precision. They had almost no missing data which is an amazing thing that you rarely see as a biostatistician. It was incredible to see in a different country, in a different setting, in a place one normally doesn’t think of as having as much technology or access to it, that you could find that degree of integrity of information. It made me realize I could partner with so many different organizations around the world.

Photo of students posing for picture at Doosra Dashak in India
Students at Doosra Dashak in India.

Has it changed the way you approach your studies?

The biggest change is that I see myself more holistically. As a student, you typically feel guilty about not working, even on a weekend. You think, "I could be studying more, preparing for a meeting, or finishing up a section of coding." Now I value being present when I take a break to go to a cultural event, check out a new café, or do something outside of the norm. When I was traveling I really enjoyed getting to see different facets of life and not spending a whole day in a computer lab.

Natalie Gasca ziplining
To celebrate her birthday, Gasca met up with friends for some ziplining in Chonburi, Thailand, two hours outside of Bangkok.

How have your travels impacted you personally?

I gained a lot of confidence in myself in the sense that I was able to accomplish all of this with almost no hiccups, that’s huge! Eight months of traveling, that’s a lot of time for a lot of people and not everyone can do that.

Also, it reinforced who I am as a person, someone who is much more extroverted, social and wanting to connect with people. It was satisfying to recognize this trait as a huge asset on this type of adventure. Being friendly enough to open up to people, to ask questions and be interested in their lives.

And during those periods when I was a bit lonely or missing folks, I was able to take a deep breath, relax, and say, okay, this is my time to be reinvigorated, to figure out what’s going on, to see stuff around me and be interested in other people’s lives and what’s out there.

Now I make sure to sprinkle variety throughout my life. To have more personal practices like stretching and meditation and to have different activities scattered throughout my weeks and months.

More: Check out our student profile of Natalie Gasca

Deb Nelson, Biostatistics communications and event manager