International health advocate: Ben Chi ’18

SMU gave Benjamin Chi the resources to travel abroad and research causes of diabetes in Chinese migrants. He graduated with a passion for healthcare policy and the impact it can have on millions.

Story by Kenny Ryan

When Benjamin Chi travelled to the city of Harbin in northern China for diabetes research in 2016, it signaled a major milestone in his growing passion for healthcare. Now an alumnus, he’s headed back to China for a master’s degree in global affairs from Tsingua University, courtesy of a prestigious Schwarzman Scholarship.

The Schwarzman Scholars program is modeled on the Rhodes Scholarship, which was founded in 1902 to promote international understanding and peace. Schwarzman Scholars live in Beijing for a year of study and cultural immersion, attending lectures, traveling and developing a better understanding of China.

“There are so many issues coming to us in the next few decades, like the rise of diabetes and obesity and increasing health in the world,” Chi says. “What really interests me is the impact you can have in healthcare. You can really meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.

Benjamin Chi discovered his passion for health policy during an international research trip to China in 2016. Now, he prepares to return to China for graduate studies as a Schwarzman scholar after receiving his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, health and society, from SMU.

Chi spent half his summer 2016 in Harbin, using funding from a Richter Fellowship to research why rural-to-urban migrants known as the Nong Zhuan Fei were developing diabetes at an alarming rate. After surveying 80 Nong Zhuan Fei for a variety of influencing factors, such as diet and exercise habits, he found the increased risk of diabetes may increase when people have poor coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

The large-scale movement of rural residents into Chinese cities has been a decades-long phenomenon, fueled by China’s burgeoning economic growth. The proportion of China’s population living in urban areas jumped from 26 percent to 56 percent between 1990 and 2015, creating widely documented stress and mental health issues for rural migrants facing social and economic barriers in the cities.

The research among the Nong Zhuan Fei in Harbin wasn’t the only healthcare-related project Chi pursued at SMU. Drawing on a wide variety of student-earmarked funding, he conducted stem cell research to treat age-related macular degeneration and studied cell lines’ growth rates to determine the link between genetics and chemotherapy resistance.

“SMU does a great job with all these programs, such as Big Ideas, Richter, and Community Outreach Fellowships, which help students find their passions and make the funding available. When I went to SMU, I became more interested in the macro view of healthcare – if you want to make change on a major scale, you do it with health policy – and I don’t think I would have seen that if I hadn’t come to SMU.

Chi says that Eric Bing, professor of global health at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, has supported him on his path. “He’s been mentoring me since sophomore year when he was my principal investigator for public health research I did in China. He’s been with me every step of the way.”

A native of Dallas, Chi is SMU’s first Schwarzman Scholar. Schwarzman Scholars are selected in a highly competitive process based on their academic aptitude, intellectual ability, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, ability to anticipate and act on emerging trends and opportunities, exemplary character, and desire to understand other cultures, perspectives and positions.

“It’s a validation of all the work I’ve put in so far and also the next best step for me professionally,” Chi says. “The Schwarzman scholarship talks a lot about leadership in the application and interview process, and I hope to build on that skillset. What I really want to take away also is an understanding of Chinese culture and to bolster my language skill. I want to understand how Chinese people view culture, America and policy.”

Schwarzman Scholars are selected in a highly competitive process based on their academic aptitude, intellectual ability, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, ability to anticipate and act on emerging trends and opportunities, exemplary character, and desire to understand other cultures, perspectives and positions.

Chi helped found SMU’s first undergraduate research journal and served as vice president of SMU’s East Asian Student Association. He assists his fellow students as an honors mentor in Kathy Crow Residential Commons and sits on the University’s Honors Advisory Council.

Chi also engaged in humanitarian projects, such as working with Union Gospel Mission to help homeless children access vaccines in order to attend school. He raised more than $2,000 for Love Without Borders, a nonprofit in China that provides orphans with food, shelter and clothing.

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