How a liberal arts education prepared one grad for medicine

‘Culture shapes policy and policy shapes health outcomes’

December graduate and Gephardt Institute Fox-Clark Civic Scholar Anand Chukka takes a holistic approach to health care. “Culture shapes policy and policy shapes health outcomes,” Chukka said. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

A self-professed science geek, Anand Chukka arrived at Washington University in St. Louis eager to prepare for a career in medicine. As a December degree candidate, he has accomplished just that. He majored in biochemistry in Arts & Sciences; conducted medical research in labs in St. Louis, Boston and San Francisco; and serves as co-president of GlobeMed, a student-run nonprofit that addresses health inequities. 

But he also majored in American culture studies in Arts & Sciences, a decision that reaffirmed his passion for medicine and positions him to be a better doctor.

“I have learned that health is not just CRISPR and gene editing,” Chukka said. “It is economic policy and the criminal justice system. It’s housing ordinances and racial policies. My courses in American culture studies taught me to take a more holistic view. I understand now that culture shapes policy and policy shapes health outcomes.”

Chukka is one of a record 425 degree candidates who will be honored at the December Recognition Ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Field House. John Drobak, the George Alexander Madill Professor of Real Property and Equity Jurisprudence at the School of Law and professor of economics in Arts & Sciences, will serve as grand marshal. Jim Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, will be the guest speaker.

As a physician, Chukka wants to treat patients like the ones he served this past summer as a medical case worker at Southampton Street Shelter, which provides health care for homeless men in Boston. In his role, he did everything from enrolling patients in Medicaid to escorting them to their doctor appointments. The experience left him both heartbroken and hopeful. A patient that he worked with died of a heroin overdose; but others got treatment after Chukka helped enroll them in a methadone program.

“I was turned on to how homelessness, incarceration, poverty, mental illness and substance abuse disorder all intersect and cause a death spiral for a lot of people. Any of these entry points can lead to problems,” said Chukka, a Fox-Clark Civic Scholar with the Gephardt Institute. “But I also saw how effective community health workers can be. Basically, my job was just to make everything smoother. Yes, there are skills involved, but basically anyone can do this so long as they buy into its value. That’s what matters most.”

But before Chukka starts applying to medical school, he plans to spend the spring  semester in St. Louis addressing some of the issues he studied as a student. He will serve as an algebra tutor for Washington University’s Prison Education Project, which offers college courses to inmates of Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo., and will work with Close The Workhouse, a coalition that wants to end what it has identified as inhumane and abusive conditions at St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse.

Chukka said he has a stake in St. Louis now that he was taken courses such as “Urban America” and “Culture And Identity: Urban Ethnography In St. Louis” and marched in the protests that followed the Jason Stockley verdict. Stockley is a former police officer acquitted in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. 

“I don’t think I could talk about health inequities if I hadn’t walked Euclid Avenue with my ‘Urban Ethnography’ class or heard from Jason Purnell (associate professor at the Brown School), whose Health Equity Works initiative is working to make St. Louis healthier and more inclusive,” Chukka said. “I’ve learned so much here. Now I want to do something.”

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