Abhignya Mallepalli unpacked her bags upon arriving at the University of Pittsburgh with her sights set on becoming a doctor — just like the white coat-wearing, stethoscope-sporting characters she saw on TV.
Mallepalli grew up moving about from town to town in New Jersey and Delaware, listening to her family describe health care in America as “this beautiful thing” — a contrast from her parents’ native country of India, where health care was “more about who you know than where you go,” she said.
“It was a very naive way to think about it, but I came to college thinking that ‘I’m going to be a doctor, I’m going to help everyone and no one’s going to get left behind,’” said Mallepalli.
But today, with graduation on the horizon, Mallepalli doesn’t see any white lab coats in her future.
Leveraging new knowledge
It was fall 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign. Mallepalli, a second-year student at the time, enrolled in a course titled Sex and Sexualities in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program (GSWS) to fulfill a general education requirement.
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The course, taught by GSWS lecturer Julie Beaulieu (A&S ’14G), talked about the history of medical-therapeutic approaches to sex and sexuality, including inequality during the early AIDS crisis. Mallepalli said she was struck to learn how the health care system and doctors “turned their backs on an entire population and chose not to give them care” — a real “eye-opener” for her.
This class caused her to start thinking about health care as a social issue — ultimately leading her to shift her career aspirations to focus on public health.
“When I first met Abhignya in the fall of 2016, I noticed her investment in careful scholarship immediately,” said Beaulieu, whom Mallepalli credits for making her feel comfortable with bringing a political lens to her existing interest in health care. “She moved swiftly from a growing interest in gender studies to applying these theories in meaningful and practical ways to real-life issues.”
To explore her new interests of women’s issues and public health, Mallepalli pursued two long-term research endeavors at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. One was performing epidemiological research to assess the failure rate of diagnostic tools important for assessing women’s health concerns. The other, done with the Pregnancy Recovery Center, was coding recorded interviews of pregnant women undergoing treatment for opioid use disorder and who experienced intimate partner violence.
With the Pregnancy Recovery Center, Mallepalli worked with the women’s words — listening for clues about their environments and how their partners influenced their choices to use drugs.
Mallepalli said she was disheartened to hear many of the women talk about negative interactions with people who were in place to help them — such as “police, medical professionals who judged them for their choices and social workers who left them in the middle of their cases.”
“As I listened through headphones to women pouring their hearts out, I wondered why we can’t do more,” said Mallepalli. “Why we can’t spend more time with them and say ‘these are your words, and we’re validating those feelings; if you need help we can provide it.’”
The experiences at Magee helped her shape her own thoughts on health care.
“We have to change the perspective, first, of medical professionals,” Mallepalli said. That starts with institutionally saying, ‘We need to focus on listening to patients as people, rather than as just bodies that we take care of.’”
Taking a stance
In addition to her work at Magee, Mallepalli took full advantage of the opportunities of a vibrant college campus to hone in on her menagerie of interests, which include politics and journalism.
“My dad always jokes that I treated college as an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Mallepalli said with a laugh. She’ll leave Pitt with a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience and a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in nonfiction writing and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies — all in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. She also holds a minor in chemistry.
“I’ve taught Abhignya in three writing classes, and in each she has surprised me with the breadth of her interests and her ability to write about what she doesn't know — as well as a willingness to reconsider what she does,” said Michael Meyer, professor in the Writing Program in the Department of English, who Mallepalli said helped greatly shape her college career and boost her confidence throughout her many endeavors.
Outside the classroom, Mallepalli became involved in many political advocacy efforts on Pitt’s campus and beyond — from founding a student organization called Pitt Students for Healthcare Equality to volunteering at Planned Parenthood.
Her future professional path ties together many interests she shaped during her undergraduate career at Pitt: using research to advocate for what she cares about.
“For me, I know that the research I do is contributing back to that body of knowledge so people can make informed decisions,” said Mallepalli.
Next up: she’s heading to Columbia University to pursue a master’s degree in health care administration.
“I realized I have to consider marginalized populations in my health care endeavors,” said Mallepalli. “I always thought if I was doing research, it would be in a lab with a white coat. But I realized there is so much more out there.”