Dietrich School Alumna Named Rhodes Scholar

Lia in a blue shirt, black jacket

Lia Petrose (A&S ’17) sees electronic medical records not merely as an accounting of a patient’s medical history but as a critical insight and pathway to democratizing medicine.

And as the University of Pittsburgh’s newest Rhodes Scholarship winner, Petrose will have the opportunity to further explore her vision of improving how data is used to facilitate health care delivery. She is among 32 American scholars to receive the prestigious award according to the Rhodes Trust, which announced the winners Sunday.

“As the eighth Rhodes Scholar from the University of Pittsburgh, Lia is part of an elite group,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “At the same time, her success is rooted in the everyday practice of rolling up her sleeves, stepping out of her comfort zone and daring to innovate. I have no doubt she’s bound for a bright future, and I wish her the very best.”

The Rhodes Scholarship, one of the oldest international study awards available to U.S. students, provides two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Rhodes winners are chosen on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity and leadership potential, among other attributes.

“Hearing my name announced by the panel triggered a shock state that I am, 24 hours later, still recovering from. I had spent the past two days getting to know a group of 14 incredibly impressive, genuinely kind finalists, and was not expecting to win,” Petrose said. “I immediately thought of my family, both in Ethiopia and the U.S., my closest friends, my mentors and my fellowship adviser, who have all in some form been with me from the beginning. I feel superbly lucky to be a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship and to represent the Pitt community at Oxford.”

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Petrose immigrated to the United States at the age of 12. She was interested in medicine from a young age and said her experience working in a Baltimore hospital illuminated the empathy gap that exists between Black and white patients. After high school, she returned to Addis Ababa where she witnessed economic disparities in health care delivery. This instilled in her a desire to use medicine as a redistributive tool. 

Previous Pitt Rhodes Scholars

  • 2012: Cory Rodgers (A&S ’12)
  • 2010: Eleanor Ott (A&S ’09)
  • 2007: Daniel Armanios (A&S, ENGR ’07)
  • 2006: Justin Chalker (A&S ’06)
  • 1991: Nathan Urban (A&S ’91, ’96G, ’98G)
  • 1987: Donna Roberts (A&S ’85)
  • 1983: David Frederick (A&S ’83)

Petrose arrived at Pitt in the fall of 2013 with the support of the University’s Helen S. Faison Scholarship, determined to study economics and prepare for medical school. During her first and second years at Pitt, she performed field research in Malawi’s capital city and central region, assisting in the development of health information management systems for hospitals in low resources communities.

A 2016 Harry S. Truman Scholarship recipient, Petrose received bachelor of science degrees in neuroscience and economics with a minor in chemistry from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in 2017. During her time at Pitt, she also served in a number of leadership roles, including as a member of the Student Government Board, a University Honors College student adviser to the dean and as a representative to the committees of the Board of Trustees, the provost and the University Senate Council.

Pitt’s University Honors College, which advises undergraduates and alumni who are interested in pursuing national and international awards, assisted Petrose in applying for the Rhodes Scholarship.

“When I first met her last year, I knew that she would do remarkable things and would undoubtedly succeed in her goal of optimizing healthcare systems for the underserved. Her enthusiasm for her work was absolutely infectious,” said University Honors College Dean Brian Primack. “I was also struck by her remarkable character; for someone so accomplished, she was extremely humble.”

Petrose is currently a research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Professor Heidi Williams with whom she investigates pharmaceutical research development and innovation. Prior to that, Petrose worked as a data scientist at the Harvard Laboratory for Systems Medicine, exploring the use of machine learning algorithms to glean insights from electronic medical records.

At the University of Oxford, she plans to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in computer science and philosophy, combining the technical skills that allow one to design electronic medical records and compute the wealth of data they generate with the analytical and discursive skills that enable patient advocacy. She hopes to eventually practice medicine, design electronic systems to manage and use health data and do both in a way that respects patient agency and privacy.