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Allison Booher | BA’21 Latin American Studies & Neuroscience

Posted by on Thursday, January 30, 2020 in Profiles.

In middle school, Allison Booher (BA’21) already knew she wanted to be a doctor. Since then, she has set out on a pursuit to make it a reality. When Booher enrolled at Vanderbilt, she charted out a traditional path to medical school as a biochemistry major in the College of Arts and Science—but then a Spanish class changed her life.

Before arriving at Vanderbilt, Booher had already spent about half of her life learning and speaking Spanish. When Booher was nine years old, her parents adopted a daughter from Colombia, and the family quickly embraced the new sibling’s Latin American heritage. So, at Vanderbilt, rather than continue with Spanish classes that focused on grammar and vocabulary, Booher decided to take a class in her second semester that focused on Spanish culture. It was the spark that ignited a new path for Booher—one that combined a deep interest with her greatest ambition.

That one Spanish class led to more classes in Latin American culture, along with classes in anthropology, race, and politics that moved Booher to switch majors and embark on a new journey. Today, Booher is a junior and double-majoring in Latin American Studies and Neuroscience, a track that she was able to carve for herself because of the interdisciplinary opportunities and support she found in the College of Arts and Science.

She has taken every opportunity she can, both on and off campus, to expand her understanding of the medical field and Latin American culture and issues. Whether as an emergency medical responder, a research assistant at the Emotions and Anxiety Research Lab in Wilson Hall, a volunteer interpreter at Siloam health clinic in Nashville, or doing research on health disparities in Honduras and Chile, Allison uses each experience to refine her path and focus her intentions.

“It’s important to really evaluate what you value and what merits your time,” Booher said. “Those can be really hard decisions to make—but it’s been worth it to make those choices.”

Booher’s close ties to South America have consistently had a strong influence in the choice of work she’s pursued. While interning at a health clinic in Honduras this past summer, Booher received the Simon Collier Travel Award, which prioritizes research being done in specific Latin American countries. The grant gave Booher the chance to create a dream project. Booher took the data she’d already been compiling in Honduras, traveled to Chile, met with doctors and nurses, and even observed a surgery, while compiling research on Chile’s health system.

When it was all said and done, Booher was able to produce a comparative study of the health disparities in emergency medicine between two major hospitals in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Santiago, Chile, including ways to close the gap between them.

“I had all these really awesome relationships [in South America], and being able to tie that to my passion for medicine and health care was really special. It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Booher said.

Nicolette Kostiw, the assistant director for the Center for Latin American Studies, said that Booher has become the poster child for interdisciplinarity with the work she’s pursued at Vanderbilt.

“Real world problems are very complex,” Kostiw said. “They don’t fit into these disciplinary boxes. So, I think approaching an issue in the real world, or approaching a future career pathway, is inherently interdisciplinary. You have to think about it from multiple perspectives, and you have to have multiple knowledge bases.”

Making these connections between disciplines is exactly what Kostiw said she sees Booher doing. Combining neuroscience, medicine, and cultural studies is something Booher believes she can apply here in the United States, with the country’s growing Latin American and Spanish-speaking populations. Her work as an interpreter at Siloam Health Clinic is already giving her experience serving immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized groups in the community. Booher said those interactions with patients at Siloam have given her even more motivation to pursue her work with health equity in the local community.

“When you’re in a clinical setting where there is this language barrier, to be able to step in and bridge that gap, it’s been really special to be able to see how it brings down not just the language barrier, but the emotional and even physical barriers, and opens up the dialogue between doctor and patient.”

Booher said she hopes to continue her career path with that perspective in mind. With medical school and residency still ahead of her, she knows that some parts of her path may still change. Booher isn’t worried, though. She’ll adjust her direction and maintaining her passion, just the way she always has.

“I’ve figured out that I don’t have to feel like I know it all or completely have it together to pursue my passions,” Booher said.  “I can take these risks and sometimes it won’t play out, but, sometimes, I’ll get to do these big, amazing things that I never would’ve dreamed of being able to do.”