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3 Students, 3 Global Areas, 3 Meaningful Adventures

A large iceberg in Antarctica. The ice is tinted blue.
By Vivian Mason

Before starting medical school in 2019, three USU students had the unique opportunity to experience global healthcare in India and Mongolia, and research work in Antarctica.

Travel to exotic locales is on many of our bucket lists. But for three students at the Uniformed Services University’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Army 2nd Lts. Samantha Lonergan, John Clark and Sierra Smith, it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Before arriving at USU, the trio decided, as pre-med student volunteers, to pair their passions for global medicine and research with their love for adventure. Volunteering provided them with unique, challenging opportunities that yielded fascinating personal cultural perspectives and enrichments. Lonergan volunteered in the slums of India; Clark volunteered in the remote, mountainous region of northern Mongolia; and Smith volunteered on the continent of Antarctica to study white-blooded icefish.

2nd Lt. Samantha Lonergan playing patty cake with a little girl at the New Hope clinic. [Image credit: Courtesy of 2nd Lt. Samantha Lonergan]
2nd Lt. Samantha Lonergan playing patty cake with a little girl at the New Hope clinic. [Image Credit: Courtesy of 2nd
Lt. Samantha Lonergan]

2nd Lt. Samantha Lonergan, U.S. Army, Class of 2023 

Country Visited: India
Position: Student Health Volunteer
Length of Stay: 6 months
Favorite Adventure Quote: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”— J. R. R. Tolkien

“I knew that I wanted to take a gap year before med school,” said Lonergan. So, she found an organization that sponsored long-term volunteering all over the world. Fortunately, she lucked into a two-doctor medical clinic in India that recruited premed students. When she arrived, she saw that the clinic was about the size of a standard American living room, the pharmacy was closet-size, and the clinic was located in a slum containing more than one million people. “I had to learn the language,” she said. “It was difficult, but I mastered saying, ‘How are you?’ and some other phrases.”

Lonergan and several other volunteers worked four hours per day, performing a process akin to triage, obtained blood pressure and pulses, and interacted with patients. They then relayed that information to the Hindi doctors. One of the doctors lived in the community, and the other doctor had his own clinic. Volunteers stayed with the host doctor and his family. “It was fun, and the time went so fast,” Lonergan reminisced.

Although the clinic was inexpensive, it was still too much for the people to pay. “The clinic I worked in was great for the locals because it provided very basic, free care. We also dispensed free allergy meds and acetaminophen,” she said.

They were also able to squeeze in a bit of shadowing at a few local hospitals. Lonergan created a blog post about all of the things she learned, including getting primary exposure to many different diseases, such as polio, cerebral palsy, dengue, and tuberculosis. She also saw common ailments, like fungal infections. “It’s funny,” she said, “because that’s what I had been learning about in class at USU, and I was able to recognize it better since I’ve had the experience. Overall, I learned an incredible amount about disease, medicine, and Indian culture and religion.”

Her Take on the Experience: “India was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’d definitely go back. I’d like to stay for a year, now that I have a rough feel for it. The experience really solidified my interest in medical school, prepped me well for patient interactions, and prepared me for being in a deployed setting.”

Army 2nd Lt. John Clark taught health lessons to children of the Dukha Tribe, nomadic reindeer herders in the Siberian Forest. [Image credit: Courtesy of 2nd Lt. John Clark]
Army 2nd Lt. John Clark taught health lessons to children of the Duhka Tribe, nomadic reindeer herders in the Siberian
Forest. [Image Credit: Courtesy of 2nd Lt. John Clark]

2nd Lt. John Clark, U.S. Army, Class of 2023 

Country Visited: Mongolia
Positions: Student Health Volunteer/Teaching Assistant/Children’s Soccer Coach
Length of Stay: 27 months
Favorite Adventure Quote:A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes

“I was a health volunteer in northern Mongolia,” said Clark. “I lived in a rural village that had a population of 2,000 to 3,000 people, depending on the season. The family I lived with had a small herd of yaks. My ger (a round-shaped dwelling) was a stone’s throw away from their home. I made a fire every day, and I got my water from a crystal clear river next to the ger. It was very austere, but I wanted to do all of the crazy, hard, rugged stuff. I always wanted to do something outside of the United States.”

Clark worked in a small health clinic, but wasn’t allowed to do any direct patient care because of his volunteer status. So, he was assigned to assist at a school. With the help of the school nurse, he taught awareness classes for sexually transmitted diseases and provided informational materials. He also co-taught a healthy cooking class for the moms and intertwined some medical education in the process.

“That was a lot of fun,” Clark said. “The local people enjoyed it. We made sure it was related to their lives, and we mainly cooked things that they actually had access to. Boiled meat is a staple, and they’re really big on salt. Therefore, the classes emphasized reducing the amount of salt and fat in their diets.” He also started a kids’ soccer club. “It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. Sports helps to instill certain values, and provides a team environment,” he added.

“Mongolia’s a really rich and historical culture. It’s such a cool country and so geographically diverse. To the east are the steppes (flat grasslands), to the south-central is the Gobi Desert, to the west are the mountains, and to the north are the hills and forest, and that’s where I was.” The language was difficult to learn, but the native people appreciated his attempts to speak it.

His Take on the Experience: “I’m used to moving around, embracing new cultures, and experiencing different lifestyles. The Mongolian experience has made my interpersonal relationships with patients better. It’s also changed the way that I view the world. I had a beautiful time there, and I met some incredible people. At some point, I plan on returning. I loved making a fire every day. There’s just something so visceral about that. It was so cold where I lived, and it was tough and full of challenges—a definite stark confrontation of nature. I felt as though I was really contributing to the world when I was there.”

2LT Sierra Smith went hiking across the glacier behind Palmer Station nearly every week. When she got far enough away from the gentle hum of the station generator, she experienced the most beautiful silence.  [Image credit: Courtesy of 2LT Sierra Smith, U.S. Army]
2nd Lt. Sierra Smith went hiking across the glacier behind Palmer Station nearly ever week. When she got far enough
away from the gentle hum of the station generator, she experienced the most beautiful silence. [Image Credit: Courtesy of
2nd Lt. Sierra Smith, U.S. Army]

2nd Lt. Sierra Smith, U.S. Army, Class of 2023 

Continent Visited: Antarctica
Position: Student Researcher
Length of Stay: 6 months
Favorite Adventure Quote:The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”—Eleanor Roosevelt

“As a neuroscience major at Northeastern University, I discovered that there was a professor who took students to Antarctica to study icefish. It was my dream come true because I always had a special interest in Antarctica, and that’s how I ended up at Palmer Station [a research station].”

To get to Palmer Station, Smith and the crew flew down to the very tip of Patagonia to a town called Puenta Arenas in Chile. Once they got there, they boarded their research vessel to take the four-day voyage through the Drake Passage, which is between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, where Palmer Station is located. However, the crew encountered a massive storm en route that took them nearly a week to get through.

Smith’s research took place in the field and in the lab. The study involved icefish breeding and their embryological development. These fish are often called “crocodile icefish” because of the shape of their snout. They don’t have any hemoglobin, so their blood is actually clear. They may look like prehistoric creatures, but icefish research has great applications for both the conservation and medical communities.

“You’d think it would be all white on Antarctica, with the snow and ice, but, actually, it’s all shades of blue. The water is a beautiful deep shade of blue. Even the ice is, too, because the more depressed and ancient the ice is, the more it gives off this vibrant blue tint. It varies from being pure white to a bright periwinkle, which is gorgeous. Actually, there was a lot more color on Antarctica than I expected,” Smith said. There was also a lot of wildlife that she got to see up close, including various species of penguins, birds, leopard seals, and giant elephant seals.

During the Antarctic winter, it was dark nearly all day long and very cold. The coldest it got was –20˚C with wind chill. Ordinarily, the temperatures were between 0˚F to 10˚F. The sun would rise around 10 or 11 a.m., but not fully. Then, it would set again around 1 or 2 p.m. When Smith’s work day started, it was pitch black and would typically end around 5:30 p.m.

“Then, we had dinner, cleaned up, and relaxed for the rest of the evening. We played games or watched movies. Luckily, we all got along well, and I made a lot of friends. I was happy every single day to be there.”

Her Take on the Experience: “The greatest lesson I learned was how to work as a team with a small group of people in a high stress environment for very long hours. I learned how strengths and weaknesses can still make a cohesive team. In the end, we all had to learn to trust each other. This opportunity fulfilled a lifelong dream. When I retire from the military, I’d like to return as a Station Physician. It’s a most amazing place!”