Toiling in the Margins

Watson Fellow Alli Roshni guards underserved populations from illness.

May 8, 2023

Grant Segall

Alli Roshni.
Alli Roshni will devote a year-long fellowship to fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS in regions of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Alli Roshni wants women to be able to give life and sustain it without passing along potentially deadly infections. She also wants children stricken by infection to get the treatments they need to survive.

“HIV is one of the diseases that most affects marginalized populations,” says Roshni, a senior at Oberlin majoring in biology and economics. “It’s really tragic for a child to have to grow up with the disease.”

Starting in August, Roshni will devote a year to working with patients, practitioners, researchers, and grassroots organizations in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia who deal with pediatric HIV and AIDS, which are often contracted during pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, adolescent sexual contact, or injectable drug use.

Roshni’s work is made possible by a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a highly competitive honor that allows recipients to pursue original, independent projects outside the U.S. Named for the longtime leader of IBM, Watson Fellowships include a $40,000 stipend and a year’s worth of college loan payments.

Watsons for 2023 have been awarded to 42 graduating college seniors from 20 states and four countries. Two of the fellows are from Oberlin: Roshni and fellow graduating senior Emma Hart, who will venture to South Africa, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand to observe programs that create dialogues with males to promote emotional vulnerability and reduce violence.

Roshni comes from Delhi, India, where her parents have worked in social service and social justice causes for many years. “I’ve been interested in public health since middle school,” says Roshni, who devoted a year to volunteering with mobile health-care teams in remote parts of India after completing high school.

She says that Oberlin biology professors Mary Garvin, Yolanda Cruz, and Laura Romberg helped her not simply to better understand health problems, but also to empathize more deeply. During Winter Term, she observed cardiac surgeries and researched the field at Massachusetts General Hospital. Now she’s finishing up an honors thesis on heart disease—another illness especially common among marginalized groups.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do student organizing, working with other people to accomplish common goals. I’ve been inspired by my peers.”

Away from the classroom, Roshni has supported numerous health-justice causes. She was a sexual-harm information liaison for the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. She co-founded the Reproductive Justice Alliance and the Oberlin Public Health Society, which recruits volunteers for Lorain County Public Health and other outside organizations. She has canvassed for pro-choice candidates on behalf of Planned Parenthood and discussed mobilizing for choice at a White House forum with Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do student organizing, working with other people to accomplish common goals,” she says of her Oberlin experience. “I’ve been inspired by my peers.”

To apply for the Watson, Roshni contacted clinics, labs, and other organizations that fight HIV and AIDs internationally. Now she plans to work with many of them to learn more about promoting detection, treatment, and compassion.

In a post on the Watson website, she writes: “I will explore the challenges and opportunities that exist in pediatric HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment: ranging from pregnancy to adolescent care and including the impacts of status, gender, race, and stigma.”

Upon completing her fellowship, Roshni plans to take part in medical research for a year, then proceed to medical school. After that, she will likely pursue a specialty in infectious disease or oncology. She also hopes to continue research and treat patients in underserved parts of the world with Doctors Without Borders.

She notes that HIV and AIDS treatments such as antiretroviral therapy—a combination of medicines—greatly reduce the disease and the odds of transmission, even during pregnancy or breastfeeding. She realizes that marginalized countries struggle to fund such care, but she believes it’s neither humane nor affordable to neglect their needs.

As she puts it: “The consequences are a lot more expensive.”

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