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UW-Madison graduate wins Marshall Scholarship

December 4, 2009 By Susannah Brooks

One of the top national awards in higher education goes to a student who combines the “rigor of the scientist… and the communication skills of the humanist… with the imagination common to all great thinkers, whatever the field,” says nominator William Berg, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor emeritus of French.

Erin Conrad, originally from Eden Prairie, Minn., is one of 35 Marshall Scholars selected from across the country to act as ambassadors for U.S.-British relations during graduate study in the United Kingdom. The awards, on par with the Rhodes Scholarships, provide talented American students with up to three years of study at a British university of their choice. Conrad is UW–Madison’s first Marshall scholar in 10 years.

Nominator Robert Wilson, professor emeritus of mathematics, says that Conrad’s ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas “is the kind of thinking that makes breakthroughs, develops significant insights and really advances knowledge on a broad front.”

During her time at University College London (UCL), Conrad plans to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics of health. Currently conducting research at the University of Michigan medical school, she intends to return there after her time abroad, combining a medical degree with her policy training to become a medical ethicist.

In addition to studying with top scholars, Conrad looks forward to examining these issues in a country with publicly funded health care.

“I like the idea of learning about health care philosophy in the UK. I think now, as the United States undergoes health care reform, it will be very useful for me to be able to view the U.S. system from the outside,” she says. “Once I’m done at UCL, I can bring that perspective back when I begin medical school.”

Conrad received her undergraduate degree this past spring, earning a 3.99 GPA while triple-majoring in physics, math and French. Courses with professors Jeff Hardin and Norman Fost piqued her interest in medical ethics. She also conducted research in condensed matter physics, neutrino astronomy, physical chemistry, neuroradiology and medical ethics, earning honors as a Goldwater Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa inductee.

According to Wilson, “If we had either politicians or trusted advisers to politicians who could combine her understanding of the real issues with the ability to deal with people and make things happen, this would be a much better world.”

Since 1953, the scholarships (named for Secretary of State George Marshall and the European Recovery Program) have served as a symbol of British gratitude for assistance provided by the United States in the years following World War II. Other notable Marshall scholars include Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the Supreme Court; Thomas Friedman, winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes as an author and columnist for the New York Times; and Nannerl Keohane, former president of both Duke University and Wellesley College.