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First 'U' student since 2004 wins Rhodes Scholarship

Daily News Editor
Published November 23, 2008

At the University's spring commencement in April 2007, then-LSA senior Abdul El-Sayed stood at a podium in Michigan Stadium and said that, besides the fact that BTB Burrito is open until 4 a.m., what truly sets the University of Michigan apart is its students.

“It's the care we've shown, the people we've helped and the passion that we have that define us,” said El-Sayed, who was the student speaker at the ceremony. “Moreover, it's the fact that we're about to go out into a world that absolutely needs us.”

If El-Sayed’s definition of the Michigan Difference is right, then he could be its poster boy.

El-Sayed, who is now pursuing a joint doctorate in medicine and public health at the University, was named Sunday one of 32 American recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious academic scholarships. It covers tuition and expenses for two to three years of study at the University of Oxford in England and is valued at about $50,000 per year.

The last time a University student won the scholarship was in 2004.

A Bloomfield Hills native, El-Sayed was Vice President of the Muslim Students’ Association, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and a starting defenseman on the Michigan men’s lacrosse team. He married his girlfriend, LSA senior Sarah Jukaku, after his junior year of college.

Now in medical school and the School of Public Health at the University, El-Sayed’s research focus is within epidemiology. He said his ideal career would involve conducting academic research 80 percent of the time and working with patients 20 percent of the time.

When he enters Oxford in October, he will work toward a Master of Science in global health sciences.

Though his focus on epidemiology wasn’t piqued until after finishing his undergraduate studies, he said he’s been interested in medicine since his childhood.

El-Sayed said he e-mailed many professors before starting medical school because he wanted to try his hand at research. Epidemiology Prof. Sandro Galea was the only one who responded, and has now been El-Sayed’s doctoral adviser for the past two years, he said.

Prof. Galea said that although he usually doesn’t let students volunteer with his research team, he let El-Sayed join because he was so persistent.

After a “very short period of time, he was exceptional,” Galea said, adding that El-Sayed’s intelligence and hard-working nature, which he called an “uncommon combination,” will lead the scholar to impact many fields.

“I think he’s a perfect candidate for Rhodes,” he said. “He’s highly deserving and exactly the type of person who should get such a scholarship.”

El-Sayed said his current interest in the social determinants of health started after reading a research study that showed how the effects of the 9/11 attacks increased the risk for low birth weight among Arab-American women in California. He said he wanted to see if there were similar effects in Michigan.

“One thing led to another, and I just fell in love with the science, and that’s kind of all she wrote,” he said.

El-Sayed said preparing his application and practicing interviews took “many, many hours.”

He met individually with eight people from the University who interviewed him to get the University’s endorsement, which is required to be considered for the scholarship. Then, he said, he focused on “rewriting and rewriting and rewriting my personal statement to get it just right.”

In the weeks leading up to his final interview in Minnesota this past weekend, El-Sayed said he constantly drilled himself to practice how he might answer questions.

“I’d be working out, and I’d just be interviewing myself,” he said.