Luke Messac '08

Emergency Medicine Resident Physician

Thesis Title: Lazarus at America's Doorstep: Explaining U.S. Federal Appropriations for Global HIV/AIDS Programs

Choosing Social Studies as my concentration was the best academic decision I made during my time at Harvard. I came into the concentration with some trepidation, as I was not sure I would be able to manage pre-medical coursework alongside its requirements. All I knew was that the juniors and seniors I most admired were in Social Studies, or told me that they wished they were. Social Studies does expect a lot from its students, but the effort is worth it. Instead of crowded survey courses with rote, surface-level learning, Social Studies 10 has its students read original and essential texts, in depth. During intense small group discussions, the instructors force you to question basic assumptions about the world we have been given.              

Social Studies 10 and my subsequent coursework and senior thesis research improved my ability to read and write critically, but they also helped me explore my place in the world, and the impact I hoped to have on it. I still remember long conversations with my advisor, with whom I am still close. She helped me find the meaning and purpose after a disorienting experience in rural Rwanda during the summer after my sophomore year, where I saw children perish from malnutrition and tuberculosis.                   

Since my graduation 10 years ago, so much of my work has been a continuation of the learning I began in Social Studies. I published articles and book chapters using my senior thesis research on global AIDS funding. I completed both an MD and a PhD (in History of Science) at the University of Pennsylvania. I worked on a presidential campaign, edited a magazine, presented my research on four continents, organized protests, and spent nights in urban homeless shelters and rural villages. I have been a part of successful efforts to change housing policy in Philadelphia, health policy in Malawi and hepatitis C testing around the world. There have, of course, been many failures, too. But Social Studies is where I made many of my closest friends, and where I found the inspiration and the insights to effect changes that matter, changes that (I hope) will last.                      

Almost every day, it seems, I hear Marx or Smith or de Beauvoir invoked, often with great laziness and imprecision. I'm so glad I had the rare opportunity to read these works deeply, with expert guidance. The concentration opened up new worlds of knowledge to me, worlds I had not known at all before and that I am still only beginning to explore a decade after graduation. Today I am an emergency medicine doctor in Rhode Island. Not too many of my colleagues know what Social Studies is, but as one of my favorite physician mentors once said when I told him what I had studied in college, "Those in the know, know."