Pre-health students vie for $1 million prize

A critical global health problem. A former president's call to action. And $1 million in prize money on the line.

Three SF State students are among the thousands worldwide vying for the Hult Prize, given annually to the team with the best plan to address a global health challenge selected each year by former President Bill Clinton. This year's challenge? Develop a social health care enterprise that, by 2019, serves the needs of 25 million residents of urban slums living with non-communicable diseases.

Photo of SF State students Tricia Mittra, Xochilt Borja and Kimberly Spaulding in the SF State quad.

Tricia Mittra (from left), Xochilt Borjas and Kimberly Spaulding are competing for the Hult Prize, which offers $1 million in start-up funds to the team that comes up with the best proposal to solve a global health challenge.

The team comprised of Kimberly Spaulding, Xochilt Borja and Tricia Mittra -- all students in SF State's Pre-Health Professions Certificate Program (PHPCP) -- is among 50 selected as finalists in the San Francisco regional competition. They will vie March 7 and 8 for a spot in the global finals that take place later this year.

"This is another great example not only of our students' success, but also of their commitment to serving the community while engaging global issues that make a difference in the world," said President Leslie Wong. "I was delighted to learn that Kimberly, Xochilt and Tricia were selected as regional finalists. I wish them luck, and know they'll make SF State proud."

The team members have different backgrounds but share a goal of becoming physicians serving those in need. Spaulding majored in music but was an active participant in model United Nations and dreamed of traveling to Africa to work in a clinic. Borja, who first read about the competition online and assembled the team, was an undergraduate science student who considered research before settling on medicine. Mittra lived in India for nearly 3 years and hopes to become an obstetrician working in underserved communities.

Needing additional coursework before entering medical school, they chose SF State's program for its affordability, reputation, proximity to such top medical schools as Stanford and University of California, San Francisco, and commitment to social justice.

"Working in underserved communities is something that is really emphasized and valued in our program," Borja said. "It's constantly talked about."

The stakes in the competition are high. According to Hult, 63 percent of deaths worldwide are due to non-communicable diseases and 80 percent of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. These diseases are responsible for more than half of the world's health care costs.

The team wouldn't divulge its proposal for addressing the Hult challenge, but its members are confident their plan answers the questions posed and is spending the last few days before the regional competition preparing their presentation. If they win at regionals, they'll spend the summer in a six-week program of intensive entrepreneurial seminars designed to help them flesh out their idea. Then, in September, it's on to the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting, the final pitch and the awarding of the $1 million prize.

While the majority of teams competing for the Hult prize have business backgrounds, Spaulding, Borja and Mittra are approaching the challenge from a health care perspective.

"We have the viewpoint of the people that we would be helping, more than how it is going to make money," Spaulding said. "At the heart of our effort is, how is this going to help the people that we're targeting."

That doesn't mean, however, that they can completely ignore dollars and cents. The major criteria upon which their project will be judged include its ability to sustain itself after the seed money runs out and whether it can be replicated across countries and cultures. To assist them with that and other aspects of the challenge, they've enlisted the help of various health, science and business advisors, including PHPCP Director and Professor of Biology Barry Rothman.

"It's really key you're able to marry the business side and the health care side," Mittra said. "The projects that are able to obtain funding and survive are those that can sustain themselves and be long lasting, and they are the ones that ultimately have the biggest impact on the health of the people you're serving."

Spaulding, Borja and Mittra are all in the midst of medical school applications, but know if they win the Hult Prize they'll have a responsibility to implement their proposal. And even if they don't win, they agree the experience will be invaluable as they move through their careers.

"Being involved with a project like this has opened a lot of doors, just in the short time that we've worked together," Spaulding said. "It's really showed me that I can work with people I may not have thought about working with. Tricia and Xochilt have been such great team members."

-- Jonathan Morales