M.D./Ph.D. student wins Soros Fellowship
Since he arrived in New York City in 2006 as a 16-year-old immigrant from Suriname, Lorenzo R. Sewanan has packed in what looks like a lifetime of experiences. Sewanan, who is in his sixth year of the M.D.-Ph.D. Program, worked on a team that has designed prize-winning firefighting robots. He’s volunteered with Curtin Volunteers, a student-led service group, in indigenous communities in Western Australia, where he worked on educational initiatives and community service in mining towns. He’s won an international poetry prize and been interviewed by The New Yorker. And this engineer-poet-physician-in-training can fix a mean batch of yuca (cassava) fries.
This year, Sewanan won a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a two-year $90,000 educational grant. He was one of just 30 immigrants nationwide to receive an award that drew 1,775 applications.
“I feel lucky,” Sewanan said. “I really appreciate getting to stand as a placeholder for all the great work that immigrants of all kinds are doing, trying to give back to American society.”
Sewanan was born to Guyanese parents in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America; the family’s ancestors were among a 20th-century diaspora that left India for what was then known as British Guyana to become indentured laborers. He and his younger sister Amanda grew up in Paramaribo speaking English and Dutch; their parents sold clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics in a small shop. After Lorenzo finished the 11th grade, the family immigrated to the United States. He completed high school at a public school in Jamaica, Queens.
That may sound like a painful transition, but it wasn’t bad. In Suriname, Sewanan explained, people from neighboring Guyana were subject to discrimination after fleeing political turmoil in the 70s and 80s.
“You get made fun of a lot for speaking Dutch with a Guyanese accent, or for speaking English, for instance,” he said. “When I moved to the States, I felt more at home. ... Everyone was an immigrant from somewhere in that area of Queens.”
The next stop was harder for an immigrant from Suriname: affluent, mostly white Trinity College in Connecticut. “Fitting in was tough,” he recalls. He majored in physics and engineering (hence the robots), with a minor in writing and rhetoric. Sewanan also worked as an EMT, mentored students in a “Physics in Science Fiction” class, and studied abroad in Perth.
When he was a sophomore, a workshop on reflective writing and literature in medicine launched his interest in the medical humanities. Once he read physician-author Abraham Verghese’s memoir My Own Country—“an incredible journey”—he knew he wanted to explore medicine.
Drawn to Yale in part because of its robust medical humanities program, Sewanan kept writing. He co-founded a health professions literary journal, Murmurs. In 2013, he won the Marguerite Rush Lerner Award for poetry, as well as the Yale UCL Collaborative Poetry Competition. The latter award landed him in The New Yorker, where he appeared in a “Talk of the Town” story called “Poet, M.D.”
When Sewanan isn’t writing poetry, he’s righting wrongs. In 2013, Sewanan co-founded Students for a Better Healthcare System, in which medical students held teach-ins in New Haven about health care access after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For their efforts, the students received a 2015 Yale University Seton Elm-Ivy Award.
For Sewanan, such activism is partly personal: prior to the ACA’s 2010 passage, he had family and friends who struggled with spending caps, restrictions for preexisting conditions, and losing health insurance. “It was very obvious that this was stuff we should try to help people with,” he said.
In 2015, Sewanan joined the Integrative Cardiac Biomechanics Lab of biomedical engineering professor Stuart Campbell, Ph.D. They’re working to grow new tissues made with stem cells from patients with cardiomyopathy. These tissues can increase understanding of the disease and possibly lead to new therapies.
“The heart is one of the most mechanical organs—it’s so beautiful, and the purest version of biomechanics that we can get,” he said. “I also just love the idea of cardiology from a poetic sense as well. It’s very poetic to fix people’s hearts. … not to be too corny.”
In his spare time, Sewanan enjoys reading, writing, exploring the outdoors, and tasting craft beers. And he likes to cook.
“I’m known for my yuca fries,” he said. “I love making stuff that reminds me of home.”