Gregory Damhorst, an M.D./Ph.D. Bioengineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been selected to receive the Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award at an April 9th ceremony at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.
Damhorst, who earned an M.S. in Bioengineering, and a B.S. in Physics at Illinois, is working with Rashid Bashir, Bioengineering department head, to develop point-of-care technologies for whole blood diagnostics, especially for applications related to HIV/AIDS.
The international award is being presented to Damhorst for his outstanding academic record in the prestigious Medical Scholars Program and his tireless volunteer work on behalf of global health and disaster relief. The annual award is given to an Illinois graduate student whose innovation and sustained international research or public service abroad has made a significant impact on the U of I or the larger international community.
Edward A. Kolodziej, director of the Illinois Center for Global Studies, nominated Damhorst for the award.
“Greg’s work embodies a critical understanding of the link between the challenges we face at home and those faced by millions around the globe and speaks to the interconnectedness and interdependency of the human population today,” Kolodziej said. “He exemplifies the highest ideals of selflessness and humanitarian service at Illinois and around the world.”
Kolodziej and the Center for Global Studies first collaborated with Damhorst in 2011 when he co-founded the Global Health Initiative at Illinois after winning a competitive Graduate College Focal Point grant with Dr. Bashir and Dr. Andiara Schwingel.
Since then, Damhorst has worked with faculty, students and academic units across the campus to organize numerous lectures and seminars that bring high-profile experts and innovators here to address pressing global health challenges.
“Greg’s rigorous M.D./Ph.D. training, including his research focus on point-of-care medical diagnostics, is consistent with his overall goal in life — to serve others,” said Dr. James M. Slauch, director of the Medical Scholars Program. “This dedication to service permeates his life, and he is a true leader, both in our program and across campus.”
Dr. Janet A. Jokela, associate professor of clinical medicine and head of the U of I College of Medicine’s internal medicine department, said Damhorst sought out her expertise in infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS during his early days as a Medical Scholar.
“That’s unusual and it speaks volumes to the potential impact his research efforts will have,” she said. “Greg ranks amongst the top Medical Scholars Program students that I have had the privilege of working with over the last 15 years since I have been at Illinois. He shows great promise to become a productive, creative and independent physician-scientist, and his current work epitomizes the best of translational research.”
Three years ago, Damhorst organized a 12-day study/observational experience in the Cape Coast of Ghana for a group of 19 faculty, staff and Ph.D. students. The group visited health care centers, clinics, hospitals and universities to observe operations and to discuss opportunities for international collaboration with potential partners.
In 2013-2014, on behalf of the Global Health Initiative and with support from the University YMCA’s Global Engagement Partnership Program, Damhorst launched an international partnership program in global health with the University of Njala in Sierra Leone.
After winning a second Focal Point grant in 2014, Damhorst and the Global Health Initiative are now organizing a series of workshops to help develop new global health courses as part of the Illinois-Njala Partnership, garnering funding for students and faculty to engage in strategic planning with Njala University around mutual research interests, and organizing a symposium to present the partnership to the campus community.
Damhorst’s commitment to outreach also includes launching humanitarian aid efforts. In April 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, he initiated the Million Meals for Haiti project on the Illinois campus, leading a team of more than 5,000 student and community volunteers in a two-day effort that packaged more than 1 million meals for Haitian refugees.
This effort formed the basis for Damhorst’s founding of Illini Fighting Hunger in 2012. He recruited, trained and mentored an undergraduate student leadership team to operate the student organization, which has packaged nearly 825,000 individual meals and more than 65,000 pounds of additional food for distribution by food banks throughout Illinois.
Recently, in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Damhorst began working with the Illinois-based Scientific Animations Without Borders initiative, lending his medical and global health expertise to develop an Ebola prevention animation for distribution in Sierra Leone and other affected nations.
“The Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award affirms the importance of student leadership and how much this campus values the role of graduate students in making innovative strides toward global engagement,” Damhorst said. “My hope is that the award inspires our campus to consider not only what we can do to address health issues globally, but also how we go about it, so that we continue to empower students at Illinois, Njala University in Sierra Leone, and elsewhere who will be the global health leaders of the future.”