Sophia Zupanc ’19, 2019 Watson Fellow

Sophia Zupanc

Tell us a little bit about your Watson project and where it will be taking you!

My Watson project is titled, “Dispatches from Death: Exploring How We Die.” Broadly, I endeavor to explore how notions of a ‘dignified death’ are socially and medically constructed. Beliefs about death and dying shaped by the culture, institutions, and norms under which an individual lives, though what actually happens at the end of life is often dictated by the local medical institutions, available resources, and the socioeconomic/political climate. I’ll be travelling to Greece, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands — all countries that will allow me to explore the tension between the social and the medical.

I think my project is described best by the description I wrote for the Foundation’s website: “What constitutes a dignified death? How are notions of death and dying shaped by the culture, institutions, and norms under which an individual lives? What is the balance between the use of life-saving treatment and meeting end-of-life care needs? Communities whose death and dying rituals differ from those traditionally found in the US offer some answers. Through participant observation, interviews, and volunteer experiences, I will explore how the notion of a "dignified death" is socially and normatively constructed.”

What (or who) are the major influences in your life that has inspired you to pursue this path?

I’ve always felt lucky to have mentors in my life that have supported every wonky idea or interest of mine. As you’ll see in the answer to my next question, I don’t think I so much decided to become very interested in end-of-life care, it sort of just happened organically and almost somewhat accidently. When I started to become very interested in these issues, I had just begun a research position at Dana-Farber’s Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, was enrolled in a number of health-related courses at Wellesley and was personally grappling with questions related to serious illness. One of my closest supporters/mentors is a palliative care social worker, and at that time she said to me, “Once you get into end-of-life care, you may never get out.” I believe she said that because death and dying is so profound, intellectually, philosophically, and emotionally — we all have in common some sort of experience with serious illness/death, we all think about questions related to it. She was right, and I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.

How did your pre-Wellesley life influence your interest in this project?/ How has your time at Wellesley shaped your proposal? Your professors? Career Education?

I came to Wellesley knowing that I was really interested in two academic areas: public policy and math. I was interested in those areas because I felt they provided the tools through which I could do good in the world. Somewhat naively, I figured that economics was the intersection of the two, so it made sense to study that. Four years later, I will graduate with a major in economics and a minor in mathematics. My studies may seem somewhat incongruous with my project, but really my project just represent the maturation of the motivations that prompted my course. Wellesley’s broad-sweeping liberal arts curriculum exposed me to the many other ways that problems can (and should) be evaluated and also peaked my interest in opportunities like the Watson Fellowship which would allow me to look at an issue in a very broad, multi-disciplinary sense.

I became very interested in natural language processing (a computer science technique that uses machine learn to interpret and analyze text) during my sophomore year, and particularly in its application to questions related to health and welfare. In the summer before my junior year, a doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was looking for a research assistant for a line of research that uses natural language processing techniques to improve care delivered at the end-of-life. Serendipitously, this opportunity arose at a time when questions related serious illness were also at the forefront of my personal life. From then on, I really haven’t looked back. I started to become very interested in public health—taking a number of health-related courses throughout many of Wellesley’s departments — and also started to volunteer at a local hospice. Everyone at Wellesley and Dana-Farber (professors, mentors, chaplains) have encouraged my curiosity (intellectual and otherwise) in end-of-life health issues. In typical Wellesley fashion, they also have gone above and beyond — providing books they think I might be interested in, advising thesis and independent studies, being open to discussing any ideas!”

To:  “In typical Wellesley fashion, they also have gone above and beyond — providing books they think I might be interested in, advising independent research, and being open to discussing any ideas!

What did you learn or gain from going through the Watson application process?

When first beginning to craft my application, I often heard two sentiments about Watson: “The foundation invests in people, not projects” and “The person should be the project and the project should be the person.” Both of these speak to the fact that crafting a proposal is a very introspective process. I was challenged to understand my motivations and interest in death and dying, then explain how those have informed my life’s course. From this, I gained a deeper sense of myself, academically and personally, which was rewarding in and of itself.

What inspired you to take the leap and apply? Or, what would you say to encourage your peers to apply?

The wonderful people in the Fellowships Office! Seriously, they are absolutely fantastic individuals—always available to chat about proposals, work out logistics, or provide counseling when called upon. Though I became convinced in my junior year that I wanted to apply for a Watson (because I heard about the Watson through one of the Fellowship Office’s informational seminars!), they were a necessary and invaluable support system throughout the process.

What most excites you about this opportunity?

Practically everything! I’ve always felt that there is so very much for me to learn about end-of-life care and death and dying since there are many discipline that ask questions related to it. I am excited to learn from all those that meet across those fields. My Watson year provides to opportunity to deeply engage with big questions that cannot really be understood, let alone answered, from formal study alone. Perhaps the most important skill I will develop throughout my Watson year is how to not only engage with, but encourage the exploration of, discomfort and differences associated with death and dying.