Jorge Antonio Ochoa CC’19 has been awarded the highly competitive National Institutes of Health Bioethics Fellowship (2020-22), which provides two years of study and support to develop and implement an independent scholarship agenda. He is the first fellow from Columbia University in the 20-plus year history of the fellowship.
Jorge Antonio Ochoa CC’19
NIH Fellows are selected for previous academic achievements, commitment to scholarship and potential impact on bioethics. Usually three pre-doctoral fellows are selected annually from a field of 60 applicants. Alumni go on to careers in medicine, law, public health, health policy, psychology and sociology — all of which align with Ochoa’s work to date, which has examined the intersection of medical and legal systems, and experimental research that occurs in non-laboratory, non-traditional settings.
“I’m currently looking at the medicalization of juvenile delinquents — things like mandated therapy, court psychiatrists, and the ways in which race matters in medical-legal spaces,” he said. “Traditionally, bioethics looked at clinical settings, so I’m trying to pose new areas of research.”
Throughout the fellowship, NIH mentors will partner with Ochoa to map out his areas of focus. “I’m just starting to understand the landscape of these institutions and the prestige connected to them,” Ochoa said. “The department of bioethics at NIH is one of the best in the world.”
“We are thrilled that Jorge has received this prestigious fellowship,” said Ariella Lang, associate dean of Academic Affairs and director of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. “The NIH fellowship provides Jorge the opportunity to pursue his research interests in bioethics and in questions related to the history of race and inequality, in a very strong department (bioethics). We are excited to see what discoveries he'll make during his time there.”
Ochoa’s journey to Columbia College — from which he will graduate this May with a double major in neuroscience and behavior, and ethnicity and race studies — began in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“When I was a senior in high school, I attended the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center,” Ochoa said. “Someone there shared the work of Oliver Sacks with me and I went on to read every single book by him.”
The renowned author, who died in 2015, was a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. “I learned Columbia had [a] great neuroscience program,” Ochoa said. “When I got in, I was enthusiastic to come here and dive in.”
Once he arrived, Ochoa was able to create an individualized course of study with interdisciplinary training looking at questions of health, science, medicine and inequality. He was able to created what he described as “a mini public health curriculum” shaped with the help of many Columbia professors, from Professor of Sociology Alondra Nelson — whose book about the Black Panthers and health activism was the subject of one of Ochoa’s final papers — to Ziff Professor of Psychology Carl Hart, whose work showed Ochoa “the ways in which science has fueled racist policy, the war on drugs and drug policy.”
Ochoa also interns at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, working in the bureau of alcohol and drug-use prevention care and treatment, where ongoing efforts to reduce mortality in opioid overdoses present interesting parallels.
“I’ve observed public health interventions — to lessen mortality — that are also research studies, to see if they’re working. In creating an intervention there is experimentation; you need control groups,” he said. “Questions arise such as who should be included and excluded. So, I’m positing experiments beyond the laboratory as an area of study.”
While eventually becoming a professor himself is “definitely on the table,” Ochoa will also spend the next two years of the fellowship judging whether to pursue an academic or a more applied route, like a juris doctor or public health degree. Ultimately, he wants to combine the scholarly with the practical.
“This fellowship invests time and resources into you with structured mentorship [and] I’m excited to see where those go,” Ochoa said. “Two years is a good amount of time to create something meaningful.”