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From Boston to Tbilisi

Valley Stream native, a Fulbright scholar, will study hepatitis in Georgia

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Valley Stream native and recent Boston College graduate Joshua Elbaz will soon head off to Eastern Europe in pursuit of his career goals, as a recipient of a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship. The Fulbright program provides grants for recent college graduates to pursue individually designed research projects in foreign countries.

Elbaz, 22, will travel to Tbilisi, Georgia, to conduct a study on the susceptibility to hepatitis C among refugees from other countries and Georgians who have been displaced by conflict in their own country. His goals are to develop statistics on the prevalence and transmission of the disorder, assess the country’s hepatitis C elimination program and pilot new surveillance technology developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among those gathered in Georgian refugee camps.

“It’s really encouraging that [the Fulbright program] deemed me capable of something like this, and I feel a lot of responsibility to take advantage of it,” Elbaz said. “I just hope I can do something meaningful.”

He became interested in medicine in middle school years, he said, and later volunteered at local hospitals while attending Hewlett High School. In 2013 he was named a semifinalist in the Siemens Math, Science and Technology Competition for a project he and several classmates developed on the use of switchgrass as feedstock for biofuel production.

At Boston College, Elbaz was nominated to the university’s Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program, a leadership-building scholarship program. He worked as a summer teaching assistant at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, and volunteered at the city’s St. Francis House day shelter. In whatever free time he had, he served as campaign director for GlobeMed, a student organization determined to further the movement for health equity; wrote for B.C.’s Life Science Journal; and co-founded Overlooked and Overdosed, an opioid crisis advocacy group.

“The most frustrating thing for me in high school was the difficulty of taking advantage of free time,” Elbaz said, “so at B.C. I made sure to jump on opportunities and put myself out there.”

A freshman philosophy course, he said, gave him new perspective on the world of medicine, and he decided to pursue a double major in biology and philosophy. “The scientific method has a formula for consensus: one thing affects another, and you can anticipate it and it’s logical,” Elbaz said. “But going through the philosophy major and looking deeper into the human experience, it’s the element of uncertainty — how we deal with paradoxes and impossible situations — that touches on a very interesting point of how our human experience is formed by a different set of rules.”

Overall, he said, his college experience broadened his interest into a more global outlook on medicine, which inspired his upcoming Fulbright project.

His heritage steered him toward a focus on Eastern Europe. His mother, Irena, immigrated to New York from Georgia in 1990, while the country was struggling to establish itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Growing up close to his mother’s side of the family, Joshua was regularly exposed to Georgian culture, and said it was always present in his life. Not only does he speak the language, which is required for the program, but he grew up eating Georgian food and following the culture’s traditions.

“Being a Georgian-American was an extremely formative component of my identity,” he said, “but it was not one that I ever expected to cross over to my professional trajectory.”

“Josh going to Georgia means a lot,” his mother added. “Every time I think about it, I get goose bumps. I’m so proud of him for going back to help people there. I don’t have the words to describe it.”

Elbaz now has an opportunity to combine his passion for health, his desire to help others and his pride as a Georgian-American with his Fulbright work. “In terms of individual readiness, it’s one thing to learn how to best apply your skills,” he said, “but traveling alone and figuring out how to manage in that sense is entirely different and valuable in its own way.”