The pursuits of a scholar

When Lydia Wilson was 13 she traveled with her grandparents to Croatia, where her grandfather was born.

On that and subsequent trips, she fell in love with the coastal European country situated across the Adriatic Sea from the boot of Italy.

“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to live there” long enough to truly experience it, she says.

Now she will.

This month, Wilson, 26, begins a nine-month research mission in Croatia as a Fulbright Scholar.

“As soon as I saw the email, my heart just stopped. ‘I’m going to Croatia,’” recalls Wilson, who will receive her master’s degree in medical physics from LSU in December.

Her research in Croatia will center around a startling statistic. Even though Croatia’s incidence rate of cancer is almost equal to that of the United States, Croatia’s cancer mortality rate is nearly twice as high.

As Wilson writes on her blog,, where she’ll be recording the events of her overseas stay, “… I fundamentally do not believe that someone’s chance at life should be dependent on where they were born. … This isn’t even just an international problem. … I don’t believe that someone who gets diagnosed with cancer in rural Nebraska should be offered less of a chance at life than someone living down the street from MD Anderson in Texas.”

Wilson has shown the curiosity, creativity and strong work ethic that are “among the most important traits for scientists who aspire to become leaders in academic research and clinic practice,” says Dr. Wayne Newhauser, Wilson’s professor and director of LSU’s Medical Physics and Health Physics program, as well as the Dr. Charles M. Smith Chair of Medical Physics.

A native of Chicago, Wilson received her undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, before coming to LSU for her graduate studies.

Medical physics, also called health physics, is the science of human health and radiation exposure.

Wilson describes the program at LSU as one of the best in the country, with an opportunity for both academic study and clinical research. LSU and Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center are partners in the program.

In her graduate work, Wilson developed a model for predicting the dose of radiation that’s being delivered outside a cancer tumor during treatment.

One of her professors in California, knowing of Wilson’s love for Croatia, suggested she apply for a Fulbright scholarship.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to foster international partnerships. Its U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program — about 1,900 grants are awarded annually in all fields of study, and it operates in more than 140 countries.

Wilson began the application process two years ago. It involved finding her own research project as well as an affiliate in Croatia; written essays; an interview with her professor and an evaluation by a Fulbright committee, before her application was sent to Croatia for the final word.

Wilson will be doing her research at the University Hospital for Tumors in the city of Zagreb, the capital and largest city of Croatia.

Wilson’s grandfather, Nick Batistizh, was born in Lumbarda, on the island of Korcula in the southern part of Croatia. He came to the U.S. in 1957 at age 19 and went on to establish an architectural firm in Chicago, where he lives today.

“In the village where Grandpa is from, people stop you and hug you. They’re so glad you came back,” Wilson says of her visits to Croatia, which she describes as “gorgeous.”

At the hospital in Zagreb, Wilson will follow the cases of patients prescribed radiation. She’ll be looking at different factors, such as cancer treatment options, the radiation equipment used and dosage, as well as the ease of access to treatment for patients.

After her return from Croatia, Wilson plans to pursue a Ph.D. in medical physics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“My hope is to be able to pinpoint something, so I can say, ‘If these changes were made, it would lower the mortality rate,’” Wilson says of her research. “Obviously, I would like to go as a humble observer. If there is something I can fix, I will try.”