February 27, 2012

A multi-talented leader on the undefeated women’s basketball team, Simpson aspires to become a surgeon.

Feature by Michael Lipkin | Main photo by Jason Smith

Taylor Simpson’s mind is constantly on the move.

A fourth-year pre-med majoring in visual arts who aspires to become a heart surgeon, Simpson also founded the UChicago chapter of a public health non-profit providing medical care in developing countries, has tended to villagers in Honduras, taught art in India, and is a prospective Teach for America corps member.

With that intense schedule, Simpson’s demanding role as a leader of the second-ranked UChicago women’s basketball team comes almost as a relief.

“You can get so engrossed and engaged in your classes here,” Simpson says. “But when I’m playing basketball, it’s only about basketball. It’s important to have that balance.”

This year’s Division III preseason player of the year, Simpson has led the Maroons (25-0) to their second straight berth in the NCAA tournament, which begins this weekend. Her school performance and 3.81 grade-point average recently earned her academic all-American honors.

For Simpson and other athletes on the title-contending team, basketball is one element of long-term ambitions that go far beyond the court. Head coach Aaron Roussell says the team sets high expectations for academic achievement as well as athletic performance.

“We’ve had some amazing kids in our program, but in fairness to Taylor, she’s doing things away from athletics that very few others are doing now,” Roussell says. “She’s getting more out of the University of Chicago than anyone I’ve ever come across here, but she is giving back more than anyone else as well.”

Finding lost value in found objects

When she first arrived on campus, Simpson wasn’t sure whether to pursue her passion in visual arts, which seemed to have little connection to the medical career she desired. Yet Simpson discovered surprising links between the two subjects.

“Majoring in art has actually helped me in my pre-med classes,” Simpson says. “Being so visual has really helped me in organic chemistry, visualizing models and reactions.”

Simpson’s art uses found objects—car mats, rusty nails, plastic bags—in sculpture and collage work to convey what she sees as hidden beauty.

“She likes the process of being able to transform the banal and things of low value and bring meaning and worth to those things through her interventions,” says Scott Wolniak, lecturer in visual arts. “She’s developing an abstract vocabulary, really thinking about meaning within found objects and trying to find formal solutions to conceptual problems.”

Expanding her mind, game abroad

As a first-year, Simpson heard about Global Brigades, a non-profit that sends students, doctors, and medical supplies to Honduras and Panama to set up mobile health clinics. There were no chapters at UChicago, so Simpson called the national coordinator.

“He laughed at me at first, I guess because I was so young,” Simpson says.

Yet the following summer Simpson, two dozen other students, and a team of UChicago doctors flew to Honduras.

“Going from village to village over the week, treating 300 to 600 people a day with no access to medical care was amazing,” Simpson says. “The best part of Global Brigades is its sustainability. There are eight other brigades that focus on more than just medicine; for example, we not only cure parasites, but provide clean water solutions and teach the villages sanitary health.”

The following summer, Simpson traveled to Varanasi, India, to teach arts to elementary students as part of Nirman, an Indian NGO. Drawing on her experiences at the Neighborhood Schools Program (in which UChicago students teach in Hyde Park-area schools), she developed 10-week, cohesive visual arts curriculums for grades K-8.

While there, she found a basketball court at a nearby university and approached some of the players. Initially shocked that a girl was playing competitively, they were soon playing non-stop pick-up games for two to three hours, Simpson says.

“They never subbed me out—maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings—and I never wanted to come out,” says Simpson. “I was in the best shape of my life.”

Senior class making history

The following season, Simpson led the Maroons in scoring and rebounding, as UChicago won the UAA conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time in the team’s history.

“Last year we really embodied a selfless attitude that it doesn’t matter who scores,” says Simpson. “I think we have been able to be so successful because we all have this attitude that individual stats don’t matter; it’s all about the team. We all get along so well, and I think it really shows on the court.”

Dating back to last season, the Maroons own a 43-game regular-season winning streak. Fourth-years Simpson, Bryanne Halfhill, Meghan Herrick, Morgan Herrick and Joann Torres started together in all but five of this year’s games, leading UChicago to another UAA title and NCAA berth.

“Our senior class is putting together a run that not only surpasses anything that any other class has done,” says Roussell, “but they are also doing what very few groups have done anywhere over the course of women’s basketball at this level.”

The team is on track for another chance at the NCAA finals, but their success has given them a taste of playoff-level competitiveness in the regular season as well.

“Other teams practice extra hard for us—they have nothing to lose, and we have everything to lose,” Halfhill says. “They play like it’s the national championships every game.”

‘I want it all’

Her string of accomplishments wasn’t part of a long-term plan, according to Simpson, but partially a product of her evolving passions.

“I didn’t do anything consciously, going down a checklist,” she says. “I just wanted to play basketball and be the best I could be. I wanted to do Global Brigades and do the best I could do. It’s what makes me feel satisfied.”

Last month, she advanced past the U.S. Fulbright committee and could now be chosen to teach English in Malaysia. Teach for America rarely allows applicants to defer, but the program can make exceptions for Fulbright fellows. If she decides to do both, she might not start medical school until 2016, a possibility that makes Simpson hesitate.

“Ideally, I’d do both,” Simpson says. “I don’t know whether I can come to terms about not finishing my residency until I’m 35. But I want it all.”