Pam Diamond Rock '99, Sarah Marriott '99 and Melissa Ketunuti '99 (left to right)
Melissa Ketunuti ’99 entered medical school intending to become a surgeon. When she decided instead to specialize in pediatrics, none of her Amherst friends were surprised.
"Her life mattered for so many reasons and, through this scholarship, she’ll help open Amherst’s doors to students from around the world.”
“Melissa was a selfless person,” said Pam Diamond Rock ’99, one of Ketunuti’s closest friends. “Pediatrics offered a way to help a vulnerable population affected by poverty and health inequities. She wanted to make as much of a difference as possible.”
Ketunuti was completing a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when she was killed in January 2013. Now, the Melissa Ketunuti Basselier 1999 Memorial Scholarship will help other international students who aspire to serve others through careers in science and medicine.
“Those who knew Melissa well believe this is a legacy she would want. Her life mattered for so many reasons and, through this scholarship, she'll help open Amherst's doors to students from around the world," said Rock.
Born and raised in Thailand, Ketunuti came to Amherst in 1995 and graduated with a degree in neuroscience. She began medical school in 2001 at Washington University in St. Louis before transferring to the Stanford School of Medicine. Ketunuti was awarded a Fogarty Ellison scholarship in 2005, which allowed her to spend ten months in Botswana conducting research on HIV.
According to Rock, that time in Botswana cemented Ketunuti’s passion for international medicine and helping underserved populations. “She was planning to return to Botswana to work with children suffering from HIV and AIDS. Melissa was a dedicated physician and passionate about her research.”
It was Rock, Sarah Marriott ’99 and Manisha Pai ’99—Ketunuti’s Amherst roommates—who approached the College about creating a memorial scholarship. Close friends throughout their undergraduate years, the four had remained connected even as their adult lives took different paths.
Sarah Marriott '99, Pam Diamond Rock ’99, Melissa Ketunuti ’99 (left to right)
“Keeping Melissa’s memory alive at Amherst is so important to us. This was her first home in the United States. She valued the community she’d found and, of course, the outstanding education she’d received,” Rock said.
Stephen George, the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences, Emeritus, described Ketunuti as “a terrific student and a gracious, empathetic person.” He added, “Melissa bravely took my biostatistics course when she was a first-year student, which is virtually unheard of and, characteristically, she did fine. She was optimistic and friendly, with a gentle sense of humor—someone who handled every situation with total aplomb and maturity. Melissa’s death is a tremendous loss not only for her family and friends but also for the medical field and the Amherst community.”
During the Campaign, the scholarship was fully endowed and an additional $108,000 was donated by classmates and friends. Rock hopes that the Class of 1999 will make additional gifts for its 15th Reunion in May.Ketunuti had, in fact, planned to attend the gathering and her friends can’t imagine being back at Amherst without her.
“Melissa was kind and joyful—there is such a void in our lives. And the world lost a doctor who cared deeply about children in developing nations,” said Rock. “But this memorial scholarship is a solace. By the time we return for Reunion, it already will be helping someone else make a difference.”