The recipients of the 2020 Oliver W. Koonz Prize — which recognizes the innovative work being done on human rights by students — are Selin Ocal and James Robinson. Below are the responses of the 2020 Koonz Prize judges, Professors Claudia Koonz, Robin Kirk and James Chappel and a short introduction of both winners.

2020 Best Essay

Selin Ocal, “Addressing Hepatitis C in the American Incarcerated Population: Strategies for Nationwide Elimination.”

Selin Ocal’s prizewinning essay, coauthored with a faculty mentor, is entitled “Addressing Hepatitis C in the American Incarcerated Population: Strategies for Nationwide Elimination.” Building on research funded by a Human Rights Summer Research Grant, Ocal shows how a public health intervention in the prison system might help to control the nationwide epidemic of Hepatitis C. For a variety of reasons, prisoners are more likely to have the disease; and yet, because of the testing mechanisms available to them, this does not often translate into effective treatment. The paper is a sterling example of the necessity of a human rights framework for medical thinking and public health—a necessity that is all too apparent now, in the era of COVID-19. The paper is grounded in a thorough understanding of the capacious literature on this subject, and was published in an important medical journal. You can read Selin Ocal’s paper here.

Selin Ocal is a Duke University senior from Cliffside Park, New Jersey completing her major in Biology and minor in History. Selin has always had an interest in human rights studies, as well as science and medicine. Though seemingly separate fields, Selin finally found her true passion in a unique area of public health where these two interests converged: the health of the incarcerated population. Not only has she worked with prisoners on death row in North Carolina, but is also involved with improving health care access for inmates transitioning to life after release around the state. As she prepares to start medical school in the fall, Selin hopes to ultimately serve this underserved population as a physician, and to continue advocating for them through research and service in the future. 

2020 Best Alternative Project

James Robinson, “Land Loss in Louisiana”

James Robinson has produced a remarkable, multimedia exploration of land loss in Louisiana. Sea level rise is leading to a shrinking of the Louisiana coast, and also the devastation of local ecologies by seawater. Through an evocative use of images, audio, and video—capped off with a beautiful ten-minute documentary—the project brings viewers into the hearts and homes of those affected. “This was considered a safe place,” one of his interview subjects tells him. “Not no more,” she mournfully adds. The project powerfully shows how this beloved landscape became unsafe. It shows, too, how ecological loss dovetails with, and compounds, a long history of racialized subjugation and exploitation. Many of those affected now are Native Americans, who have lost land before and find themselves, once again, without a place to go. Robinson brings this history to life, reminding us of the importance of an intersectional and historical approach to issues of environmental justice. The film can be viewed here.

James Robinson is currently a senior at Duke, where he is majoring in Environmental Science and Documentary Studies. His environmental films range from documenting sooty terns in the Dry Tortugas to land loss in Louisiana. He enjoys all stages of his filmmaking and has learned to embrace the process—the shoot, the edit, the headaches, the challenges, the closeness, the silence, and the shared vulnerability that meets at the camera’s lens.