As a first-year summer intern at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Grahamstown, South Africa, Emma Neff ’10 was charged with investigating government negligence that may have contributed to the deaths of more than 100 infants.
The children died from exposure to contaminated water, and Neff’s research showed that three government bodies shared responsibility for the disaster—two for distributing the tainted resource and one for failing to respond appropriately as the tragedy unfolded. By summer’s end, Neff had amassed enough information to file a legal claim against all parties on behalf of the LRC. “Government officials clearly should have known about the contamination and should have taken some action,” she recalls.
With its human rights and public health components, the tragic controversy tapped into Neff’s dual professional interests: In addition to earning a degree from Columbia Law School, she expects to graduate from Duke University School of Medicine in 2011.
An aspiring surgeon, Neff has focused on public interest issues during her time at the Law School. She analyzed Liberian mining contracts for the Human Rights Clinic and served on the staff of the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, which recently published her student note on how best to analyze social and economic rights litigation. This spring, Neff helped the Center for Reproductive Rights prepare a report on racial disparities in access to reproductive care. The center will submit that report to the U.N. Human Rights Council later this year.
Neff, who will return to Duke in the fall, hopes to use both her medical and legal training to perform international relief work. “Law makes a difference in big picture, long-term ways,” Neff says. “And governments and decision-makers listen to lawyers in a way they don’t listen to other professionals, even doctors.”