(Photography by Jason Smith)

Her best shot

Taylor Simpson, the Division III women’s basketball player of the year, casts a wide net.

A fourth-year aspiring heart surgeon majoring in visual arts, Taylor Simpson has taught art in India and founded the UChicago chapter of a public-health nonprofit providing medical care in Honduras and Panama. She’s also the 2012 Division III women’s basketball player of the year.

Simpson led the Maroons to a school-record 27 wins and a second straight NCAA tournament appearance, where they lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Calvin College, their only defeat of the season. Simpson averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Her 3.81 grade-point average also earned her academic all-American honors.

“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,” head coach Aaron 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.”

When she arrived on campus from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Simpson wasn’t sure whether to pursue her passion for visual arts, which seemed to have little connection to her planned medical career. Yet she discovered links between the two subjects. “Majoring in art has actually helped me in my premed classes,” Simpson says. “Being so visual has really helped me in organic chemistry, visualizing models and reactions.”

In her art Simpson uses found objects—car mats, rusty nails, plastic bags—in sculptures and collages to convey what she sees as hidden beauty. Scott Wolniak, lecturer in visual arts, says, “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.”

As a first-year Simpson intervened in a different way: she heard about Global Brigades, a nonprofit that sends students, doctors, and medical supplies to Honduras, Panama, and Ghana to set up mobile health clinics. There was no chapter at the University, so Simpson called the national coordinator. “He laughed at me at first,” Simpson says, “I guess because I was so young.”
The following summer Simpson, two dozen other students, and a team of UChicago doctors flew to Honduras, where they spent a week treating 300 to 600 people a day who lacked access to medical care.

A year later Simpson traveled to Varanasi, India, to teach arts to elementary students through 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 a ten-week visual-arts curriculum for grades K–8.

While in India, she found a basketball court at a nearby university and approached some players. Initially shocked that a girl wanted to play, they were soon playing nonstop pick-up games for two to three hours. “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.”

Her fitness showed on the court the following season. As a third-year Simpson led the Maroons in scoring and rebounding, as UChicago won the UAA conference championship and advanced to the Elite Eight in the Division III NCAA tournament for the first time. “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,” Simpson says. “We all get along so well, and I think it really shows on the court.”

Since last season, the Maroons have 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 games this year, leading Chicago to another UAA title and NCAA berth. Roussell, who left in April for Bucknell, says the group’s success “surpasses anything that any other class has done.”

Simpson’s personal string of accomplishments is 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.”


Interview with Taylor Simpson.