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'I want to educate and empower the public'

By Arthur J Pais
May 07, 2009 11:27 IST
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Get Ahead presents an interview with six Indian-origin youngsters who won prestigious fellowships in the United States.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans gives out 30 grants to deserving candidates each year on a nationally competitive basis; this year, the Indian-American community garnered six, which translates into a maximum funding of $36,000 per candidate.

Here, Harvard graduate and first-year medical student Ashish Agrawal, 22, discusses how he came to win the prestigious grant and what he intends to do with the money.

"I was a high school junior working in an immunology lab at Stanford University when my supervisor began talking about 'sexy' and the 'other kind' of science," he starts off.

Sexy science, Agrawal learned, included mostly lab research that could grab a front-page headline in the science section of a newspaper. The 'other' science involved less prominent clinical research that involved using technology discovered in the lab.

'It was impossible for me to predict it then,' Agrawal wrote in his qualifying essay, 'but I had just started on a journey -- exploring science that was both sexy and not sexy.'

Now pursuing a career as a physician/scientist and clinical researcher, Agrawal is a first-year MD candidate at the University of California in San Francisco. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 2008 in biochemical sciences and, while at Harvard, led and expanded two volunteer programmes, one to provide support for low-income hospital patients and the other to train CPR and First Aid instructors.

He has also founded a UCSF chapter of Crisis Health Initiative to sponsor American public health study for physicians from developing countries including Iraq. "We help the physicians to learn more about working under adverse conditions in their home countries, be it in a civil war area or a place devastated by a natural disaster," he says of the programme that incorporates two physicians a year.

On the importance of giving back, Agrawal points at father Sid, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who passed away recently and mother Asha, who offers yoga classes in the San Francisco Bay area. Their two families, both of modest means, had to scrape and sacrifice to pay tuition fees for their children, Agrawal learnt. But because of his grandparents' contributions to the education of his parents, they became the first people in their families to ever earn a bachelor's degree.

"My parents understood that this investment was critical to their success, and so each year they helped poor relatives in India study through school and college," Agrawal points out.

'Much like my parents, I am also the product of those around me,' he wrote in his essay. 'My parents have had to sacrifice for me to get a bachelor's degree from Harvard and to start medical school at UCSF. In less than four years, I will be the first person in my extended family to earn a doctoral degree. My accomplishments would not have been possible without both the investment of my parents as well as the American community, which has built a system that in just two generations can take a poor immigrant from India and produce an Ivy League graduate in America.'

He sees in his future a career not just as a scientist but also as a researcher who will engage the public. "There are many doctors who are scientists, but their work is mostly focused on sharing their research with the medical fraternity," he says. "I want to educate and empower the public by letting them know about the research work, and the new medications that could affect their lives in dramatic ways."

He notes that his lab research at Stanford was his first exploration of 'sexy' science. 'I worked in a cutting-edge research laboratory on a drug to treat Multiple Sclerosis, a project that would result in my first professional publication,' he writes. 'I loved exploring the edge of human knowledge, learning things that no one had learned before. When I got to college, I continued to delve into high-profile research, this time working at UCSF and at Harvard to explore HIV and its interaction with the human immune system.'

While at UCSF, he worked on a team that discovered a reliable marker that could notify the immune system if a cell was infected with HIV. 'This discovery solves one of the largest problems in creating vaccines and therapeutics for HIV, and it could revolutionise the treatment of viral infections,' Agrawal, who is listed as an author on the manuscript published last year and as inventor on the two patents filed in the US and internationally in this regard, wrote in his essay.

Simultaneously, he has been thinking about the questions scientists try to answer through clinical research. In the early 1970s, survival rates for childhood leukemia were about 20 percent, he found out By the late 1990s, survival rates had jumped to 80 percent. 'Yet there were no new drugs, and there were no accompanying headlines in The New York Times,' he wrote in his essay. 'Instead, the success resulted from decades of small steps and physicians who tested new dosages and routes of administration of existing drugs.'

"My ultimate goal is that high school students in the future will not learn about clinical research as the lesser-known sibling of lab research," he asserts, "but as a field deserving its own headlines in The New York Times."

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Arthur J Pais