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'My message is one of empowerment and independence'

By Arthur J Pais
Last updated on: May 20, 2009 15:12 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, first-year Harvard medical student Shantanu Gaur, 22, discusses how he came to win the prestigious grant and what he intends to do with the money.

Every semester, math Professor Abhay Gaur's new students are confused by his fair complexion, atypically short Indian last name and impeccable sense of fashion, says his son Shantanu Gaur.

'So Dr Gaur, are you Italian? Jewish? Greek? Maybe a mix?,' the professor has been asked, writes Shantanu in his Fellowship essay.

'A mix of sorts,' his father tells the students at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh. 'I'm Indian-American. How was last night's homework?'

His father cherishes these conversations, Shantanu Gaur writes, 'because they are an indication of how far he has come.'

His parents battled hostile relatives in India who scorned them for earning degrees rather than money. His father and mother Vandana, a leader in the merchandising division of Proctor and Gamble, came to America with an open mind that they transmitted to their children.

Gaur plans a career as a physician-scientist. He has a BS in biology from Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude with election to Phi Beta Kappa, and is a first-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. As a sophomore in college, he co-authored a paper in human molecular genetics, his bio notes, and recently cracked a major problem in the field of cell biology, earning a first-authorship in an article submitted to Nature.

'I felt proud that my parents' marriage was not arranged, that they encouraged me to play sports (I was the only Indian American to play competitive soccer in western Pennsylvania, maintaining that distinction through high school) and that I could feel free to discuss any aspect of my life with them -- even my non-Indian girlfriends -- without fear of reprisals,' he writes.

His parents, he says, had a sense of adventure that in practical terms meant taking the initiative and not being scared of failure -- lessons he has kept firmly in mind while tackling anything new.

Thus, in addition to his studies, he made time to co-found the Harvard Online Pharmacy Project (HOPP); founded the Harvard Undergraduate Research Symposium (HURS), and jump-started the Harvard Cricket Club. His passion for cricket is derived from his father.

HURS was the first symposium of its kind at Harvard, and provided a venue for undergraduates to share their research with the Harvard and Boston communities. "Harvard is an institution where students come to study the world," he says, "but there was really no public venue for undergraduate students to display this research."

He solicited over 75 abstracts, assembled a board of ten senior faculty members to review submissions, and coded a HURS web site that accepted online applications. Many of his peers and faculty mentors as well as Harvard President Drew Faust and Provost Steven Hyman have commented that he had started a tradition at Harvard.

"I didn't think so," he confesses. "I had rediscovered a tradition of undergraduate research taken for granted at Harvard and transformed it into an opportunity to teach and educate our community."

Last year, he discovered a new outlet for his young teaching experience through HOPP. Though the law protects the rights of every American patient, in reality rogue pharmacies have been freely using the Internet to sell their wares. They also operate from outside America and swiftly change their names when confronted with a problem.

"I realised quite soon that my goal as a medical student and a future doctor and researcher is not only to protect Americans through education but also through medical awareness: healthy, educated Americans are empowered and can empower others," he says. He decided to be an activist against rogue internet pharmacies after reading about Ryan Haight and Justin Pearson, who died after overdosing on pain medications purchased online.

Current laws will punish rogue pharmacies but the problem has to be stopped right in the bud, he says, and not after the crime has been committed. The primary focus of HOPP is to outline a practical plan to cripple the network of rogue online pharmacies, and to educate young Americans and professionals in training on narcotic painkiller abuse. It will also provide a platform for renewed legislative action to address the lack of punitive surveillance of online drug commerce, he says.

Gaur says his experiences as a teacher remind him of a central concept from another long-standing interest of his: cell biology. "Every cell in our body communicates, senses, and grows through chemical signals. A so-called 'second messenger' is a molecule that, at low concentration, can activate a slew of other molecules termed 'downstream effectors' that amplify the message," he wrote in the essay.

"My own message is one of empowerment, health and independence. My downstream effectors are my students, patients, and fellow Americans protected under the Constitution. I am indeed a second messenger."

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Arthur J Pais