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This aspiring doctor wants to cure mental disorders

Last updated on: December 21, 2012 17:03 IST

This aspiring doctor wants to cure mental disorders

Arthur J Pais New York

In the fourth and final part of a series on Indian Americans who have won the George Marshall Scholarship in 2012, Arthur J Pais profiles microbiology student Paras Minhas, who wants to pursue a doctorate at the University College of London and treat mental disorders.

Part I: He won a scholarship for his HIV activism in the US

Part II: Meet the Marshall scholar who wants to uplift slum dwellers

Part III: He'll be using his education to combat cancer, strokes

Growing up on Baltimore's volatile East Side, Paras Minhas, son of a struggling scientist, used to be scared of the gangs, drugs and violence. He was worried about the future.

Even as his family moved to a better neighbourhood in Bridgewater, New Jersey, he had begun to be consumed by a concern bigger than the fear of gangs. He had seen a lot of mental illness around him, and was scared by the little attention it received from health professionals and families compared to other ailments.

Minhas, who is majoring in microbiology and minoring in chemistry and mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, is a debater, student leader, and researcher.

"Paras Minhas's activities are characterised by an exemplary work ethic, noteworthy leadership and independence, and unusual maturity," said University Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker in a statement.

When he began undergraduate studies, Minhas's interest began volunteering at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center psychiatric wards as well as neurology units, and cared for patients, many of whom could not communicate.

"I shadowed physicians and examined neurosurgeries to treat patients with brain injuries," he wrote in the Marshall Scholarship qualifying essay.

"Wishing to help further, I became an emergency medical technician to provide frontline care for patients who were injured."

He also took up a position at the Student Health Advisory Board. Within a month, he was elected president and simultaneously launched a depression and wellness campaign to combat the suicide rate on campus as well as a vaccination campaign.

He campaigned to extend the counselling clinic hours for students, especially on weekends and late on weekdays. And he brought back dermatology specialists to the Student Health Center.

Though these experiences made him realise he wanted to become a physician, he also wanted to provide permanent solutions to the problems of mental and neurodegenerative disorders.

He won the 2012 Barry M Goldwater Scholarship after he developed an innovative way to treat bipolar disorder, drawing upon techniques acquired from his Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic research experiences.

This past summer he conducted research at MIT in cognition and memory. He was an Amgen Scholar at MIT, chosen by the international programme that funds student research opportunities at top institutions in the United States and Europe.

As an Amgen Scholar, Minhas was one of 20 students across the US selected. He investigated the role of the HDAC3 enzyme in cognition, memory, and mental illness.

In May 2011, through the national Longitude Pittsburgh Organisation he founded at the university, he taught 30 Ghanaian adolescents health education, including basic hygiene techniques, infectious diseases, and sexual safety.

While working with Meshach Bondzie, the headmaster of the Professional Secretarial Academy in Accra, Ghana, Minhas realised the school, a shack divided into four classrooms by cardboard planks, needed urgent help.

That led to the creation of LPO, dedicated to bringing healthcare, education, and sustainability to the orphan children of PROFESA. He raised a group of volunteering students and professors and worked on seeking grants.

Helped by Rotary International and the Jennifer Cohen Foundation, LPO bought water filters, and purchased property to build classrooms for PROFESA, and continue work at a community clinic to ensure the students receive proper health care.

Minhas credits quite a bit of his success to his passion for debate.

"Debates have taught me to think systematically and be focused," he said. "I have been able to argue my position on health care because of my debating skills"

"I have been creating arguments and developing my voice through debate," he adds. "As a high school student, I placed fourth at the National Debate Tournament."

Minhas plans to obtain an MD/PhD in microbiology and become a primary investigator of the etiologies of mental disorders.

His immediate plan is to work on his doctorate at the University College of London in cell biology. He plans to work on his MD at the University of Pittsburgh following his graduation in London.

Image: Paras Minhas