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A Scholar speaks on Scholarships
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December 14, 2006
Early this year, USA Today chose Hari Prabhakar as one of its 20 undergraduates on its annual All-USA College Academic First Team. Two weeks ago he became one of two dozen students across America chosen for the Marshall Scholarship to study at any top British university.

Among his many extracurricular activities, he has established the Tribal India Health Foundation in the Nilgiris to provide health assistance to a neglected segment of Indian people.

Prabhakar, who was born and raised in Texas, wants to pursue two master's degrees -- at the London School of Hygiene and the Tropical Medicine and at Oxford, with an emphasis in health systems management and health services research.

He is also taking courses in fiction-writing at Johns Hopkins University. Yes, he does plan to write fiction too.

"I am excited at the prospect of augmenting my international health experience at an institution that places heavy emphasis on public health concerns that plague the most impoverished nations," said Prabhakar, who will gain an MSc in health systems management at the London [Images] School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an MSc in health systems management at Oxford's Health Services Research Unit. He plans to attend medical school in the future.

"A combination of clinical training and health systems management experience will provide me with the opportunity to help better the quality of medical care for populations domestically and abroad," he told Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais.

The essay plays an important role in getting a scholarship. What did you stress in your essay?

I wrote the essay like a story, detailing how I first became interested in the indigenous cause, how I researched the topic when I entered college, and how my research and faculty mentors motivated me to bridge the gap between research and public service.

I also stressed the importance of my undergraduate experience in motivating me to pursue medicine as a career, and how knowledge of health systems management would aid me as a physician.

How did your project start in India?

Frankly, I was not really aware about tribal people and their condition till I read an article about an Indian medical couple who had moved from America to work with the tribal people. That inspired me.

And you went around...

I began studying the problem and asked myself what I could do. I started to talking to Indian doctors here, and many of them offered to help. There is an association called ATMA, comprising Tamil doctors. They were of great help.

I also collected more than $16,500 in research fellowships through several Johns Hopkins programmes to learn more about tribal health issues, and that is how this centre came about.

Our main goal is to provide free sickle cell disease screening, treatment and education at a local tribal hospital.

What is your annual budget?

Right now it is just about $10,000, but remember that goes a long way in India. Besides, there are many people who volunteer their time and resources.

What has been most fulfilling in your work with the tribal people?

Admittedly, my lack of clinical training has placed restrictions on directly treating patients, something that I look forward to doing as a physician. However, through revising treatment protocols, securing funding for our initiatives and helping to organise sickle cell interventions, I have had the opportunity too assist our patients in accessing treatments for sickle cell anemia.

Seeing and hearing of their improvement through conversations with the doctors and patients has been most gratifying.

And what has been most frustrating?

Long-term initiatives, such as genetic counselling and sickle cell education throughout the community, require that the tribal community itself be sensitised to the nature of the disease. The time it takes to implement strong counselling and education programmes among a tribal population may be much longer than that for a comparable population in other rural areas.

Cultural practices and education levels prevent immediate implementation of important programmes, which can often be frustrating.

You are also in a writing programme. Are there any doctors who also inspire you as writers?

I have learned from the writings of Atul Gawande (the Harvard physician and writer who was recently named a MacArthur 'Genius' recipient). His articles in The New Yorker, particularly dealing with the treatment poorer people get, have interested me considerably.

Who are the other writers that have influenced you, and in what way?

I have always enjoyed cross-cultural novels that explore the challenges faced by first and second-generation Indians. Bharti Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri do a fantastic job in illustrating these challenges and exploring the theme of what it means to be Indian.

I especially like Mukherjee's short story, The Management of Grief, which is about a widow in Toronto who must come to terms with the loss of her family in the Air-India Kanishka bombing of 1985.

Who are the people in the public life that have inspired you most and in what way?

My mentors at Johns Hopkins and the doctors with whom I work in India are the strongest sources of inspiration for me. For example, Dr Nandakumar Menon and Dr Shailaja Devi, the founders of a tribal hospital in south India, are a doctor couple who used to live in the United States. The fact that they gave up the luxuries associated with being physicians in the United States to serve in a rural area of India is a strong testament to the strength of the human spirit.

What is the most ethical problem you have faced?

In setting up our sickle cell centre, one of the major decisions we have had to make was to provide all patients with free treatment for sickle cell disease, or only tribal patients. As a result of our limited funding, we are only able to provide tribal patients with free treatment, and have asked others to pay on a sliding scale.

Sometimes, non-tribal patients don't have enough money to cover the cost of a critical vaccine, and it is difficult to make exceptions. The ethical implications of these decisions can conflict with the unfortunate realities of resource-strained areas.

Tell us a few things about Kranti and the new album you have brought out.

Kranti was created in 2003 with the purpose of fusing Indian and Western music in a capella format. We are an 11-member group that performs both on and off campus, and we just came out with a demo CD with four songs.

In the future, we hope to be among renowned Indian capella groups, such as Penn Masala and perhaps perform internationally! However, this remains a long-term goal that requires a lot of time and effort.

What is your favourite Hindi film song?

I love Pehla Nasha from the movie Jo Jeeta Woh Sikandar.

You were born in America and you have been here all your life but you seem to be more connected to India than many young people from India who have immigrated here. How did that happen?

My parents have provided me with the invaluable opportunity of being able to visit India on a yearly basis. As a result, I have developed a strong connection with India, and I am thrilled that I have the opportunity to get involved with development work within India.

I feel it is my way of somehow giving back to a country that has provided me with so many diverse experiences.

What is your biggest fear as a professional?

The growing threats of malpractice and insurance problems in the current medical system, which have and could possibly continue to make the lives of doctors very difficult.

I am unclear as to the future of the healthcare system in the United States, and it is certainly daunting.

And as a person?

Balancing professional life with personal goals and hobbies. Being a physician certainly requires a tremendous investment of time and energy, and I hope I will be able to take the time to pursue a limited number of personal hobbies in order to balance out the stresses of being a doctor.

How would you describe yourself? As an idealist, pragmatist?

I tend to think of myself as an optimist. I try and look at most things in a positive light, and see what can be done to change the current state of affairs.

How does that help you?

Sometimes it helps to think outside the box of conventional thinking to see whether uncommon approaches could be applied.

Has religion played any role in your life?

Absolutely. I think faith -- in whatever form it may be -- is important in remaining positive, overcoming obstacles, and forming future goals.

What does spiritualism mean to you?

While the notion of a higher power also placates us in times of distress and hardship, I firmly believe in the practical value of spirituality in daily life. And to remember there is more to life than materialism.

Each year hundreds of Indians prepare for scholarships like the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. What advice would you give them?

The process can definitely be daunting, given the amount of paperwork and preparation that are required for the application and the interviews.

Try to take the experience as a way to better understand yourself and your future goals.

The reality of the situation is, and as is clearly stated by panel members in these competitions, there is a significant element of luck in these competitions because there are more qualified people than number of scholarships available. You will also find that essay-writing and interviewing skills will help you in future endeavours.

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