Hari Prabhakar, a 20-year-old junior who juggles
double-major studies while running health programs for
impoverished people in India, paused for just a few minutes
last week to catch his breath and acknowledge an important
award. USA Today had just recognized him as one of
20 undergraduates nationwide named to the newspaper's 2006
All-USA College Academic First Team.
But instead of basking in the attention, which came
with a trophy, a $2,500 cash award and his photo in a
national publication, Prabhakar insisted on deflecting the
glory elsewhere. "I was definitely very happy to hear about
this," he said, "but the one thing that came to mind was
that this honor really belonged to my professors and
Prabhakar, who is from Dallas, then proceeded to reel
off the names of half a dozen prominent faculty members
from the Homewood and medical campuses. The undergraduate
praised these researchers in anthropology, public health,
hematology and pediatrics for helping him launch a
foundation and health center to study, educate and provide
medicine to the tribals, a neglected segment of the Indian
Much of Prabhakar's work has focused on developing
strategies for treating sickle cell anemia, which is common
among the tribals. The undergraduate is not merely learning
about these health problems through textbooks; he has seen
them firsthand. In recent years, Prabhakar has spent three
months each summer and another month during winter breaks
in India, working directly with the tribals.
Yet he insists the real credit for his accomplishments
belongs to his advisers at Johns Hopkins. His faculty
advocates, Prabhakar said, "are the experts in the field. I
only had to send them an e-mail outlining my project when I
was a freshman, and they said they'd be willing to see me.
When I give them the credit, I'm not saying this out of
modesty. When I look back at how my project has come
together, it shows me the power of mentoring. They showed
me my path. They pushed me and showed me the way."
Several of these mentors encouraged Prabhakar last
fall to enter USA Today's 17th annual undergraduate
recognition program. The newspaper said its judges reviewed
more than 600 nominees, from which 20 First Team members
were selected, along with 40 runners-up named to the Second
and Third teams.
Christopher Kovalchick, recognized
with an honorable mention, pairs majors in engineering
mechanics in the Whiting School and violin performance at
PHOTO BY HPIS/WILL KIRK
The newspaper also recognized additional students with
an honorable mention, including Johns Hopkins senior
Christopher Kovalchick of Hamilton, N.J. Kovalchick, 21, is
completing a double major:
mechanics in the Whiting School and violin performance
at the Peabody
Conservatory. He also is finding time for a math minor
in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
Last year Kovalchick earned first place in an
international student paper competition sponsored by the
Society for Experimental Mechanics. He is principal second
violinist in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, which is
comprised mainly of graduate students. As a sophomore, he
served as concertmaster for the undergraduate Peabody
Concert Orchestra. Kovalchick also is president and founder
of the Johns Hopkins University Forensics Team.
Both USA Today honorees have received glowing
recommendations from their Johns Hopkins faculty
In his letter in support of Prabhakar's nomination,
John B. Bader, associate dean for academic programs and
advising in the Krieger School, wrote that "without a doubt
Hari is the most accomplished student I have ever met."
Bader said it is not unusual for a student to express
concern, conduct research or even volunteer to assist a
beleaguered population such as the tribals.
"But Hari has taken all these beyond the point of
reason, founding institutions that help them," Bader wrote.
"He has raised funds, connected with health officials,
enlisted physicians and distributed medical supplies. As
president of his own foundation, Hari chairs meetings with
professionals far beyond him in training and age. He has
become an expert on medical conditions, but more
impressive, he has already mastered the many challenges of
guiding a new institution to make contributions at a
Prabhakar said he learned about the plight of the
tribals while reading through Indian magazines shortly
before his freshman year at Johns Hopkins. He says the
tribals, whose history can be traced back to 1600 B.C.E.
and who make up about 10 percent of India's population,
rank at the lowest levels of India's traditional social
system. They live in many forest-dwelling regions of the
nation and receive little aid from the Indian government,
To provide health assistance to the tribals, the
student started the Tribal India Health Foundation. He
collected $13,500 in research funds through several Johns
Hopkins programs to learn more about their health issues.
After conferring with public health and blood disease
specialists at Hopkins, he raised additional money,
obtained vaccines and other medications and founded a
center to provide free sickle cell disease screening,
treatment and education at a tribal hospital.
Because his parents came from this region, though they
are not tribals, Prabhakar speaks the local language,
Tamil. The skill comes in handy during his regular visits
to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the hospital is
"The reason I did this is because I love Indian
culture and read about the tribals' contributions to it,"
Prabhakar said. "To neglect them is tantamount to losing an
important part of India."
While administering his Indian programs from
Baltimore, Prabhakar also must devote time to his classes
at Hopkins, where he maintains a high grade point average
while majoring in public health studies and
the latter, he often submits original fiction set in
India.) During rare breaks from his studies and the tribal
health programs, he serves as president of Hopkins Kranti,
an Indian a cappella singing group.
Still, Prabhakar's responsibilities to the tribal aid
programs continue to occupy a large and important chunk of
his schedule. "I have found it very challenging to
coordinate an international operation," the undergraduate
said. "It takes a lot of work, and there's not a lot of
free time. But it's worth it when I visit our patients and
see how they and the community are getting better."