Health Programs in India
Johns Hopkins Student Named to USA Today's
All-USA College Academic First Team
Hari Prabhakar, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University junior who juggles double-major studies while running health programs for impoverished people in India, paused for just a few minutes this week to catch his breath and acknowledge an important award. On Wednesday, USA Today recognized Prabhakar 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 mentors."
Prabhakar, who is from Dallas, then proceeded to reel off the names of half a dozen prominent faculty members from the university's Homewood and medical campuses in Baltimore. 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 population.
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 first hand. 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 advisors 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. The USA Today honoree has received glowing recommendations from his Johns Hopkins faculty advisors. In his letter in support of Prabhakar's nomination, John B. Bader, associate dean for academic programs and advising in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, 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 world-class level."
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 areas of India and receive little aid from the Indian government, Prabhakar said.
To provide health assistance to tribals in the southern part of the nation, 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 Johns 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 located. "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 Johns Hopkins, where he maintains a high grade point average while majoring in public health studies and writing. (For 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 capella 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."
Color photo of Hari Prabhakar available; contact Phil Sneiderman.
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