As both an MD and neuroscience PhD student, it would be easy to think of Paras Singh Minhas as someone who is solely focused on the medical and scientific side of the issue he cares most about: mental health. But that would be a mistake. Paras, who is studying at Stanford University, came to the science of mental health after looking at it as a social issue first.
His research has garnered Paras several awards, including the Marshall, Goldwater and Amgen scholarships, and most recently, the premier fellowship for immigrants and the children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate school: The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Paras is one of thirty newly minted recipients of the Fellowship, which will give him $90,000 in tuition and stipend support over the next two years.
As a fellow MD and PhD candidate and a 2014 recipient of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, I wanted to learn more about Paras and his academic and immigrant story.
The early years:
Paras was born in Baltimore, MD in 1991 to Sikh immigrants from Punjab. At a young age, he became aware of relatives and members of the larger Punjabi Sikh community suffering from mental health issues. These early interactions left a big impression on Paras. He was witnessing the ways in which social and cultural stigmas against open discussions about mental health could split families apart and ostracize people from their communities.
As the son of immigrants, Paras drew inspiration from his parents’ immigration story. His father grew up in a small village in Punjab, and through his own hard work and drive, was able to study abroad at the University of Ottawa to pursue a PhD in Chemical Engineering. His mother immigrated to the US after marrying his father through a traditional arranged marriage. The immense courage exhibited by his parents as they traveled to a completely new country with not much more than the clothes on their back has provided Paras with a passion for his own educational pursuits and a strong dedication to the Punjabi Sikh community.
Why mental health?
During middle and high school, Paras remembers noticing his culture’s aloof relationship with mental health issues. He recalls learning about members of Sikh families that had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but were no longer brought to social gatherings, Gurdwaras (temples), or even talked about by their respective families.
Paras was surprised by the sense of indifference that people in the community had towards those individuals. He knew that these attitudes and actions were not born from hatred, but more from a lack of awareness and knowledge about how to deal with and help people suffering from mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
He was thus inspired to tackle mental health issues in society in the same ways his American friends at school dealt with their own familial challenges. Namely, to start an open dialogue and encourage people to provide direct support for loved ones suffering with debilitating mental health issues.
His passion to effect change within the community was aided by his academic prowess. As a brilliant member of his high school debate team, winning local, state, and national competitions, he learned to find his own voice and articulate his opinions, especially to those who might have differing views. These skills have shaped the types of conversations and activism he has been able to participate in regarding mental health issues both with colleagues and family members. It has also allowed him to give a voice to those who may have been marginalized.
Recalling a time he visited his father’s village in Punjab, Paras saw how compassionate and caring the village community was. It was eye-opening for him to see what family meant to his ancestors in Punjab and how open and welcoming people were within the village even across families. He realized that a combination of the powerful kinship he saw in the village along with education and knowledge could enable people to more effectively support community members suffering from neurodegenerative and mental health disorders.
Paras continued to challenge the stigmas against open discussions about mental health in college at the University of Pittsburgh as the first president of the Student Health Advisory Board. There, he hosted various mental health seminars for undergraduates. He also started Longitude Pittsburgh, an NGO that builds schools for children in India and Ghana to provide career advising and education.
Complexities of mental health:
As a microbiology major at the University of Pittsburgh, Paras realized interesting connections between bacteria and neurological disorders. In a microbiology physiology course, he was inspired by how bacteria utilize energy in many different ways to survive under harsh conditions. He wondered if this same phenomena could help neurons survive under similarly harsh conditions. His research focused on exploiting the physiology of the electron transport chain within mitochondria to help save neurons in Alzheimer’s disease. He thus found that bioenergetics play a crucial role not just in the survival of bacteria, but also in neurodegeneration and mental health disorders. His research was well received and garnered him several scholarships.
Through all of these experiences, Paras has realized that mental health and neurodegenerative diseases are not simply scientific dilemmas, but complex problems that must be addressed through scientific, political, and community-oriented solutions.
Winning the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans will allow Paras to achieve these goals through providing him funding for his MD/PhD dual degree at Stanford University. Moreover, the Fellowship allows him to become a part of a new family with whom he can openly share the story of his childhood and adolescence. He is excited to spend time with a group of individuals who are willing to truly listen to and learn from his family’s story, as he does the same with them.