UIC neuroscience student reaches Rhodes Scholar finals

Wasan Kumar, a senior majoring in neuroscience in the College of Liberal Arts
Wasan Kumar, a senior majoring in neuroscience in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and member of the UIC Honors College. Photo: Mike Fan/UIC Creative and Digital Services

University of Illinois Chicago senior Wasan Kumar reached the finalist stage for the Rhodes Scholarship, the prestigious award that covers all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England.

Kumar, an Honors College member majoring in neuroscience in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, began as one of 958 applicants who were nominated by their colleges and universities, and then joined a select group of 238 applicants from 86 different colleges and universities to reach the final stage of the Rhodes competition, which names only 32 awardees from across the U.S.

He was among 16 candidates from Illinois and Ohio vying for the highly-regarded and selective international academic scholarship during the District 10 finalist interviews, which were held Nov. 20-21 via Zoom.

Kumar, from Skokie, Illinois, is interested in cardiovascular disease research and social and structural issues that may exacerbate health conditions.

“I am extremely honored to have made it this far in the process. It has been an exciting and rewarding experience to learn about myself and reflect on some of the things I believe in,” said Kumar, whose academic merit in the field of science earned him the distinguished Goldwater scholarship for the 2019-20 academic year.

His path to the Rhodes Scholar finalist stage was supported by UIC’s Office of External Fellowships, which delivers advising and assistance to current undergraduate and professional school students in finding and applying for a range of nationally and internationally competitive fellowships, scholarships and grants.

“People often don’t realize what a rare honor it is just to be invited to interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, so it is a huge achievement in itself that Wasan was a Rhodes finalist. His example is proof that UIC students who make the most of their time here can compete with the best students from anywhere. I am incredibly proud to have played a role in Wasan’s journey, and I look forward to seeing what heights he reaches,” said Kim Germain, director of UIC’s Office of External Fellowships.

Kumar, whose studies include a minor in global Asian studies, plans to attend medical school after graduation and aspires to be involved in health care and community health equity in his career.

“I see my future in health care being one of reimagining and reshaping systems that don’t work for everyone,” he said.

His outlook is influenced by research he has conducted while at UIC that explores how various social and environmental factors might bring about an increase in cardiovascular diseases, particularly on Chicago’s West Side.

“Courses I have taken in the global Asian studies program have had a huge impact on my understanding of the world and dynamics of power, and public policy and neuroscience have taught me some of the important technical skills in policy and research,” he said.

At UIC, Kumar is an active member of the campus community where he currently serves as president of the Undergraduate Student Government. He has served as a health educator and leadership council member for UIC’s chapter of the Peer Health Exchange, a nonprofit organization that teaches health education to first-year high school students in Chicago Public Schools. He also has conducted health policy work as an intern in the office of state Rep. Theresa Mah.

Some of his undergraduate research has been supported by grants from the Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Initiative and the Honors College. 

The Rhodes Trust, which provides the Rhodes Scholarships, is the latest external entity to recognize Kumar’s talent, academic success and potential to be a change agent.

Earlier this month he was named UIC’s 2020 Lincoln Academy Student Laureate, a competitive award given to one senior from each college in Illinois who had followed in the path of former President Abraham Lincoln by committing themselves to leadership and positive social change.

His demonstrated commitment to finding solutions for challenges facing communities earned him an honor from Campus Compact, which named him among 290 students nationwide to its 2020-2021 Newman Civic Fellowship cohort.

“I have to give credit to all of my mentors and advisors at UIC who helped shape me to be the person I am today. A huge thanks to my letter writers – Anna Guevarra, Dr. Andre Kajdacsy-Balla, Dr. David Ansell, Gayatri Reddy, Kathleen Yang-Clayton, Leslie Aldrich, Robert Paul Malchow, Representative Theresa Mah, and our amazing external fellowships advisor Kim Germain,” Kumar said.

His university honors include the Chancellor’s Service and Leadership Award and the Maurice Prize, an undergraduate innovation competition.

UIC alumnus and aspiring physician Sami Alahmadi was selected in 2019 as the second-ever Rhodes Scholar to represent Saudi Arabia. Rudyard Sadleir, a UIC Honors College senior majoring in environmental geology, was chosen from the U.S. constituency in 2000. Last year, Anis Barmada, an Honors College member majoring in biological sciences and chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Zuka’a Joudeh, a 2019 UIC graduate in political science and Germanic studies, were the first UIC-affiliated scholars since 2015 to reach the finalist stage for the Rhodes scholarship.

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