Kanwal Matharu ’13

Monday, May 1, 2017
by Alex Wheatley’16

Kanwal Matharu ’13 is the type of person who makes strangers feel like friends. He’s warm and engaging; he listens; he lets you into his world with laughter and stories. Besides making excellent conversation, this skill set is extremely valuable in a global health world that operates in personal connections and trust. In this Spotlight, we talked with Kanwal Matharu about GHP and neuroscience, his love for medicine, and the value of giving back.

Kanwal graduated in 2013 with a degree in Molecular Biology and certificates in Global Health and Health Policy and Neuroscience. Global health and neuroscience were easy choices; the brain had always fascinated him, and the GHP community drew him in. His thesis explored the mammalian neural networks that guide orienting and navigation behavior. Kanwal’s favorite parts of Princeton, however, may have laid outside of the realm of academia. He was heavily involved in campus life; he co-founded the Sikhs of Princeton and Princeton Bhangra student groups, he was a residential college adviser in Forbes College, he was a member of Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad and the Pace Council on Civic Values. Today, he is a Young Alumni Trustee of the University. All this to say that he loves the community, and sub-communities, within Princeton.

He found family and comfort within the Global Health community and the religious sphere on campus, which was structured around the Office for Religious Life. These two spheres collided in a pivotal trip to South Africa after his sophomore year.

In 2011, Princeton sent a group of students to South Africa to study how different religious groups had come together to overcome apartheid. As part of this journey, the group visited a community center in an area devastated by AIDS. The center had been established by one physician, who visited each month to take care of the elderly home and school. The physician and community center had greatly improved the community’s wellbeing, but still the need for all types of heath care was dire and constant. “Even though the trip was not through GHP, it elucidated a lot of what GHP was trying to teach: the interdisciplinary nature of health care, the need for horizontal structure in health systems, and how much one person can do.”  These lessons followed Kanwal back to Princeton.

As he took more classes and reflected on this trip, he embraced the moral component of health work: “GHP helped instill in me a sense of morality and ethics,” he said. “That there is a right and wrong and that we should be working for the right with a capital R—it’s a great idea.” Kanwal is driven by a strong moral compass and a desire to give back to his Princeton community, to his religious community, and to the health world at large.

Today, Kanwal is a fourth year medical student at McGovern Medical School in Texas. He will apply for residency in ophthalmology, drawn in by the connections between the eye and the brain. He’s also attracted to the incredible global health opportunities in this field; cataract is the leading cause of blindness worldwide, yet cataract surgery is simple and requires no pre- or post-operation care. “They’ll skewer me for saying this,” he said, “but ophthalmology is one of the few things in international health care that is easy to implement in a vertical intervention.” In a sense, ophthalmology gives you the most impact: a brief procedure can exponentially increase a person’s quality of life. “For me, being selfish, I immediately want to have the gratification of helping someone live a more fulfilling life.” It’s an odd sort of selfish, but it has motivated him to pursue a path that allows him to immediately better the lives of many, as well as work in surgery and build long term relationships with patients (two of his favorite components of medicine).

To end our interview, I asked Kanwal what advice he had for current GHP students. These GHP students may be strangers to him, but he gave this advice for his friends, pondering my question for a few minutes and following up with advice hours after we had hung up the phone. He shared three actions that have helped him to grow and to be happy. First, think “historically deep”; many of the problems we face today have already been debated and sometimes solved. The more we learn about history, the better we can handle today. Second, always ask for feedback on your work; doing so requires humility and a drive to improve, and it allows for personal growth. Lastly, he reminds students to say thank you to the people who help (whether they can help your career or not). In his words, “spreading a little cheer makes everything better.” Kanwal will spread good cheer wherever he goes; for this, we say thank you.