Award-winning MD/PhD student explains impact of Amgen Scholars Program

Early on in his undergraduate career, Paras Minhas found a passion for science — and humanitarianism. Even before participating in the 2012 MIT Amgen Scholars Program, he began building experience in scientific research laboratories at Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic. In 2010, he launched the Longitude Pittsburgh Organization, a non-profit that provides opportunities for underprivileged people in Ghana, India and other places to receive an education, build life skills and access healthcare.

Now a third-year MD/PhD student in Katrin Andreasson’s lab at Stanford University and winner of the Marshall, Barry M. Goldwater, and Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships, Paras focuses on investigating mental illness. In particular, his doctoral studies aim to boost energy sources available to neurons and relieve inflammation to ultimately help stave off brain degeneration that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

How did the Amgen Scholars Program affect the professional path of such a highly accomplished person? We asked Paras what the Program meant for him; here’s a slightly edited transcript from our conversation.

What was the significance of the Amgen Scholars Program for you?

Conducting research in Dr. Li-Huei Tsai’s lab at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory as an Amgen Scholar made it possible to confirm that neuroscience was the way to go for a career. I had previous xposure, at the Mayo Clinic, to Alzheimer’s disease research. But it was really at MIT that I solidified my desire to do Alzheimer’s research during medical school — possibly even do a PhD.

What about since moving on from the Program?

Just having that connection to MIT and to Dr. Tsai and open communication [since participating in the Program] has proven to be really helpful in applying to opportunities like the Marshall, Barry M. Goldwater, and Soros Fellowships.

In addition, some of the initial research I did as a Scholar really laid the foundation for the skill I have today. I’m not sure I would be where I am today without participating in the Amgen Scholars Program.

What’s your personal motivation in research?

I have close relatives who suffer from mental and neurodegenerative diseases. These are debilitating disorders. That’s what motivated my interest in neuroscience: just seeing these individuals day in and day out, not being able to do things that healthy people can do. The medications for such disorders had very little effect, which was also pretty disheartening.

Can you tell me more about your work with the Longitude Pittsburgh Organization?

We work with several organizations to help people — mainly children and adolescents, especially those who are in dire circumstances — receive an education.

One of our main projects is in Ghana, where we work with the Professional Secretarial Academy in Accra, Ghana, or PROFESA for short. The school is located in a poor slum, called Abeka. At that site, we teach science, English, and reading and writing to students. I’m responsible for the healthcare component: I try to set [students] up with healthcare with local community hospitals.

The idea of the school is to help students 1) receive an education, but also 2) build life skills so that they can be competitive in the job market. Many children have either lost their parents or their parents have abandoned them. They have unstable home lives. One of the sustainable solutions we came up with was making sure they are able to get jobs later in life, so that they can support themselves and their own families. That’s the primary mission of the LPO.

What are your career plans?

I see myself having appointments as both a clinician as well as a researcher at an academic institution like Stanford or similar. I think an MD/PhD degree will allow me to bridge the gap between the basic science and the human condition. I would also love one day to teach others; teaching has always been a passion of mine.