It would be difficult if not impossible for a young person to compile a more impressive record than that of 24-year-old Aman Prasad.
A summa cum laude graduate in chemistry from Cornell University, this son of Indian immigrants has a string of academic honors and achievements stretching back to his high school years in Pocatello, Idaho. Now earning a medical degree and PhD in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he plans a career that combines research (his PhD focuses on germline stem cells) and clinical practice.
But Prasad—who, it should be noted, matches his intellectual gifts with a modest, soft-spoken demeanor—will tell you that in reality his professional destination has not always been as clear as his resume might make it appear. He could have veered away from science absent certain influences—among them the Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) Competition.
In 2006, his senior year at Pocatello's Century High School, Prasad was one of two first-place YES national winners. "It was a springboard," he says of the competition:
YES was back in high school, and those are really, I think, formative years for a young person—to get positive feedback on their work, and to know that you can really make an impact.
So if you get that, which I did from YES, then you don't ever want to leave that career field behind. So I've continued with research and science. YES was definitely what gave me the confidence to keep going, to keep working in the area.
YES: "The best and the brightest." YES was a competitive scholarship program aimed at encouraging talented high school students to investigate public health issues and ultimately pursue a career in the public health field. Epidemiology—the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease among populations—is the basic science of public health.
Initiated in 2003 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and managed by the College Board, YES ran for eight years, attracting the participation of nearly 5,000 high school juniors and seniors—"the best and the brightest from across the country," in the words of RWJF Senior Program Officer Pamela G. Russo, MD, MPH.
YES contestants identified a health problem, gathered data about the problem, and proposed a solution based on what the data showed. Survivors of the initial review process presented their research in person to expert judges from the health field at a three-day Washington conference.
When the annual competitions ended in 2011—a casualty of the nation's economic recession and a change in RWJF's grantmaking strategy in the public health area—a total of 976 YES participants had collected some $3.7 million in college scholarships, ranging from $1,000 for semifinalists to up to $50,000 for each year's top two winners.
But while the program is now over, its impact is not, as the story of Aman Prasad illustrates. Prasad's experience is one example of how YES could and did make a difference in young people's academic and career choices. It's also evidence of what Russo says is the program's lasting legacy:
YES is definitely going to influence who's going to be in the lead in public health in the next 10 years.
Research: Exercise and mood. Prasad's parents came to the United States in the 1970s for schooling. His father, an engineer, was doing postdoctoral work in Michigan when Prasad was born. The family later settled in Pocatello, where the son's enthusiasm for learning did not go unnoticed. Recognizing Prasad's academic reach, his advanced biology teacher, John Loftin, connected him to a mentor named Sophie St-Hilaire, DVM, PhD, an epidemiologist at Idaho State University in Pocatello.
Prasad's work with St-Hilaire resulted in public health research that turned into Prasad's YES project—though competition was not the objective at the outset, he says. "It was more like she thought I would enjoy public health and the data analysis that comes with it."
His research topic stemmed from personal experience. "After jogging or exercising, I would notice a sudden uplift in my mood and my outlook on the rest of the day," he told one interviewer. Could exercise be a means of mitigating depression among adolescents, he wondered.
With guidance from St-Hilaire and others, Prasad surveyed some 850 9th- and 10th- graders at three Pocatello schools about their exercise habits and mood states. The questionnaire incorporated items from a standard instrument to assess depression in children.
Analysis of the survey data showed a positive association between physical activity and mood. On average, students who reported exercising regularly exhibited a lower tendency to have depressive symptoms compared to students who did not exercise regularly.
"High school curricula that encourage physical activity programs and PE classes (both during and outside of school hours) might benefit the physical and psychological well-being of adolescents," Prasad and his study collaborators concluded in a published article in the North American Journal of Psychology. ("Physical Activity and Depressive Symptoms in Rural Adolescents." North American Journal of Psychology, 11: 173–188, March 2009. Available online.)
While acknowledging that other researchers had also demonstrated an exercise-mood association, the article said this appeared to be the first such finding based on a rural sample of nonclinically depressed adolescents.
Project impact. While science was always one of Prasad's favorite school subjects, he explains why he might have shunned it as a career choice had it not been for his YES excursion into epidemiology:
In high school I had done some basic research before, and that had gone horribly. Bench work—it was an awful experience. And I would not have been surprised if I had just said basically no to this career.
And so I got into public health/epidemiology research. It was more—I don't want to say liberal artsy, but it had more elements of history, more subjective things, human emotion—some of the elements other than just pure this is how a receptor works or this is how a cell works.
That roped me in because I have those interests, too. That sort of pulled me into science further. It just helped convince me that I could do this, I could do science in general and do it on a big scale.
The next chapters. Unrelated but simultaneous with winning the $50,000 first-place YES scholarship, Prasad was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in 2006, another major honor at the high school level. "That was an interesting year," he says in understatement.
That fall he entered Cornell, where he majored in chemistry and chemical biology and was headed, he thought, for a PhD in chemistry and a life in basic science. In his senior year, however, plans changed.
"I had some really good mentors in chemistry and other departments who said, 'I think you should consider a field where you can make an impact on humans as well as the lab,'" he says. "So they sort of talked me into doing an MD-PhD combined degree."
And he's not sorry they did. Now at the end of the second year of the medical school portion of his eight-year program, Prasad looks forward to a career that combines clinical care with bench work—and draws on epidemiology.
Medicine today, he says, is increasingly about preventing disease, not just treating it. "That's really the new model, and that model is a prevention model. And it's totally public health; it's totally epidemiology."
Taking the message home. To deal with the stress of grad school—"to keep me sane," as he puts it—Prasad follows the prescription implied by his YES project: he exercises, mainly by going on long runs.
He also has not lost sight of what he sees as the major lesson of the YES competition. Noting that former YES participants have gone in many different career directions, some in the health field, some not, he says:
People might say [to RWJF and the College Board], 'Oh, well, how many public health scientists did you produce?'
That wasn't really ever the point, I don't think. I think it was to inspire young people in science to always keep public health and epidemiology—which is the science of public health—in the back of their head, to always remember it's really an important component in whatever you do science-wise.
I've definitely taken that message home with me.