New scholarship supports doctoral students in nutrition, honors Willett

Neha Khandpur, of India, HSPH's first Prajna Scholar

Fall 2012 ]

Prajna—a Sanskrit word that conveys ultimate wisdom—is the name of a new scholarship for doctoral students in the HSPH Department of Nutrition that was established to recognize the leadership and distinction of the department’s chair, Walter Willett. The first Prajna Scholar—Neha Khandpur of India—envisions a career focused on obesity prevention in disadvantaged population groups.

The new Prajna Chair’s Scholarship in Public Health Nutrition, created through an anonymous gift of $1.75 million, will provide opportunities for highly accomplished and motivated but financially underprivileged students to study at HSPH. The donors hope that, in particular, the scholarship benefits students from economically challenged countries.

“This scholarship will afford me the academic freedom to really think about my education and career in public health nutrition and to really find my calling,” said Khandpur, who has worked in India as a nutrition and fitness consultant and for the Public Health Foundation of India, which propelled her desire to influence nutrition not just one-on-one but in populations. “It’s really exciting.”

“Neha is a very good fit for this scholarship,” said Willett. “She already has quite a bit of experience working in India on nutrition programs and she’s planning to return to India to work in this area. The scholarship underscores what our department is all about—working at the very cutting edge of science, but also applying this knowledge to solve real problems of real people in the real world.”

The word Prajna (pronounced Pra´-gyia) refers to wisdom that cannot be reached by developing intellect alone, but includes insight from experience and understanding gained through engagement with the world. The donors chose this word because it aptly describes Willett, whose wisdom and insight has fueled his major contributions to public health nutrition. Likewise, the donors hope that the scholarship will encourage its recipients to merge intellect and practice together to compassionately advance the welfare of humanity, and to become leaders in the field of public health nutrition, like Willett. They also hope their gift will inspire others to support both students and faculty at HSPH.

Willett said that now, more than ever, support of students and faculty is critical because of cutbacks in HSPH’s major funding source, the National Institutes of Health. “If someone wants to give to a worthy cause, supporting a doctoral student is probably one of the very best things they can do,” Willett said. “It’s investing in people who, for decades in the future, will make a real difference in the world. The multiplication effect is huge.”

 — Karen Feldscher

Photo: Aubrey Calo