By Khalida Sarwari
News at Northeastern
At a boarding school in Hissar, India, where malaria was once common, Kritika Singh found herself frustrated. She was there to give a presentation about the importance of prevention against the disease, a message that the school’s teachers had been unsuccessful in getting across. The students grumbled about “nasty” malaria pills and stuffy bed nets.
Singh turned off her PowerPoint and tried again.
“As I talked to them like a peer and shared their grief, they became more interested,” she says. “We spoke about the simple steps the girls could take to help themselves.”
This time, they listened. The girls worked together to make sure that they took their pills and slept under nets, and one year later, their school was malaria-free.
That was in 2015, and soon thereafter, Singh returned to the United States with a smattering of new Facebook friends and newfound knowledge about the power of peer-to-peer advocacy.
For Singh, who is now studying bioengineering at Northeastern, the problem is personal. In 1992, her parents immigrated with a small amount of money from India to Clemson, South Carolina, to pursue a better education, putting themselves through graduate school by working in the school cafeteria.
“I am so proud of my family and of what my parents and grandparents have accomplished,” she says. “Their success stories have inspired my brother and me to value everything we have, especially our education and academic opportunities.”
But not everyone has had those opportunities. In 2017, malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, killed more than 400,000 people around the world.
In India, the disease is easily preventable, Singh says, but persists because of a lack of political will to eradicate it.
In 2014 she started a nonprofit, Malaria Free World, to promote research and education about the epidemic. In addition, with help from faculty advisors, in 2017 she founded Northeastern’s Global Health Initiative, a student-led conference that seeks to inspire their peers to care about health around the world. Some of the topics discussed at the last conference, in October, were HIV prevention, the environment’s effects on human health, and the role of robots in tracking epidemics.
“I want to get the student body at Northeastern interested in global health so that people interested in these careers can get more involved,” she says.
Singh has been named a Truman Scholar. The scholarship is a national award and the premiere fellowship in the U.S. for people who are pursuing careers as public service leaders.
The award recognizes exemplary academic abilities, as well as demonstrated leadership and the drive to serve the public. It provides funding for graduate study, mentoring, and connection to a national network of public service leaders. Former Truman Scholars include Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
“Simply put, Kritika is a gem, a person whose sterling qualities of character and intellect are rare in the extreme,” Iacono says. “She is an enormously gifted scientist, a principled leader of people, and likely one of the most energetic and effective problem solvers any of us are likely to encounter in our lifetimes.”
Last year, Singh received the Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national award based on academic merit, which is given to undergraduate sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.
With a passion for monitoring and controlling emerging infectious diseases in the United States, Singh hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C., in order to help shape public health policy.
She says that when she got a call from President Joseph E. Aoun informing her she’d won the Truman Scholarship, she was in between presentations with her Malaria Free World team at various schools and libraries in New Hampshire.
“The whole [application] process really helped me to reflect on my past journey since founding Malaria Free World in 2014 and move forward by helping me to reflect on my goals for the future,” she says. “I specifically want to focus on ending emerging diseases and on equipping the United States with the best tools we need to fight diseases that arise in this ever-changing world.”
Singh was one of two Truman scholars from Northeastern who were celebrated at the Academic Honors Convocation last week. The annual ceremony recognizes students and faculty who have received prestigious awards for scholarship, research, or teaching over the past year.