In his estimation, University of Arizona student Abhijay Murugesan became a Truman Scholar primarily because of his answers to tough questions posed by the judges.
"If they thought you were off track or stalling with a response, they immediately interceded with a follow-up question or challenge. Their wide-ranging topics extended well beyond public health policy to climate change and more," Murugesan said. "My responses, no matter the subject or my personal experience with it, centered on the need for interdisciplinary exploration of potential solutions."
The judges were impressed, and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation made Murugesan one of 62 Truman Scholars. Recipients of the Truman Scholarship receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership.
The award expands the opportunities Murugesan will have to continue the broad-based academic inquiry he enjoys as a double major in public health and molecular and cellular biology. Murugesan extends his search for answers to important questions outside of the classroom, as well, as chief of the UA Emergency Medical Services.
As the morning light glinted off his badge on a recent spring day, his energetic approach to life turned quieter and reflective as the conversation moved past achievement and awards.
"Evidence – how do we incorporate more evidence into health care decisions?" Murugesan asked. "At the same time, what can I do to be the best health care provider in the moment to a patient and their family?"
The combination of knowledge and compassion was fostered early, as Murugesan grew up in a family where the value of education and a strong work ethic were part of daily life. His love of learning, at the encouragement of grade-school teachers, put him on a path that's included being valedictorian at Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona, a Flinn Scholar, a National Merit Scholar and a National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholar.
His mother, who was a physician, modeled a life filled with intelligence and empathy. She died of ovarian cancer while Murugesan was in high school.
"I've been the family member, the provider, the patient," Murugesan said. "The desire to alleviate symptoms, reduce suffering and find causes is part of who I've become."
Now a junior in the UA Honors College, Murugesan's curiosity leads him to larger questions as he gains the skills to answer them more completely.
"At the center of my learning journey is a belief in the importance of working with others outside your field," Murugesan said. "For example, we reached out to Honors College student Rafael Lopez to put more data analysis behind our decisions at UA Emergency Medical Services. He brought insight derived from big data and ways of looking at problems that normally don’t intersect with emergency medicine."
Murugesan is charging ahead toward medical school. After completing his undergraduate coursework in May 2020, he plans to spend a gap year at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
Finding answers, he believes, is more about "we" than "me," and he places a high value on the interdisciplinary approach that's prevalent in academia and beyond.
"Between my Flinn, Honors and Truman peers, I've got ready help now and in the future that far exceeds the generous dollar value of any awards I've received," he said.
There was one question he had hoped the Truman Scholarship judges would ask: "What could you change in our country to help as many people as possible?"
While the judges never posed the question, Murugesan has an answer ready, should anyone ask. Until then, he intends to steadily build his professional platform to step forward into the maelstrom of public health policy, where he'll share his distinctly collaborative view of making life better for residents of the U.S.