Sai Shanthanand Rajagopal’s federal election campaign may not have won over voters in the fall, but the selection committee behind one of the world’s most prestigious scholarships recognizes his leadership potential.
Months after placing fourth for the Winnipeg North seat, the former Green Party of Canada candidate has won big: Rajagopal is among 11 Canadians who have earned a 2020 Rhodes Scholar title.
Recipients of the esteemed scholarship, which dates to 1902, are selected based on being outstanding young leaders "who will make an impact for good in the world in later life." Each receives funding to take on two years' worth of studies of their choice at Oxford University.
The 22-year-old, self-described "human-mobility engineer" will spend the next few years studying the history of medicine, science and technology in the United Kingdom — his main interests, environmentalism aside.
"I am fundamentally a scientist, but I think we’ve come to such a crossroads in the climate crisis that I think, you cannot separate science and politics anymore," Rajagopal told a reporter at a Winnipeg coffee shop, hours after his plane landed. (He's been working in Kenya engineering menstrual products for school-aged girls.)
"It’s time now for scientists to step up and... create some change that is scientifically grounded and has fantastic policy analysis attached to it."
Rajagopal hasn’t given up on his political goals; he has plans to run again for the Greens in Winnipeg North in the next election. For the time being, he’ll be pre-occupied with field research, both in Winnipeg and in Chennai, India.
He plans to detail the ways in which trans and two-spirit people have been denied health-care services throughout history as he works towards a PhD.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rajagopal said school hasn’t always come easy for him.
Growing up in East Kildonan, he was behind his peers in English, since it was his third language, after Tamil and Telugu. Instead, he succeeded early on in math, which prompted his parents to trade a brick-and-mortar classroom experience for their son with online classes at Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
Rajagopal later moved to Memphis for high school. That’s when he got interested in human genome research — so much so, he ambitiously reached out to a John Hopkins professor with a code he had created.
He ended up working for the instructor and making such an impression the professor wrote him a reference to get into Harvard University.
Rajagopal completed his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and women, gender and sexuality studies. He's now finishing up his masters in mechanical engineering at the Ivy League school, while completing his thesis on developing a "penile prosthesis."
His thesis sent him to Chennai last spring, where some of his family lives and where he worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. He met a trans client and later discovered the need for prosthetic genitalia. His work aims to help trans men urinate while standing so they can go to the washroom comfortably.
"Wherever people find their mobility restricted — either they don't have a limb or have access to sanitary pads, which keeps them from going to school, there's some social stigma that prevents them to access their mobility to get basic health care and move freely, that's how I thread my work; how I can help people live better and move better," he said.
Rajagopal attributes his interest in health care to seeing first-hand, in the North End, the limited resources available to people with addictions. He plans to do research in the neighbourhood through the Rhodes scholarship.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.