The Way I See It: Alum with autism wins Wellcome Trust’s doctoral fellowship

The Way I See It

Alum with autism wins Wellcome Trust’s doctoral fellowship

I am a Rice alum who has just been awarded the Wellcome Trust’s doctoral fellowship in the medical humanities to pursue a Ph.D. at Oxford University. The award has a higher monetary value than either the Rhodes or the Marshall scholarships. On average only five are given each year. To my knowledge, I am the first openly autistic adult to win one.

Sahil Singh Gujral

Sahil Singh Gujral

I grew up with high-functioning autism and had to leave 13 schools before I was 12. Court records show I was at one time days away from being committed to a mental hospital by my mother. Following diagnosis, my parents were told I was unlikely to ever finish school, find employment, have friendships or have a family. After I graduated in the bottom 50 percent of my Houston public high school, I was rejected from almost all of the 23 colleges I applied to. I am eternally grateful to Rice for not being among them.

Because of the opportunities Rice gave me, despite my autism, I was selected to join President Obama’s first class of interns at the White House (in the Office of the Chief of Staff, where I helped implement the Recovery Act of 2009). I also interned at the U.S. House of Representatives (for the Democratic chair of U.S. Congressional Mental Health Caucus, where I helped work on legislation affecting U.S. mental health parity) and conducted clinical research at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, where I helped discover a novel way to predict diabetes in children. At 19, I published original papers about this research in Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics and Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics. I went on to graduate magna cum laude in economics from Rice and was awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans last year.

Even once I got to Rice, I was hardly on a straightforward path to success. But the university really stood by me. My freshman year I failed most of my classes and was placed on academic suspension. Even while suspended, Dean Robin Forman made multiple calls on my behalf to help my family find a Houston-area college that would let me take classes as I waited for re-admission. When I came back to Rice that spring, on the first day of HUMA 102, I told Professor Lane Kauffmann I was considering dropping out of university for good because I was worried I couldn’t write coherently enough. He replied, “I listened to you in class, and I can tell you that you can think. And, if you can think, you can write.”

That summer, Professor Kauffmann nominated me for Rice’s Dunlevie Fellowship and spent hundreds of hours mentoring me. Because of this, our research led to an original paper on the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. I became the youngest person ever invited to present at the annual academic symposium, the Borges Society. (Dean Forman’ s office paid for the full cost of the trip.)

Today, though it has been five years since I began life “outside the hedges,” (current and retired) Rice professors like Richard Smith, Jeffrey Kripal, Stephen Tyler, John Alford, June Ferrill and Malcolm Gillis still take my calls without hesitation and offer to meet with me whenever I am in town. Collectively, they have spent thousands of hours mentoring me and written over two dozen letters of recommendation on my behalf.

At Oxford, I will study the history of medicine. I plan to examine autism’s diagnostic origins, its differences in perception globally and revisit a long-standing debate over whether nurture and environment, not simply biology, play an important role in outcomes. After my Ph.D., I hope to pursue a career that will enable me to substantially improve public understanding of and average outcomes for autistic children in the United States.

— Sahil Singh Gujral graduated from Rice in 2009. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and was a member of Martel College.

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About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.