October 25, 2017
By Greg Peters
Raj Mitra, M.D., professor and chair of the University of Kansas Medical Center's Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, is about to join an elite group of educators from throughout the world who are serving as Fulbright Distinguished Chairs.
In November, Mitra and his family will travel to India where he will spend four months teaching, traveling and conducting research as a Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair fellow. Each year, about 40 professors are chosen globally as Fulbright Distinguished Chairs, making it one of the organization's most prestigious appointments. The Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair fellowships, funded jointly by the United States' and Indian governments, were created so full professors can participate in bilateral cultural exchanges where they teach, conduct research and travel to provide guest lectures and take part in symposia and conferences.
"I was certainly surprised and honored to receive the award," Mitra said. "I thought it would be a great opportunity not just for me professionally, but for the University of Kansas. KU 's commitment towards International cultural and educational exchange places it as one of the premier Universities nationally, and it was one of the reasons I was attracted to come here.
"I am extremely thankful to Dean (Robert) Simari and Chancellor (Douglas) Girod for their support," he added. "Dean Abiodun Akinwuntan's knowledge of the Fulbright program was also very helpful in the application process."
An interest in global health
Mitra, who also serves as clinical services chief of the Department of Rehabilitation for the University of Kansas Health System, has always had strong ties to his parents and their homeland of India. The young Mitra would often spend summers visiting extended family in Kolkata, particularly his grandfather, who was the former chief currency officer of the Reserve Bank of India - India's version of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. It was during these trips that he experienced the plight of people living in extreme poverty and the effects chronic illnesses can have on a society.
"I was exposed to a world that was very different from what I was used to growing up in Ann Arbor," he said. "I experienced an amazingly vibrant and beautiful culture, but at the same time, I did witness substantial disability and poverty in some pockets over there."
One of his best childhood friends in India was the son of workers in his grandfather's house, who died young. "I was heartbroken when I learned he died prematurely from tuberculosis at the age of 10," Mitra said. "We now know that poverty, illness and disability are all intertwined."
Globally, more than 1 billion people suffer from some form of disability, Mitra wrote in his grant proposal, so as the world's largest democracy, India has great potential for research and education. "I've always been interested in global issues of disability, so this really is a chance of a lifetime to go back to India and not only teach but conduct research on disability on a global scale."
The trip also will serve as a homecoming of sorts for Mitra's wife, Shilpa, who has been a great support for all of her husband's endeavors and is enthusiastic about their upcoming trip. The Mitras will be travelling with their children, Raj Jr., 7 Viren, 5 and Neeva 2.
On the ground in India
Mitra's fellowship in India will be a mix of education and research, which should suit his academic, clinical and research interests. On the academic side, Mitra will be leading a post-graduate course in rehabilitation and disability for 30 to 40 graduate-level students at the National Institute for Locomotor Disabilities (Divyangjan) in Kolkata, West Bengal. The institute was founded in 1978 to train health care workers and provide support services for people with orthopedic disabilities. The institution also does research among this population.
"The rehabilitation hospital is a pretty good fit because its whole mission is to manage disability," Mitra said.
On the research side, Mitra also will be using data from the Office of the Registrar of the General and Census Commissioner in the Ministry of Home Affairs. His goal is to use population-based research to identify the most common chronic diseases that frequently lead to disability. Ultimately, they would like to be able to suggest cost-effective treatments or solutions.
"We've done some initial analysis of the Indian census, and interestingly, so far there seems to be a trend for low vision to be a leading cause of disability," he said. "We haven't done more-sophisticated analysis yet, but if that were the case, then using new technology to create cheaper glasses could significantly change people's lives. So the results will be of great interest. I am hoping we can do the same type of research in the United States.
"Past disability studies in India have suggested chronic disease accounts for two-thirds of most cases of illness," he continued. "How much of that affects which organ system and why, we don't know yet. We could be surprised."
Mitra hopes to get as much value as possible out of his time in India. Toward that end, he has contacted several national and global collaborators to build a team. He hopes to collaborate with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. "I have been in touch with the WHO and initially this project seems to be aligned with their interests.
Perhaps the most interesting and ambitious contact Mitra would like to possibly make is with the rehabilitation center affiliated with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala. Mitra has a colleague whose brother has a disability and spends considerable time there.
"If we could swing it, it would be really neat to see the Dalai Lama while we are there," Mitra said with a wry smile. "Who knows, maybe we could convince him to come visit us at KU."