April 30, 2024

2 doctoral students recognized for redefining and reimagining future of mental-health-care access and environmental justice

Sandy Rao and Chetna Khandelwal win 2023 Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarships
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Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

From understanding barriers faced by young adults accessing mental-health care to examining the intersection of migration and environmental advocacy, facilitating social change through research is inspiration for two 2023 Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship recipients. This prestigious scholarship is awarded to some of the most outstanding graduate students enrolled in a doctoral program across Canada. 

“It goes without saying that the past several years have presented challenges to our community for both our mental health and environment on a global scale; we still feel these impacts today,” says Dr. Tara Beattie, PhD, dean and vice-provost (graduate studies). 

“Seeing our graduate students acknowledged for their academic achievements and the transformative research that they are conducting is incredibly important. Scholarships, such as the Killam, give our students the recognition and funding needed to help execute significant and transformative research that contributes to our communities.”

The Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, one of the most competitive scholarships available to international and Canadian graduate students, is valued at $45,000 per year for two years. This scholarship is awarded to doctoral students who are recognized for their research potential and ability to become leaders in their fields, providing support as they make impactful contributions through research. 

Sandy Rao and Chetna Khandelwal — 2023 winners of the Killam Scholarship at the University of Calgary — aim to amplify the voices and lived experiences of young adults with mood and anxiety disorders and marginalized women engaging in environmental advocacy.

A woman with long blonde hair

Sandy Rao

Sandy Rao, a fourth-year PhD student in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, is dedicated to learning more about the challenges faced by young adults seeking mental-health care for mood and anxiety disorders. While Rao embarked on her academic journey during the COVID-19 pandemic, her co-supervisors, Drs. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, and Scott Patten, MD, PHD, provided support by fostering a sense of togetherness in a virtual landscape, mitigating feelings of isolation. 

“My supervisors made connections to other students and invited me to cross-disciplinary lab/team meetings; these acted as crucial lifelines. Drs. Dimitropoulos and Patten, through the pandemic, built communities that weren’t just about proximity; but about shared values, intentions, and commitments to support each other,” says Rao.

Although it's challenging, Rao remains committed to building connections and engaging in redefining knowledge and research within mental-health-care systems.

“This research, conducted with young adult co-researchers, explores the multifaceted challenges that young adults, particularly those aged 18 to 30, face when navigating the health-care system for mood and anxiety disorders,” explains Rao. “This rich texture of personal narrative and empirical data will set the stage for meaningful systemic change in health-care access.” She aims to provide valuable insights to reduce burdens associated with untreated mental-health conditions. 

Winning the Killam Scholarship was an emotional moment for Rao. “I felt immense gratitude toward the University of Calgary for acknowledging a belief in me and my research, demonstrated by their willingness to invest resources into my work aimed at transformative changes in health care,” says Rao. 

“Winning this award became a moment of reflection for me to look back on the arduous journey, the challenges overcome, and the invaluable contributions of those who share in this vision. The award acts as a milestone, marking not just what has been achieved but energizing us for the transformative work that still lies ahead.”

To Rao, the Killam Scholarship is both an affirmation and call to action, underscoring her responsibility to facilitate systemic change in the contours of health systems by redefining how mental-health-care services are structured and delivered. 

Rao aims to continue taking risks, exploring, and push boundaries in her research and work. “The impact I’m striving for is not incremental, it’s systemic and transformative,” says Rao.

A woman in a red blazer with long dark hair

Chetna Khandelwal

Chetna Khandelwal, a second-year international PhD student in Sociology, aims to engage in inspiring research that centres around coloniality, racism, displacement and gendered experiences. Khandelwal found a sense of community within her research group at the University of Calgary in collaboration with the Youth and Anti-Racism Integration Collective (YARI-Collective) which has provided a space for bringing together knowledge from various disciplines and backgrounds. Khandelwal believes that sharing histories of migration with members of YARI has served as a thread that weaves the complexities of their collective sense of belonging in Canada.

“My supervisor, Dr. Pallavi Banerjee, is not only the principal investigator of YARI, but her research and supervisory commitments, including caring for her students’ professional development, proved to be a driving force in my decision to come to UCalgary,” says Khandelwal. 

Through her research, Khandelwal focuses on the intersection of migration and environmental advocacy. “I was elated to find out that research on amplifying voices of marginalized women at the forefront of social change would be considered for a Killam Scholarship. This award is an affirmation of the direction in which social science research should be headed — envisioning futures that centre and honour historically marginalized voices.” 

Khandelwal aims to interview current and imminent migrants who engage with environmentalism in varying capacities. Her research is one piece of the climate justice puzzle, which aims to amplify the voices of environmental justice advocates in the Global South, facing risk of displacement by climate crises and migrants engaging with environment justice advocacy to construct global understandings of local phenomena.

Khandelwal continues to encourage the reimagination of our climate futures, drawing on critical perspectives of environmental justice that acknowledge the racialized multiplicity of environmental realities. Receiving recognition of her hard work, Khandelwal’s dedication to centring the lived experiences of marginalized individuals in environmental advocacy continues.

The Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship supports outstanding graduate students in developing advanced research at the University of Calgary. The University of Calgary gathered in-person October 2023, to recognize our exceptional faculty, post and pre-doctoral 2023 Killam Laureates.

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