Joseph Kannarkat wearing blue shirt outdoors
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Alumnus Joseph Kannarkat is Pitt’s newest Schwarzman Scholar

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In the fall of 2019, Joseph Kannarkat (A&S ’18) often found himself in the middle of traffic in busy Nairobi, Kenya. He usually rode in a matatu, one of Nairobi’s colorful public vans, on his way to a local coffeehouse or some small office incubator. Once there, Kannarkat would meet with the locals and chat about how they’re developing low-cost technologies to bring better health care to Kenyans.

One conversation focused on a texting service that’s helping women navigate personal health challenges, while another centered on how to track vaccinations among rural residents with a fingerprint identification system connected to cell phones.

Kannarkat, who majored in neuroscience and economics at Pitt, has long been interested in the connection between health and finance policy and the broader questions of how the two connect or disconnect.

Now, he’s getting the chance to more deeply study his interests as a Schwarzman Scholar. The prestigious leadership-building opportunity funds study for a year at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Just 151 scholars were selected from this year’s pool of nearly 3,000 applicants. When the scholarship ends, Kannarkat will have earned a master’s degree in global affairs.

“Joseph’s unrelenting curiosity, work ethic and pursuit of equity are surpassed only by his ability to connect — effortlessly and meaningfully — with others,” said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “He continues to succeed and make his University of Pittsburgh family proud no matter where he goes, and I expect nothing less from his time in China.”

Kannarkat also received the first-ever Kanders Churchill Scholarship in Science Policy in 2018. That scholarship meant that he spent the next academic year at the University of Cambridge, working to earn a Master of Philosophy in public policy. There, he examined the United Kingdom’s universal health care system and the ways it could benefit patients in the United States. As a part of the Kanders Churchill opportunity, he was able to travel to Kenya for eight weeks to study health and economics there, too.

“The Schwarzman Scholarship is one of the most prestigious international awards, widely recognized as ‘the Rhodes of China,’” said Nicola Foote, dean of the University Honors College. “Joseph has an incredible track record of success in elite and selective external fellowships. It is so exciting to see him continuing to excel, and the University Honors College is so proud of his success.”

Kannarkat said he’s particularly interested in how local stakeholders can develop what’s known as frugal innovations — inexpensive, grassroots-driven ideas and products that bridge the gaps to keep individuals and communities well.

“I enjoy exploring the world and seeing other cultures and how other people pursue health care challenges,” he said.

In China, he plans to take a closer look at the country and its burgeoning economy — especially its expansion of telecommunications and credit, and their influence on the medical landscape, particularly for rural populations.

I Intend to do something similar to what I did in Kenya,” he said, “where I was able to understand some key principles of the health care system and really try to see how some of those learnings can adapt to the United States.”

How Pitt got him there

Kannarkat is a third-year a medical student at University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. He was in the middle of rotations and was about to enter a block in hospice care training when he heard he’d won the Schwarzman Scholarship. The program was recommended by several former Schwarzman Scholars.

But Kannarkat first heard of the Schwarzman program when he was a student in the University Honors College at Pitt.

In fact, he said that much of his journey to medical school and his engagement with health policy and economics were shaped by the mentors and experiences he had as an undergraduate.

Kannarkat, who grew up in northern Virginia, became “enchanted” with Pitt during a second campus visit where the sun melted away a dense fog and provided a glorious view of the Cathedral of Learning and the expanse of the grounds, he said.

At Pitt, Kannarkat, described himself as curious and inspired to work hard by his immigrant parents and two older siblings who are both doctors. On campus, he absorbed his science and economics studies and participated in student government, which he said opened him up to understanding that “learning about what other students did on campus inspired me to seek out opportunities to be part of something bigger than myself.”

In addition, he connected with faculty and administrators who became positive mentors, including Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. When Kannarkat received the Kanders Churchill Scholarship, Gallagher lauded the achievement, saying Kannarkat’s success was rooted “in his incredible capacity to roll up his sleeves, relate to others and innovate from the front line.” 

His other campus and community mentors linked him to community programs, research and writing and publishing opportunities that he found “very inspiring.”

These interactions, he said, motivated him. He welcomed the chance to work with others, but also felt like he could “do something on my own, something that can allow me to forge my own path.”

It’s a path he’ll soon be on in China.


— Ervin Dyer