Sumaira’s journey to La Trobe Uni: Passion, purpose, and SRK

Meet Sumaira Khan of New Delhi, recipient of this year’s Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship

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When Delhi student Sumaira Khan travels to La Trobe University in Melbourne to start her PhD in the field of public health, it will be because of Shah Rukh Khan, India’s most loved film star.

At a gala dinner in Delhi this week, La Trobe University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Theo Farrell presented Sumaira Khan with the 2024 Shah Rukh Khan La Trobe University PhD Scholarship, valued at more than $225,000.

With it, a young Indian woman is now set to embark on a transformative journey in Australia.

“This scholarship is my proudest achievement,” Sumaira Khan told Indian Link. “It has made my dream to pursue a PhD come true. It is life-changing for me and my family. I am looking forward to being on La Trobe’s truly beautiful and serene campus space.”

The four-year SRK La Trobe scholarship, which recognises the humanitarian and social justice endeavours of the Indian actor, owes its existence to La Trobe University’s enduring collaboration with the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, and was launched during his visit to Melbourne in 2019.

Sumaira’s research, about gender justice in public health, combines two of her passions – enhancing health outcomes for vulnerable communities, and women’s development.

She will work with medical anthropologists Dr Tarryn Phillips and Dr Catherine Trundle to identify ways to improve healthcare for South Asian migrant women in Australia with an elevated risk of Type 2 diabetes. The study seeks to understand the factors that shape and constrain the ability to practice self-care, and inform improved healthcare design, access and equity for healthcare programs in Australia and India.

“I have found that women, particularly women of colour, who live with chronic illnesses like diabetes have challenges in not just accessing medical care, but community care and healing,” Sumaira described.  “There are social and psychological barriers in seeking care, such as the taboo of illness disclosure, and family responsibilities. I hope to untangle the nuances of how the impact of gender complicates the experience of diabetes, and identify the factors that shape and constrain the ability to practice self-care for migrant South Asian women.”

SRK La Trobe scholarship recipient 2024 Sumaira Khan
Sumaira’s research at La Trobe Uni will be at the intersection of gender justice and public health (Source: Supplied)

It all began for Sumaira as a Master’s student at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “I was inspired to work at the intersection of gender justice and public health by my favourite professor Dr M Sivakami. In her subject Gender and Health, we studied public health through the lens of intersectional feminism, and issues in women’s health in third world contexts and vulnerable communities – and I was completely fascinated. I knew then that I want to understand the daily lived realities of women in challenging circumstances and with chronic illnesses like diabetes.”

She added, “Working with Dr Tarryn and Dr Catherine has been a blessing in this regard, as both have a deep knowledge of qualitative methods which will be important in my research. It involves reading ethnographic texts deeply, about the ethics and practice of care.”

Her experience with other projects in India will come in handy – these include women’s experiences with open defecation in Delhi, early childhood development, strengthening primary health care systems and addressing vaccine hesitancy.

However, Sumaira’s journey, fuelled by passion and purpose, began even before TISS. Her dedication to public health was deeply influenced by her family’s journey navigating her younger brother’s severe autism diagnosis.

“I come from a humble background, and taking care of my brother’s daily needs has been extremely challenging for my family – socially, financially, and psychologically. For lack of a better word, we’ve never been a “normal family”. For me, being in an enabling environment to focus and complete tasks, or even to just get enough sleep, or maintain a consistent schedule, has always been a challenge.”

She credits her academic prowess to her parents’ aspirational attitudes – even renting her a room to study with focus.

“In fact, it was my mum who found me the SRK La Trobe scholarship, and I’m so grateful! She knew exactly the kind of programs I was looking for, having had a peek at my Excel sheet of universities and deadlines for applications!”

SRK at La Trobe University just before receiving his Doctor of Letters honour from University Chancellor John Brumby, 2019 (Image: Ravinder Singh Jabbal)

The La Trobe scholarship experience has encouraged her to help other students seeking opportunity.

“There are a lot of scholarships out there, it’s just that not a lot of students know about them. Even if they know about them, they doubt themselves so much that they refrain from applying. I think there are very few spaces where people come together to talk about stories of self-doubt, setbacks, and rejection. I wish to contribute to a community of researchers or build new spaces where we could talk about these things as well.”

Shah Rukh Khan would agree.

Speaking about the SRK La Trobe Scholarship, he said he was delighted to support the development of Indian women to pursue solutions to challenges affecting not just Indian communities, but global issues.

“Sumaira’s passion to improve health outcomes for vulnerable communities is inspiring, and her journey is a wonderful lesson to other Indian women who want to improve lives through scientific study,” he said.

READ MORE: Shah Rukh Khan at IFFM 2019

Mamta Sharma
Mamta Sharma
Mamta Sharma is a freelance journalist committed to sharing stories of diversity, inclusion, and equity, alongside narratives on leadership, entrepreneurship, start-up innovation, and wellbeing.

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