When Aishwarya Nair was in Grade 9, neurologist Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat piqued her interest in the brain and its incredible complexity.
Now, years later, Nair is graduating from the University of Toronto Mississauga with an honours bachelor of science degree specializing in neuroscience.
Not only that, she has been named U of T Mississauga’s valedictorian for the Class of 2022.
“I’ve always been passionate about science, but it wasn’t until I read Sacks’s book that something clicked,” says Nair. “It was just so fascinating to me, and I knew that I wanted to study the science of the brain.”
Nair was attending an international high school in Mumbai, India at the time. While India is her home, Nair’s family has also lived in Nigeria and South Africa for long stints – and she knew that she wanted to pursue her post-secondary education in another country.
“I love exploring different cultures, so I was attracted to U of T both for its academic reputation and its diversity,” she says.
Receiving a prestigious Lester B. Pearson International Scholarship was also “a huge factor” in her decision, she adds.
Nair remembers getting an Uber from the airport at the start of first year and arriving at her U of T Mississauga residence alone. “I’d never been to Canada and didn’t know one person,” she says. “But I immediately felt welcomed, both by domestic and international students.”
Soon after, she began working for Student Housing & Residence Life, where she was the first point of contact for students as a front desk employee. Later, she processed applications and placements. Over three years, she says she developed strong ties to the residence community.
“It’s like a family away from family. Helping international students going through my same journey was an honour.”
Nair also supported fellow international students by mentoring incoming Pearson Scholars.
“As cliché as it sounds, I did it purely for the satisfaction of giving back,” she says. “Coming here with no family or friends was hard at times, but everywhere I went at the university there was somebody offering to guide me.”
In recognition of this and several other volunteer efforts, including facilitating a STE(A)M workshop for teen girls and organizing – and sometimes singing at – campus arts events, she received the 2022 U of T Mississauga’s Principal’s Award of Excellence in Student Leadership.
Alongside her extensive community involvement, Nair remained committed to deepening her knowledge of neuroscience. She worked in three different neuroscience labs to gain insight into the field’s multiple sub-specialties. At the same time, she completed minors in biology and philosophy. The latter selection often sparks questions, but she says it was one of the best choices she made. “I was hooked after one philosophy course. It gave me the space to examine the abstract, which balanced out my factual, objective science courses.”
The knowledge she gained in the philosophy department’s bioethics course will also serve Nair well in medical school, which she hopes to begin in 2023. She credits her U of T Mississauga courses and research opportunities – along with crucial faculty mentors – for revealing the next destination on her path.
“Coming to UTM, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a neuroscience researcher or clinician,” she says. “My experiences here made me realize that working directly with patients is where my heart lies” – just like the doctor whose book first inspired her.
Nair will join U of T Mississauga Vice-President & Principal Alexandra Gillespie and U of T Mississauga Alumni Association President Dania Ciampini in a reception for 2022 graduates, faculty, staff and librarians on June 9.