STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Gayathri Naganathan (C2018)

The Student Spotlight is a glimpse into the lives of McMaster medical students through portraits and storytelling. The goal is to highlight the wonderful diversity of our student body.

Meet Gayathri Naganathan, 28 year old from Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

Photographer: Darwin Chan; Editor: Selina Zeng

Some of her favourite things…

Hobby: Bharathanatyam, though I don’t get to practice it as often as I would like

Book/piece of literature: When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi

Movie: Alaipayuthey (Tamil film)

Song/album/artist: A.R. Rahman

Character/superhero: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (my 12 year-old brain connected so strongly with her the first time that I read the book)

Shocking Secret:

I was inspired to start learning American Sign Language after watching a tv show called “Switched at Birth”. So I found some guides and videos online and forced all my friends to practice with me for a while. I am exceptionally bad at ASL though and can barely sign “My name is G-A-Y-A-T-H-R-I”.

Journey and Inspiration to Medicine

I was a classic premed keener. I volunteered in hospitals and nursing homes as a teenager, enrolled in a life sciences degree at a big box university, and got involved with some really interesting medical research throughout undergrad. But by the end of my undergraduate degree, I became a bit disillusioned with the whole idea of medicine, largely because the path to medicine seemed more about getting the formula right and less about compassion and genuine interest in serving people. Instead, I fell in love with research and ran off to grad school where I engaged in work that was the polar opposite of the research I’d been doing throughout undergrad. As an eager pre-med, I worked in the area of pediatric brain tumour research, spending endless hours alone in the lab, performing the same protocols again and again. In grad school, I learned and explored qualitative methodology, which was an entirely foreign language for my staunchly quantitative brain. I struggled significantly along the way, often asking myself uninformed questions like, “If the data isn’t generalizable, why am I even doing this?!”. But as I started to delve further into the complexity and richness of qualitative and mixed methods research and became involved with various research projects, the pieces started to fit together. I worked with amazing academics and clinicians in diverse fields, and contributed to various projects including examining the lived experiences of racialized homeless individuals with mental illness and understanding the perceptions of first and second generation Tamil Canadians and their experiences of war, migration and multiculturalism. Throughout this time, I also volunteered with smaller community organizations like the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians and gained a grassroots understanding of Health Equity and community advocacy. I even spent a brief stint as a public servant, working as a policy analyst in the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Throughout this time, I learned a lot and gained greater insight into myself and my interests and passions. But most importantly, throughout this long journey studded with missteps, self-doubt, victories and defeats, I learned how to fail and to pick myself up and try again. Though there were multiple paths that I could have taken, in the end the siren call of medicine won out. It won out mostly because I found myself repeatedly hitting a wall in my research life. As I conducted research interviews with very complex patients, I had the privilege of hearing their stories and gaining a deep appreciation for and insight into their lived experience. But, at the end of each interview, I was only able to say “thank you for sharing your experiences. Hopefully this will help patients coping with similar issues in the future.” For the patient sitting in front of me, however, there was very little I could do. Having hit this wall again and again, I realized that it was important for me to gain hands on skills to be able to help vulnerable individuals in a direct and meaningful way. So in my final summer of grad school and with just 2 weeks before my thesis defense, I wrote the MCAT (for the third time) and took one last shot at my med school pipe dreams.

Gaya in Alternate Dimension

I would be a starving writer. Starving mostly because I’m not very good at writing, but I find it so powerful when done well and cathartic even when done poorly. I’ve written short stories and poetry since I was a kid and had aspirations of one day writing a novel, so in an alternative universe, this is probably what I would be doing.

People to Thank For

My parents are my “how to guide” for living a life of generosity, courage, hard work, and happiness. Everything I have ever achieved and everything I will ever achieve is because of them.


The people have been the highlight. I’ve met incredibly interesting, accomplished and inspiring people in this program that I would otherwise have never crossed paths with.

Goals as a Future Physician

Too many things. I want to make medicine, as a career, more accessible, particularly for communities who have historically and systemically been barred from the opportunity to pursue medicine. As a physician, I’d like to bring together my passions for health research, health equity, policy, and patient care into some harmonious whole (but this may be my new pipe dream).


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