Solvin’ Problems, Takin’ Names: Sunny Kothari, Class of '13

Sunny Kothari

“It all began with the Beatles,” jokes senior Sunny Kothari, asked how he ended up at Iowa pursuing pre-med double majors and minors.

“My mom and dad are both from India, and my dad grew up in an underprivileged village, working long hours in a factory, but he had this dream of coming to America,” explains Sunny. “It started when he wanted to go to a Beatles concert—he liked Western music, and they were his favorite band. When they came to India, Dad ended up sitting a mile away from the actual concert, but he had a blast.” After that, says Sunny, his dad started hearing that America was a land of opportunity—something the Beatles were realizing, too—so he worked until he had enough money to move to West Des Moines, where Sunny’s mother had some family.

Sunny was the first of his family to be born in the U.S. and only the second to attend college, thanks to a number of national and local scholarships. “Attend,” however, isn’t quite the right word: Sunny devours college. With double majors in medical physics and integrative physiology, double minors in math and chemistry, a job with the UIHC neurology department, and responsibilities as the leader of multiple student organizations, he’s one of the busiest, most energetic students on campus.

In addition to being a full-time student, he’s also an Honors Peer Advisor; the president of Medicus, a student organization that educates pre-med undergraduates on issues related to the medical field; and president of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences’ Dean's Student Advisory Committee, where he and fellow members help College administrators understand the needs of students. He’s also active in the UI Student Government, volunteers in a neurology unit at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and works as a part-time laboratory assistant in UIHC’s Recober Lab, where he helps professor Ana Recober-Montilla study migraine headaches.

“I know,” he laughs. “It’s a lot. I get all my motivation from my dad.” Most, it would seem, but not all: Sunny’s intellectual curiosity is definitely his own. Ask him why he’s studying so many subjects, and he’ll throw up his hands with a smile: “I only have four years! I want to take all the stuff I can!” Plus, he adds, “I’m really interested in all those things. Take human physiology: the science is amazing. I mean, my life changes when I learn about how my body works. I want to share it with the world, travel, just talk to people: this is what your heart’s doing right now! And physics—you can apply that knowledge in so many different ways.”

And it’s this—the application of knowledge to real-world problems—that inspires nearly everything Sunny does. “Sure,” he admits, “I’m probably not going to use physics in my everyday life, but the skills that I used to learn it—and math and chemistry and all the subjects I’ve studied—will stay with me forever. The key thing is to be able to build skills to solve problems, whatever your major is. At the end of the day, I think that’s the purpose of college.” It’s a skill Sunny practices every day: whether it’s a patient who needs treating, red tape that needs trimming, or residence halls that need recycling bins, he’s on it.

In fact, the only thing more important to Sunny than solving problems is people, since “they’re why you’re solving problems in the first place.” As a physician, he’ll be able to combine both his passions, helping people and solving problems: “Of course I love the science,” he says, “but my priority is working with people. I really want to focus on patients and work with them to reach a goal.” While he doesn’t yet know what specialty he’ll pursue, he plans to choose a field with a lot of patient contact.

“Relationships are very important to me,” says Sunny. “I spend a lot of time reconnecting with acquaintances, checking in with people, getting to know them. Sometimes I show up on different parts of campus, just so I run into different people. It’s an important part of how I live life.” Though he has a veritable galaxy of acquaintances, Sunny knows each by name, following the example of his favorite professor, Clay Peterson, who manages to remember the names of all his students each semester. “And that’s at least 500 names!” Sunny marvels. “But it’s worth it. You feel so much more comfortable when someone knows your name.”

After graduation, he plans to do six months of clinical work in Belize, then begin medical school in the fall of 2014, hopefully at the UI School of Medicine. But, he says—with the same good humor that allows him to conclude of his first (awful) job as a debt collector, “I think I became a better speaker because of it”—“Whatever happens’ll be fine. Everything works out one way or another.”

Outside of the classroom, the lab, the library, and the office, Sunny likes to play ping pong. And someday, when life slows down a little bit, he wants to learn to cook.